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Why Do Reality Contest Shows Eliminate People? Your Pressing TV Questions, Answered

Photo: FXX, Lifetime, NBC/Getty Images

Welcome back to Stay Tuned, Vulture’s TV advice column. Each Wednesday, Margaret Lyons answers your questions about your various TV triumphs and woes. Need help? Have a theory? Want a recommendation? Submit a question! You can email or tweet @margeincharge with the hashtag #staytuned.

Thanks to your recommendation, I starting watching The Great British Baking Show. It’s wonderful. I find the show genuinely interesting, and as a lover of baking, I’m actually learning good techniques. But, like with every other reality show, someone goes home at the end of each show. Why? I get that there has to be a winner. But, especially as I watch kinder reality shows, it seems silly that we stick to this formula when it seems counter to the nature of the show. Why cant they pick a winner and loser at the end of each episode, but everyone still gets to stay? You get to see a bigger array of creativity. You get to see a range of successes and failures. I think shows are sticking to a formula because they assume audiences need that drama. Am I alone in really being tired of it? —Jo

I agree completely, and this is also my fondest wish. I think Project Runway would be the perfect show to try this no-elimination format, since so many of the designers pick up skills and confidence as the season goes on. Take Kelly, for example, who is dominating the second half of this current season. Early on she did not seem like a contender, but now she’s my favorite, and I’m rooting for her and her wacky jumpsuits.

So why do shows — all shows, it seems like — operate this way? I asked a veteran reality producer, and he said it was pretty simple: Stakes. “Getting kicked off the show is about as high-stakes as it gets on reality TV,” he told me. “If you just ranked people and they earned points, the stakes would be lower and it would be less interesting to watch.”

That makes sense to me on a straightforward level, but my heart completely disagrees. I’m convinced stakes can exist without an elimination structure, and I’m dying to watch a show prove me right. Other than Junior MasterChef Australia, which follows this dream format. But two seasons of an Australian children’s cooking contest in 2010 is not exactly turning the tides. Let’s do this, reality TV!

Is it socially acceptable to tweet my support of a fictional character going through very powerful and emotionally heavy stuff, even if I don’t go through it myself? I’ve always related to Gretchen on You’re the Worst, and when she had her blow-up, and the subsequent revelation that she’s clinically depressed, I saw a lot of myself in her. I wanted to tweet, “Gretchen, I feel ya, girl,” or something along the lines of wanting to give her a hug and say I understand. But I don’t know if I understand. If a character’s sister was murdered or if something physical happened to someone, I probably wouldn’t say, “I feel ya, girl.” But maybe it’s because this is mental that I feel I can relate a little bit more. I just don’t want to offend or seem callous to the issue at hand. —Kristina

If someone you knew in your actual life were discussing his or her clinical depression, and you decided to be supportive by saying, “I feel you — once I cried for a solid hour after reading The Fault in Our Stars, so I understand depression!” then, yeah, get outta here with that. “Support” that minimizes, co-opts, or redirects is bad. I think you’re in the clear. For starters, Gretchen is fictional, so your tweets aren’t able to affect her one way or the other, nor can you offend her or be callous about her.

We’re supposed to be moved by characters. We’re supposed to sometimes be able to see ourselves in them, whether we’re seeing good parts or less-good parts, or parts that serve as a wake-up call. YTW has had a fantastic second season so far, and the way it’s addressing Gretchen’s depression has been engrossing and appropriate without being “a very special You’re the Worst.” If watching has clued you in to an aspect of your own mental health and well-being you didn’t know how to describe before, that’s good. That’s not what the show’s goals are, really — mostly, I want shows just to try to be good shows — but what a serendipitous by-product.

Are we supposed to know the titles of episodes of our favorite shows? With a lot of cajoling and hinting between us, a friend and I managed to come up with a fair amount of Doctor Who episode titles, and I know a few titles here and there for shows with notable “important” episodes like Mad Men, but otherwise I’m pretty much clueless. Am I a bad TV-watcher? Do you need to know the vast majority of episode titles to be a true fan of a show? —Kelly

If you know episodes by their titles, that’s a sign generally that you’ve either read or written about a show in great detail, since recaps, lists, wikis, and so on, tend to identify eps by their show-given titles. It’s not bad not to know the names of episodes, but if you want “true fan” status, well … yeah. You should know the titles.

Back in the day, ER and West Wing would prominently display their episode titles during the episode itself, which is something I wish more shows would do. I like a title! And I love when a show picks a strange naming convention for every episode. Your DVR probably displays them, too. Being able to ID episodes by their specific titles strikes me as a super fan shibboleth. (That one’s for you, West Wing folk.)

After watching Supergirl, I started to think about this: Are there any good shows that feature cousins at the center of the story? Parenthood is a decent example, even though it wasn’t really center stage. —JoAnna

Girls? Jessa and Shosh are cousins, though I don’t know that I’d call their relationship with each other the center of the story. Modern Family often includes cousin time between the Dunphies and Lily, though not centrally. Arrested Development has a very formative cousin relationship. But If you really want cousin stories, Cousins on Call, an HGTV show, is probably your best bet.

Why Do Reality Contest Shows Eliminate People?