In 2008, showbiz satire 30 Rock aired an episode called “MILF Island.” Poking fun at how tawdry reality television can be, it follows network honcho Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) as he gloats about his newest hit, a reality competition based on a cheeky acronym about hot moms. “It has sex, lies, puberty, betrayal, relay races,” Jack says, beaming. “MILF Island reflects the drama of the human experience.” MILF Island was a good joke. Prescient, too: 13 years later, HBO Max aired a reality competition based on a cheeky acronym about hot men called FBOY Island. Life had imitated art in the goofiest way possible.
As television critic Alison Herman pointed out earlier this year, comparing something to a fake 30 Rock show has become “a shorthand for surreal, dystopian, and painfully desperate TV programming” that “holds up pretty great in the streaming era.” She’s right. HBO Max isn’t the only streaming service featuring the exact wacky flavor of show 30 Rock writers might concoct. In most cases, unscripted television is cheaper to produce than scripted, so streamers looking for quantity have greenlit loads of it. In the past three years, Netflix has pushed a high-concept reality slate including Marriage or Mortgage (people pick between throwing a wedding or owning a home), Sexy Beasts (people wear elaborate creature prosthetics to disguise their faces while dating), and Is It Cake?, a show where people guess whether an object is or isn’t cake. It’s also home to a bracingly misanthropic suite of romance shows from Nick and Vanessa Lachey, including The Ultimatum, a “social experiment” where one half of a romantic couple forces the other to either marry them or break up with them. Individually, many of these shows are ludicrous enough to be as much of a punch line as MILF Island. But they’re the reality of reality, part of the larger 30 Rock-ification of unscripted television.
Now, the first big wave of reality TV hits in the early 2000s weren’t exactly devoid of high-concept premises and deeply sleazy executions. Consider Joe Millionaire, where women competed to date a construction worker pretending to be rich. Or The Swan, where women competed to see who could become more conventionally good-looking by getting plastic surgeries. Those shows came out back in 2003 and 2004. Television reached new heights of depravity in 2007, when Kid Nation plopped children on a dude ranch and filmed them slaughtering chickens and injuring themselves. Queasy voyeurism is baked into the genre’s DNA.
But the streaming era has acted as an absurdism accelerant, egging creators to make ever more complicated, specific, and bizarre premises. The streaming era has resulted in increasingly granular entries into the reality canon, and surprisingly long afterlives for niche reality shows from basic cable. A new rule for the internet might be: If you can think of it, there’s probably already a reality show about it, especially if you’re thinking about truckers. (There are so many showsabouttruckers.) There’s now a subgenre of Netflix reality programming devoted to watching people tidy their homes; there’s another on renovating vacation rental properties. Anything, it seems, can be a reality show. Bladesmithing? Reality show. Glassblowing? Reality show. Flower sculpting? Reality show. Staying awake for 24 hours and then having to do stuff? Reality show. Chocolatiers? Reality show. The children’s game where you pretend the floor is lava? Somehow a reality show too. The streaming service Discovery+ is built around these types of shows, including one called Celebrity Help! My House Is Haunted, which is a British celebrity-based spin-off of a show about regular people with haunted houses. I haven’t seen that one, but I don’t recognize any of the celebrities’ names on IMDb.
I’ve seen only a fraction of a sliver of all the reality television available to stream right now. A complete assessment of the genre might, at this point, be physically impossible for an individual to undertake in one lifetime, even if they didn’t have anything else to do. But even with my limited survey, I can say this: These shows are at their most tiresome when novelty gets substituted for wit, when the 30 Rock of it all is all there really is. Despite its splashy costuming, Sexy Beasts, for instance, was simply dull. Marriage or Mortgage committed the sin of being immoral and humorless. For hit franchises, spin-offs can deliver diminishing returns; without the sangfroid star power of main cast members like Christine Quinn, Selling Sunset spin-off Selling Tampa is sapped of glamor. Yet it exists, the product of algorithm-induced overconfidence.
Still, this new wave has a few gems, distinguished by their playfulness. They are both in on the joke and more than the joke. Netflix’s Nailed It! is the best example of a show with this good-natured self-awareness. The premise is reverse engineered from a meme about baking disasters: Contestants who are not particularly good in the kitchen must attempt to re-create elaborate cakes within a short time period, with almost uniformly horrible-looking results. The incompetence is the punch line, but it’s not mean-spirited. Nobody is expected to be good at this. The show’s tone is as light as meringue, but it has a discombobulated, absurdist kick. The contestants sometimes seem to have wandered in from off the street while host Nicole Byer affably bosses them around. It has more in common with alt-comedy from The Eric Andre Show or Tim and Eric, Awesome Show, Great Job! than with something like The Great British Baking Show or Chopped. There are cartoonish sound effects, awkward pauses, and a general sense of celebrating the grotesque. Unlike the foul creations its contestants whip up, Nailed It! pulls off its strange soufflé in the end.
Sometimes this playfulness includes tweaking reality show conventions. Sociologist Danielle Lindemann, who recently wrote a book about reality shows and culture, says she has noticed “reality TV that is more conspicuous about itself as reality TV” in this recent crop of new and returning shows. Nailed It!, for example, transforms its behind-the-scenes staff into recurring characters, particularly assistant director Wes Bahr, who shuffles out from the wings whenever Byer summons him. There’s barely even a fourth wall to break in the first place. And this embrace of the conspicuously artificial isn’t limited to comedic cooking shows. Hulu’s The Kardashians, a glossy infomercial for various Kardashian-Jenner business ventures, is at its most interesting when it offers glimpses of verisimilitude within its polished world. In a recent episode, Kim Kardashian tells Kanye West he’s now allowed to acknowledge the camera operators, and he starts chatting with them off the cuff. (If only the show had more of that and fewer plotlines about Kendall Jenner not getting a Vogue cover.) I wonder how far away we are from watching a reality show about a reality show—or even a reality show about a reality show about a reality show. Maybe we’ll continue to get atomized reality franchises with progressively more baroque premises forever, until today’s crop looks positively quaint.
Or maybe we won’t have the chance to get quite so ridiculously meta. It’s been a rocky 2022 for Netflix. It’s still the most dominant streamer, but subscriber numbers have dropped, along with its stock price. Layoffs abound. There’s simply too much TV. The days of green-lighting too many shows may be approaching a hiatus, if not an end. But will quality control kill the MILF Island mentality? Or will the pursuit of spectacle above all, no matter how lowest-common-denominator, eat into the prestige TV landscape instead, laying waste to expensive scripted swings in favor of cheaper reality gambits? Imagine: an archipelago of MILF Islands, one for every possible set of eyes. The drama of the human experience, indeed.