Reality TV Glows Up

Docuseries like The Vow are television’s latest prestige offering, but they’re not so different from their trashier predecessors.

The VH1 reality series Couples Therapy, left, and the Showtime docuseries Couples Therapy. Illustration: Richard A. Chance

There’s a scene in HBO’s NXIVM-cult docuseries, The Vow, that turned my initial idle curiosity into absurd, all-consuming obsession. At the end of the first episode, a former cult member named Mark Vicente gets emotional in the middle of a talking-head interview as he describes how NXIVM destroyed the early, tender part of his marriage. “I feel like my life with Bonnie was stolen,” Vicente says. “Bonnie got there first.” He’s referring to her realization that the organization they had devoted their lives to was a cult. Then, without any warning, the show skips back in time to an earlier moment of rupture between the couple, when Bonnie laid out her concerns about NXIVM to Mark. “There’s a lot of things I’m starting to see about the organization,” she tells him, while Mark tries to talk her off the ledge: “C’mon, boo. C’mon, c’mon.” “I think some things are going to crumble,” Bonnie says. Cut to closing credits.

I was so compelled I let my kids’ breakfast oatmeal congeal in the pot behind me while I watched. This, I realized, is the way producers on The Bachelor would have told this story. That sounds gross and bad! A thoughtful docuseries about human vulnerability and the search for meaning being reduced to the megadrama of a reality dating-competition show? That move, though — the talking head and the cut to the scene as it unfurled with no demarcation between them, followed by the punch of an episode ending — that’s a reality-TV classic, a bread-and-butter edit for a Real Housewives meltdown. In its documentary sensibility, The Vow is part of a vital, well-established school of fly-on-the-wall filmmaking. Its creators, Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, are award-winning directors. But in its TV-ness, in its cliffhanger delights, and in its sustained intimacy over time, The Vow is reality TV polished to a prestige shine, and the qualities it shares with the form are key to why it’s so delicious.

The Vow is just the latest to tap into the surge of popularity for the docuseries format, which was spurred by true-crime works like The Jinx and Making a Murderer (as well as the podcast Serial) and the cultural-history series O. J.: Made in America. In recent years, the form has flourished. In crime and thrillers, there’s Wild Wild Country, The Keepers, and Errol Morris’s Wormwood. In food docuseries, on Netflix alone, a proliferation: Chef’s Table, Ugly Delicious, Salt Fat Acid Heat, Cooked, Street Food. In just 2020: the wildly popular sports series Cheer, the excellent medical docu-series Lenox Hill, the true crime–cum–biography I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Chef’s Table: BBQ, and, inescapably, Tiger King.

Documentaries have always carried with them an air of legitimacy and highbrow sheen. But the arc of the docuseries in the past five years — the way a show like Tiger King was able to consume all the cultural oxygen this spring — reminds me of what happened to TV dramas over the past two decades. The distinction between a network drama and one made for a premium-cable outlet (called, variously, “prestige TV,” “quality TV,” “TV that’s actually a movie,” and “TV that’s better because it’s not really TV”) came down to narrowly defined specialness. The latter was more expensive, it often employed dense storytelling and playful cinematography, it demanded all of the viewer’s attention, and there were fewer episodes. A similar pattern underlies the explosion of the docuseries, which emerged from the world of documentary filmmaking but also from a television landscape primed by decades of reality TV.

The boom in true crime, for instance, stems largely from the influential documentary film The Thin Blue Line (1988) and the docuseries The Staircase (2004). But those works are also refined, more expensive, in-depth iterations of shows like Unsolved Mysteries, The FBI Files, Forensic Files, and the entire oeuvre of Nancy Grace. The many culinary docuseries over the past several years, which show cooking in hagiographic slow motion and treat food culture as all-serious ethnographies, are capitalizing on a long-established audience for reality food TV, a genre big and multifaceted enough to fill its own cookery-competition universe. Examples like Deaf U, out this October on Netflix, are docuseries instantiations of shows from the large and lucrative world of insular-subculture series, like Keeping Up With the Kardashians, 19 Kids and Counting, Duck Dynasty, and Toddlers & Tiaras, and shows like Teen Mom, Jon & Kate Plus 8, and Little People, Big World, about challenging, often unusual life experiences. Following the TLC and MTV format for reality shows, a docuseries like Tiger King takes charismatic people in abnormal circumstances and turns their lives into objects of subculture tourism. They invite viewers to tour unfamiliar worlds, the inner lives of everyone from polygamists, to people with disabilities, to — Can you imagine? — people who live in the South.

