In his essay “The Fact of Television” (which shouldn’t be missed by anyone interested in these things), Stanley Cavell contrasts the “material bases” of film and television.

The mode of perception that I claim is called upon by film’s material basis is what I call viewing. The mode of perception I wish to think about in connection with television’s material basis is that of monitoring. (85)

Cavell offers the metaphor of the security guard keeping his or her eye on a bank of closed-circuit screens to make sure nothing happens. In the same way, despite its constant emphasis on the unique and exceptional event, television tends to monitor “the uneventful, the repeated, the repetitive, the utterly familiar.” The application of this idea to reality television may be readily apparent, especially considering the countless hours of footage left on the proverbial cutting-room floor in pursuit of something approaching a storyline.

Reality TV is the genre that everyone loves to hate on. And why not? Just look at this hideous rat king of recycled premises:

reality tv_980x1230
Venn diagram by Margaret Lyons and Jen Cotton for Vulture.

So why do we keep watching? Well, the above morass of repossessed wedding cakes and Texas bayou swamp-monsters offers a clue. Where else does one see exterminators and pawn queens next to Bayou billionaires and Beverly Hills brides? Reality television gave us Undercover Boss, The Simple Life, and Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire. In a nutshell: reality TV is where class happens in American media. And what we’re monitoring, to return to Cavell, is the unevent—the conspicuous absence—of class panic (I won’t even say revolution) in the American mainstream.

So how can reality television dwell on the question of class in America without raising the specter of unrest? How can we have Storage Wars and Design Wars and even Cupcake Wars without a whiff of class war?

The answer, I think, has to do with rules. Because when it comes to class in America, everyone is a bit confused about the rules of the game. Compare Renoir’s classic Rules of the Game (La Règle du jeu), in which the class tension of interwar France is kept at a gentle boil, a bain-marie of ressentiment.

More recently Downton Abbey—which learned (not enough, some say) at the feet of Rules of the Gameseems to have traded in on the nostalgia of its audience (a particular audience, to be sure) for clear-cut guidelines about status and decorum. The servants and the aristocrats know where they belong, even if they delight in transgressing those boundaries whenever they can. Whereas in contemporary America, as Paul Fussell has pointed out, “the idea of class is notably embarrassing.” Perhaps even more embarrassing than reality television.

To stave off the embarrassment of class conflict, contemporary American reality TV had to find a way to renegotiate the rules.  And how better to rewrite the rules of the social game than to go back to its origins, to the very moment at which the social contract was drafted (as if such a moment existed)? Here’s how the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes imagined the state of mankind (sic) before it pooled its talents and resources in a “common-wealth”:

… A time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; . . . wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short. (Leviathan, Chapter XIII, “Of the Naturall Condition of Mankind”)

So how do we recreate this (imaginary) state of nature? How about marooning strangers on an island, where they’re compelled to work together to survive a treacherous natural environment?

Well yes, except that the motto of Survivor is “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast”—hardly what Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau had in mind when they talked about the “social contract.”


If Survivor represents a back-projected zero degree of human society, the terms of this fantasy are remarkably contemporary. Survivor, like all contest-based reality TV, follows a subtractive logic: each week, someone is voted off the island. Which makes sense. A show about people working together to set up an island camp would leave something to be desired in terms of drama (with apologies to Gilligan’s Island). So the rules of the game ensure that cooperation may be temporarily useful (cf. Richard Hatch in the first season of Survivor), but are ultimately unsustainable in the long run.  Doesn’t this logic also apply in the contemporary American workplace? In the world of globalized, highly mobile capital, collective action becomes antithetical to the company’s (and the worker’s) best interest (want to unionize? OK, we’ll just move to a different state…). The right to bargain collectively has been replaced with the idea of a “right to work,” that is, a right not to collectivize; the right to strike becomes a right to strike out on one’s own.

We see this in the 2009 movie Up in the Air, in which George Clooney plays Ryan, a consultant who specializes in laying off “redundant” workers.  “How much did they pay you to give up on your dreams?” He asks one ex-employee. “At what point were you going to stop and go back to what made you happy?”  As cynical as Ryan’s question is, the film does little to challenge it. At no point do any of the workers suggest collective action to fight the layoffs. They find solidarity in their families, friends, and private lives—not in their fellow workers.

This idea is reinforced by the documentary inserts in the film, interviews with real-life workers who had recently been let go by their companies. These unscripted moments lend the film some real poignancy. And yet, rather than drawing a contrast between Clooney’s character and the real and fictional workers in the film (between management and labor, rich and poor, [upwardly] mobile and stuck), the film’s plot pulls them together under the overarching themes of isolation and betrayal. And in fact, Clooney’s Ryan is even worse off than the people he fires for a living, since he lacks the support of friends and family. Here, then, the fictional frame of the movie undercuts the empathy and outrage solicited by the documentary interludes: “well hey,” we might say to the downsized worker in front of us, “at least you’re not alone.”

At home, that is. At work, of course, it’s every man/woman for him/herself. “Warre Of Every One Against Every One,” as Hobbes would say. Which brings us back to reality TV. Given its anti-collectivist bent, it seems fitting that the genre got its start not because it was the best idea around the writers’ table, but because the writers weren’t there in the first place: the Writers Guild of America was on strike.  As the other networks struggled to find enough reruns to fill 155 days of dead air, Fox took a chance on John Langley and Malcolm Barbour’s unscripted serial about law enforcement. COPS went on to become one of the longest-running television shows ever.  And notoriously, embarrassingly, a vérité document of the American class war.

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