Why I Watch Reality TV With My Kids

5 minute read
James Poniewozik

Thirteen summers ago, when a pair of shows called Survivor and Big Brother debuted on CBS, there were uneasy cries that reality TV was going to coarsen our civilization. Contestants were encouraged to lie and backstab one another! People were eating actual rats! Won’t someone think of the children?

You can debate how well, by 2013, reality TV has fulfilled its potential as a hell-bound handbasket. But I do know this: when the regular TV season ended in May and the summer-premiere season started, it was an exciting time at home, because it meant MasterChef was coming back, and my wife and I could watch it together with the kids. Pioneer families had the evening taffy pull; we watch people caramelizing sugar on Fox.

Reality TV is a big, diverse medium, of course. Some of it is raunchy, some obnoxious (like the despicable let’s-fire-someone fest Does Someone Have to Go?, also on Fox), and some very, very good. In other words, it’s not unlike scripted TV.

But an unexpected thing has happened over the past generation: reality TV has become the new version, and perhaps the last bastion, of prime-time family viewing.

It’s not just MasterChef for us: excepting old reruns, nearly every TV series my kids and I watch together is a reality show. We handicap The Voice contestants’ odds every week. The Amazing Race has given us a new perspective on navigating through airports on vacations. Shark Tank (on which people pitch for funding for their fledgling companies) captivates the kids and has shown me–one of the least entrepreneurial-minded people I know–what a fascinating process conceiving and valuing a business is. Chopped, Market Warriors, Top Chef–if it involves cooking something or selling something or cooking something to sell it, we’ll watch it.

Before you call Child Protective Services on me, let me explain. People sometimes assume that because I’m a TV critic, I’m permissive about what my kids (who are 8 and 11) watch. It’s really the opposite, maybe because I’m professionally exposed to what’s out there. And plenty of their classmates’ parents have found safe harbor in reality’s Kardashian-and-Snooki-free sectors. About a decade ago, the decency-policing Parents Television Council condemned reality shows that “revel in [participants’] eagerness to publicly parade their lack of moral integrity.” Today, its recommended-viewing lists include Cupcake Wars and Undercover Boss.

When people complain that there are fewer good shows than there used to be for families to watch together, it’s often assumed this means that TV has become more vulgar or adult. Which is true in some ways, but really the overall trend is that TV has become more specific. Everyone has a demographically targeted TV, toddlers and adults alike.

We actually live in a pretty great era for kids’ TV, and prime time is rich with sophisticated dramas like Mad Men that could exist only at a time of greater creative license. But most adults have limited tolerance for kids’ programs (show me the American parent not traumatized by the phrase Swiper, no swiping!), and it will be years before I show my kids more than the title sequence for Game of Thrones. (Which they love.)

Today’s creative explosion in scripted TV has crowded out some all-ages genres that used to exist. A show like Starz’s Da Vinci’s Demons, about the exploits of the young inventor in Renaissance Florence, might have been a clean historical MacGyver if it had aired in the ’80s or ’90s. Because it’s on pay cable in 2013, it’s full of disembowelments, pederastic clergy and couplings more explicit than any Leonardo anatomical sketch.

Enter reality TV. It’s no accident that many of the series I’ve mentioned are competition shows: like sports, it’s a genre that can appeal to kid and adult interests without denying either one. Most of these series are made for adults without any particular goal of being all-ages entertainment.

But on their own terms, they reflect things that kids are interested in: competition, creation, performance. Maybe more important, they’re also a kind of structured introduction to the grownup world. They gamify aspects of adult life–cooking, traveling, keeping a house, holding a job. Storage Wars and House Hunters are about pricing and setting value. There’s a whole world of reality shows about work, like Deadliest Catch and Gold Rush, often made accessible with some kind of scorekeeping element.

And while appropriate is a subjective term, many of these shows keep it relatively clean. (O.K., MasterChef’s season premiere included a cook who prepared roadkill, resulting in about a million “beaver” double entendres, but if they didn’t sail over the Jrs.’ heads, it’s because they’ve heard worse at school.) In some ways, these shows re-create formats older than today’s parents: What is Duck Dynasty if not The Beverly Hillbillies in camouflage?

As for those old days of TV, I remember them too well to romanticize them: for every Cosby Show (whose reruns we still marathon from the DVR), there were plenty of insipid family sitcoms; I’ll take Restaurant: Impossible over Small Wonder any day. As tough as today’s media world is to negotiate as a parent, I’m glad my kids are growing up in a time that has created prime-time series like Breaking Bad and Louie–which they can watch, much later, when they’re older.

In the meantime, I’m grateful for reality TV. If it’s sending the world to hell, at least we can go there as a family.

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