With Love Island, a sleazy British dating show making its stateside debut on CBS recently, television viewers have been reminded of an important truth: Reality TV is just the worst.
Is that a fair statement? Most of us instinctively think it is. We think about Big Brother or RuPaul’s Drag Race or even The Radkes, and we say to ourselves, “This is just terrible!” (even if we then binge-watch several episodes of said terrible show). We know that some reality shows like, say, Big Brother, thrive on sex and conflict, so its producers try to give us as much of both as possible. Meanwhile, personality-driven reality shows (say, anything with a Kardashian in it) tend to amp up said personalities well past any sane level.
And even when reality shows are relatively clean and wholesome—like, say, one-time ratings fave Duck Dynasty—we understand that the word reality is still used somewhat loosely. These shows might not technically be scripted, but most of us understand that they’re as heavily orchestrated and edited as anything we see. They can’t just hand a family a six-figure check and then film what they actually do, right? That could be super-boring.
While USA’s The Radkes had its share of problems, I did appreciate that it was at least honest about its dishonesty. Instead of calling it a “reality show,” the network labeled it an “unscripted comedy.” Nicely done, USA.
Even though we probably know better, we may want to believe that some reality shows are closer to reality. Take one of my honest-to-goodness favorites: HGTV’s House Hunters.
Now, some might assume that House Hunters is, at least, in the neighborhood of “real” reality TV simply because it’s so blessedly innocuous. I watch a lot of television for my job: The last thing I want to do when I get home from a hard day’s work watching high-drama television is to watch more high-drama television. So my wife and I tend to look for plot-free programming. So for several years, our go-to shows would be House Hunters or House Hunters International.
Both were typically rated TV-G. We didn’t have to worry about sex or violence or lots of bad language. The worst content we had to navigate was a couple squabbling over whether the granite countertops were the right shade of beige.
Sure, I knew that not everything we saw on screen was “real.” I knew that perhaps the producers might’ve encouraged a little more couple conflict than was strictly warranted by circumstances. And we’ve reported that sometimes the house hunt itself can be a bit fabricated. But compared to Love Island or The Radkes, it felt like the reality television equivalent of an encyclopedia entry.
Boy, was I wrong.
Writing for Slate, Elizabeth Newcamp laid bare what House Hunters is really like behind the scenes. (And seems like she’d know, since she’s been on the show twice.) It’s a pretty entertaining read, so check it out if you’d like here. But the basic upshot is this: Newcamp’s experience on reality TV had next-to-nothing to do with reality.
Her time on House Hunters International was particularly fact-challenged. If you just watched the episode (which aired in 2017), you’d see Elizabeth and her husband, Jeff, shopping for a house in Delft, Netherlands. They teamed with a local relocation expert (Michael) to find the perfect property for their family of five. Elizabeth was all about the bathtub (to bathe the little ones in, of course). Jeff was all about the commute.
In real life, Jeff didn’t care that much about the commute. Elizabeth did want a bathtub, but not to the extent the television show suggested. And thankfully, she got it—in the house they bought a year before the show was taped! House Hunters had Elizabeth and Jeff tour their own house (after they moved all the furniture out of it) and nitpick it to death before they ultimately “chose” it. In fact, none of the houses they toured was, technically, for sale. And Michael, the “relocation expert,” was really just Elizabeth’s and Jeff’s neighbor. (He’s an IT specialist, turns out.) Elizabeth writes:
In the episode, I hinted at the absurdity of the whole situation when Michael mentioned that he lived near a house we were looking at. “Oh, so we could be neighbors,” I exclaimed, while biking to tour our actual house, down the street from his … where my children were playing with his daughter, under the supervision of his wife.
Filming was done in the space of a typical week, with the first day being Elizabeth’s and Jeff’s “first impressions” of Delft (despite having lived there for a year), while the next day they’d pretend to have lived in their actual house for months. The following three days were dedicated to the actual house hunt, apparently. “Keeping up with where we were in the story (and what verb tense to use) was a constant battle,” Elizabeth admits.
What was real on this reality show? Well, Jeff and Elizabeth were indeed married. They did buy the house they were depicted as buying, of course. Oh, and the wardrobe. “You’ll hear plenty of opinions on what you should wear,” Elizabeth writes, “but everything is coming out of your own closet.”
This is not a reason to hate House Hunters. Elizabeth likes the show so much that she and Jeff signed up to do it again when they moved back to the United States. (That episode seems marginally more “truthy,” in that they’d owned their Florida home for just weeks before the camera crews showed up, not a year.) But Elizabeth reminds us that reality TV, no matter how real it looks, is often not real at all.
“Like everything you see on TV, you shouldn’t take it at face value,” she tells us. “I do, however, love a good bathtub.”