Anglo-American culture has yet to meet something lowbrow that it didn’t find a way to repackage as classy and valuable. (See bawdy Renaissance plays, 19th-century serial fiction, soap operas.) And on the major networks or on cable channels like TLC and A&E, most reality shows are trash. This is hardly a secret — many are proudly lowbrow, and they’re treated by viewers and network buyers alike as disposable. Some are junky, cheaply made series that run forever, but even for a show with sky-high production values, like The Real Housewives, they are unreservedly mucky in tone and story. They come with the added voyeuristic kick of being real. Or realish. Real enough for that oomph of busybody pleasure.

There’s an important distinction between the way most reality shows are made and the foundational ethos of a docuseries. Reality shows are cast, tested, poked, prodded, often prewritten, and edited to shape stories that would not otherwise have existed. Docuseries, for the most part, film their subjects as they are. There’s still opportunity to mold the story that appears onscreen — by changing how it unfolds, whose perspectives are prioritized, which excerpts to use out of many hours of filmed footage, whom to include and whom to leave out. Still, the aim of documentary filmmaking is typically to approach the subject from a direction that’s entirely inverted from that of reality TV. Reality producers start with a story and find subjects to fit; docuseries producers start with subjects and wait to see what the story will be.

That difference is key to the legitimizing link between the two forms. By now, several decades into their life on TV, there’s an entrenched understanding that reality shows are unbelievable and, in some cases, ethically suspect. There have been ethical questions about many docuseries, of course, and true crime as a genre comes with all kinds of concerns about exploiting victims for entertainment. But those questions are different than the in-your-face unease of an episode of, say, Below Deck, where a participant who’s obviously in the throes of a medication crisis continues to be on-camera in spite of their ongoing struggles. Docuseries, made with a journalistic eye and with the (unintoxicated) consent of their subjects, are sanitized versions of reality-show messiness. If dubious ethics help define reality TV’s lowbrow trashiness, the perception that a docuseries is less manipulative and less manufactured helps secure its more dignified status. That comes across in the packaging, too. A series like The Vow is beautiful, an artful visual experience that turns scratchy phone recordings into tense scenes and a simple text exchange into a horror film. Its title credits are from the director who designed those of HBO’s True Detective, and The Vow’s many collaborators come from documentary film and TV. In its form and its style, The Vow screams “elevated.”

Underneath, though, I could feel my brain pinging in response to The Vow in the way it does to reality programming — to the voyeuristic closeness of it. The same is true for long stretches of Netflix’s college-football docuseries, Last Chance U, and the entirety of Tiger King. Joe Exotic, the subject of the latter series, had been trying to make a reality show about himself featuring much of the same material that ended up in the docuseries. But by folding the reality-show production into the docuseries narrative, Tiger King could take advantage of the material while holding itself at arm’s length. Being about a reality show feels superior to being one. The central appeal of one of my favorite docuseries from the past two years, Showtime’s Couples Therapy, is that its directors were able to capture therapy as it happened over the course of several months. It’s like being in a room with couples as they discuss their most private thoughts. And while its art design and ethical foundation are vastly different, Couples Therapy is so much like a reality-show premise that it was the premise for a six-season reality show on VH1 also called Couples Therapy. Putting the two series side by side is an uncanny illustration of prestige glow-up. On one side, night-vision footage of Flavor Flav storming out of a bedroom in a mansion where celebrity couples have been sequestered to create reality-TV drama. On the other, a wood-paneled, neutral-toned therapist’s office where a clinical psychologist looks carefully at the well-heeled couple across from her on the sofa.

Docuseries have become so “in vogue,” The Vow’s Karim Amer told me, that turning a documentary-film project into a series can be the easiest way to get it made, even if that means stretching it out unnecessarily into a series-length format. But the underlying fuel for the docuseries boom, Amer thinks, is that “we are living in a crazy time.” “People want to go deeper,” he said. “The documentary series is in many ways the new novel, [like] the way that Dickens would write long stories. People want to feel like they’re going chapter by chapter into worlds.”

As I listened to Amer discuss the “novelistic” elements of the docuseries, I thought about all the ways that comparison makes sense. One of the great innovations of the European novel was free indirect discourse. It offered new modes to access someone else’s private self, creating an almost alarming proximity with characters by allowing their interiority to slip into a narrator’s voice. What better comparison to the overwhelming intimacy of The Vow? But in the same moment, I thought about Charles McGrath announcing that TV is the “prime-time novel” in a 1995 New York Times Magazine essay and how many times David Simon’s work has been compared with Dickens’s. How often have I heard TV creatives describe their prestige dramas as “novelistic” and “Dickensian”? Docuseries are the newest conversation-consuming form — adding a nod to Dickens is just the chef’s kiss of TV legitimacy.

*This article appears in the September 28, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Reality TV Glows Up