The Confessional Performance of Reality TV
This chapter argues that reality TV is inherently confessional—and quite aware of being so. Against a scholarly tradition of seeing fly-on-the-wall “surveillance” footage as the genre’s defining feature, this chapter shows how direct-to-camera “confession booth” monologues form the true backbone of the genre. The argument centers around a deep study of the debut season of MTV’s The Real World (1992), but it also places this program in the context of later American reality TV and in a TV tradition that stretches back to PBS’s “drama-documentary” An American Family (1973). In order to illuminate the cultural mythos that surrounded The Real World and to capture elusive qualities of its affect and aesthetic, this chapter also treats the film Reality Bites (1994) and Dave Eggers’s memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) as works of criticism with something important to say about reality TV. In the course of exploring the complex nature of confession on The Real World, special attention is paid to The Real World’s editing aesthetic and to its troubled attempts to define what its cast members do as something other than performance, other than labor.
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