Reality TV now walks a fine between being weirdly complicated and utterly basic — yesterday, on Discovery Life, for example, 50 Ways to Kill Your Mother and Outrageous Births: Tales From the Crib debuted! And just last weekend, you’ll recall, it was My Husband’s Not Gay — the show about Mormons keeping their marriages together despite the male component being, er, “not gay.” With spinoffs of spinoffs and ripoffs of ripoffs, no matter how many syllables it takes to describe a new subculture a show’s seeming to invent or the byzantine rules the show’s imposing, as long as reality TV focuses on “real people” but eschews their real problems, which it notoriously does, it remains nauseatingly simple. Because sometimes it’s not even what’s being portrayed, so much as the exploitative way it’s portrayed, that leaves you with the dizzied sense of living in a reality that’s crumbling due to the sheer fact that such shows exist.
Remember when concept-twin films The Truman Show and Ed TV were released a mere year apart? Those were the good old days when people were worried enough about the imminent cultural imposition of reality TV to make mainstream movies about it. The concepts behind these shows-within-a-movie were relatively straightforward: watch a dude live. Reality TV has come a long way since: never satisfied with reality, it evolves in its desperation to mine and embellish obscurer and obscurer realities. In competing with other shows, it plunges into the depths of mind-numbing surrealism. Here are the strangest, most convoluted, yet somehow the most (beguilingly) reduced realities the genre has presented on television: