Every year, Americans are treated to a long procession of assemblies in which Hollywood's most creative minds boldly suggest there is intrinsic entertainment value in watching people give prizes to themselves. On Sunday, we passed the first of these. And yet, for the 71st straight year, the most deserving martyrs of all—the actors pretending to be humans on our favorite reality shows—went uncanonized.
Since 2001, television's other major awards show—the Emmys—has given out an award for Outstanding Reality Program1. There is no Emmy award recognizing the contribution of individual cast members.
The Golden Globes takes the reality snub even further, and simply treats this sort of programming as if it doesn't exist at all. It does, on the other hand, acknowledge the existence Mini-Series and Motion Pictures Made for Television.
"People are intimidated by my success."
But: Let's talk numbers. Behind the Candelabra, the HBO film2 which rendered the love affair between Liberace and actor Matt Damon in glittering sequins when it aired last May—and on Sunday night earned the Golden Globe for "Best Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television"—drew 2.4 million viewers to its debut showing.
By contrast, A&E's Duck Dynasty pulled in an audience of 11.8 million viewers for its season 4 premiere last August.
This is not to say that Duck Dynasty is necessarily better television than Behind the Candelabra; just that Mini-Series and Motion Pictures Made for Television are sort of like bean bag chairs (a cool thing to have around if you want, but not as relevant to your everyday life as, say, a refrigerator or a front door or a chair not made of beans).
"I won Miss USA, not Miss Congeniality."
Ignoring the contributions of reality TV to the television landscape, at this point, is churlish snobbery.3 Reality TV stars ruin their lives for our entertainment, and make a lot less money than Leonardo DiCaprio doing it.
Here are some things reality TV does:
- Prompts siblings stop speaking to one another, making for some truly compelling footage of people feeling awkward at charity auction events.
- Invents, then makes real, then tears asunder intimate friendships (often on relaxing trips to the Virgin Islands).
- Captures a moment of someone's poor decision-making, invites all of that person's coworkers ("co-stars") to comment on that moment individually, and then spins that moment into a season-long plot arc.
A couple years ago, the husband of one of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills killed himself at the conclusion of filming. HIS WIDOW RETURNED THE NEXT SEASON WITH A NEW CATCHPHRASE4.
These dazzling monsters deserve to have their sacrifices recognized at an awards show. And not at the Teen Choice Awards. Not at an awards show that features categories like "Wackest Web Hottie." Not an awards show that exists only as a live stream.
At a real one.
“I may be a princess, but I’m not a drama queen.”
Of course, to receive an acting award, a person must be caught acting. In order to legitimize itself, reality TV will have to cast aside the "reality" myth—that last tattered scrap of (fake) legitimacy barely covering its buttocks, like a too-small bikini bottom purchased on-camera before what will hopefully but probably not be a really fun drama-free trip to Cabo with six frenemies.
The producers of these shows will be forced to acknowledge openly, once and for all, that the genre we now know as "reality" could perhaps better be described as "moderately scripted improv."
The players already acknowledge this. They acknowledge it every time they breathlessly promise a talk show host "There's going to be a lot of drama coming up!" which is not a normal way to answer the question "How are things between you and Jill?" They acknowledge it on post-season reunion specials, when they complain that their show was edited to portray them in a negative light. They acknowledge it when they talk about their lives in terms of "seasons," rather than "years."
"Having it all is easy...if you’re willing to work for it."
Detractors claim that reality TV makes stars of the worst kind of people: bonkers egomaniacs with no marketable skills. They're right. Welcome to Hollywood. Did you watch the Golden Globes? Because it is celebrated with frequent, televised awards shows, acting sometimes gives off the mistaken impression that it is a noble profession. It is not. Veterinary nurses don't have televised awards shows.
Though they all play essentially the same role ("a version of yourself that is capable of achieving and sustaining fame"), not all reality television participants tackle it with equal skill. (That's why you give out awards.) As with other acting hopefuls, long-term success is rare.
Camille Grammer as Meryl Streep
During one season of one incarnation of The Real Housewives, it became fairly evident that one woman had decided that her plot line for that season would be that she was becoming an alcoholic. She didn't really sell it—probably because the alcoholic she dreamed of becoming was the kind whose friends hold lots of "We're worried about you!" alcohol-soaked brunches, rather than the kind who goes to rehab—but it was a bold gambit that was fascinating to watch play out on television. She deserved a nomination, but not a win.
Enter Camille Grammer. Now ex- (then: current) wife of Kelsey, Camille burst onto the reality scene in season one of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and quickly established herself as one of the greatest television villains of all time. She conducted herself in ways so outlandishly evil that they would have had to tone down her behavior in order to make her into a plausible Disney villain. (She brought a psychic to dinner to tell another woman that her husband was cheating on her.) That psychotic performance deserved a Golden Globe, not unlike the one Meryl Streep won in 2006 for playing a mean bitch in The Devil Wears Prada. The next season, against all odds, Camille made the audience fall in love with her by appearing humble and kind. That psychotic performance deserved a Golden Globe. Then Camille left the show of her own volition. That deserved a round of applause.
"Life in Beverly Hills is a game and I make the rules"
Some possible guidelines for a hypothetical award that might eventually maybe be given, hopefully, in theory:
1. Only cast members of documentary-style character-driven reality TV programs (including competitions) are eligible.
No legal (like Judge Judy or Cops), renovation (This Old House), hidden camera (Punk'd), or supernatural (Ghost Hunters) programming.
2. Lead cast members must appear in a minimum of six episodes in a calendar year.
This stipulation, in keeping with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association® Golden Globe® award consideration guidelines, means that one-episode stars are not eligible for recognition5.
3. Lead cast members must appear in the opening credits of the show.
Since, in their attempt to ape real life, these shows often feature the same tangential and background characters over and over again (rather than drawing from a bottomless pool of extras), it can sometimes be difficult to determine who is a character on the show and who just happens to live in the same apartment as one of the characters on the show6.
4. Already extant celebrities are eligible.
When a network drama television actor steps in front of a camera, he is given ample tools, from an airtight script to professional costuming, to create something entertaining. You know what a reality star has to create something entertaining out of? Their boring lives. And what's the fastest way to transform a boring life into watchable television?
To destroy it.
Reality TV actors have earned a thing with a round thing on top of it as much as anyone.
1To give you a sense of who's invited to that party: Antiques Roadshow has been nominated for nine straight years, but has never won.
2Incidentally, HBO's snide former slogan, "It's not TV. It's HBO." should probably have disqualified the network from receiving any Golden Globes or Emmys from 1996-2009. These ceremonies are not designed to recognize excellence in the mediums of television...and HBO.
3(One major explanation for the perpetual snub: the medium's low production costs, high profitability, and largely freelance labor force have long made it a thorn in the side of entertainment guilds. Read more about the struggle to unionize reality TV workers here.)
4"I fought too hard for this zip code to go home now."
5So, captivating demon Makenzie from Toddlers & Tiaras would not be eligible, while Alana "Honey Boo Boo" Thompson—who parlayed her time on that show into her own spin-off series—would. (Alana would never win though.) (No offense to Alana.)
6Unsure about whether Tom "Schwartz" Schwartz is a principal cast member of Bravo's Vanderpump Rules? Check out the opening credits.
There's Stassi, there's Scheana, there's Jax, there's the other Tom—but no Schwartz. He is not a lead cast member. But he is a DICK.
[Image by Jim Cooke / Source photos via Getty]