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Donald Trump on The Apprentice. Photo/NBC

Why on earth do people go on reality TV?

Against all common sense, an endless supply of contestants feeds reality TV’s infinitesimal variations.

Actor Gary Oldman once called reality television “a museum of social decay”. Fair enough. Who wouldn’t want to visit that museum? It sounds more upbeat than the local versions of many reality franchises. This year, on The Block NZ, three of four teams found, again, that there aren’t enough ill-advised mustard throws in the world to earn them a profit at auction after weeks of enduring exhaustion, backbiting and Mark Richardson.

Why do they do it? Fifteen minutes of fame, obviously. The short-lived The Real Housewives of Auckland had it pegged. Angela Stone was baiting Gilda Kirkpatrick with gossip she’d heard about her so awful it had to be bleeped. “You know what I’ve heard about you?” replied Gilda, triumphantly. “Not a f---ing thing.”

Touchingly, it seems many contestants imagine, despite the moral slippage endemic to most reality television, that their good qualities will shine through the betrayals and tantrums. They have clearly never heard of editing.

Our track record for feel-bad television continues with Married at First Sight NZ. Before it even screened, one couple had to be edited out. It emerged that the groom was facing domestic violence charges in the US. Now a highlight of almost every episode is Anna’s timeslot-unfriendly ritual sex-tape-scandal confession. Ye gods.

Vicky’s mum, the irrepressible Trish, has her theories about why contestants put themselves through this marital mayhem. She spoke darkly of “the syndrome”, as in Stockholm syndrome. Good point, Trish. Trash television makes hostages of us all.

Now there’s My Restaurant Rules. Teams of two from five New Zealand restaurants travel the country to eat each other’s lunch – well, dinner. As with the more domestic My Kitchen Rules, teams score each other without any seething self-interest at all, hoping to win $100,000. Also scoring are expert judges, Auckland hospitality royalty Judith Tabron and sauce-loving Irish celebrity chef Colin Fassnidge. The menus are ambitious – chimichurri venison in chocolate sauce – but, so far, the table talk during the endless wait while one of the teams screws up in their kitchen has proved even more problematic than the defective “chocolate garden” with rocket, whipped up by Tyson and his adorable mum, Denise, at their Waiouru eatery.

Amy and James, from Moxie in Birkenhead, are partners in life and business. “Ding, ding, ding,” went Amy, demonstrating James’ aggravating bell-ringing when there’s food waiting to be served and she’s chatting to customers. James: “If the food’s still there, then I double ding.” Amy: “If I get a triple ding, I’m pissed.”

Raf, who runs Nelson’s Babagatto with business partner Susanna – perhaps unhinged by Tyson’s decision to serve pan-fried gnocchi to two Italians – shared his thoughts on women working front of house. “I believe,” he said, dismally failing to read the room or any room in the 21st century with a woman in it, “that there’s between eight to 10 days [a month] where women do not want to have to deal with customers.” Cut to Amy, looking three-ding pissed. Judge Judith was simmering dangerously. “I’ll just take any sharp cutlery away from you,” said fellow judge Colin nervously.

Never mind. Maybe we’re all inured to bad behaviour beaming into our lives these days, when the ability to blurt unspeakably in public is almost a CV requirement for becoming a click-generating media personality. What would the United States look like today if there had never been a reality show called The Apprentice? As James Poniewozik notes in his new book, Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America, Eisenhower “became president by winning the war in the European theatre. Donald Trump became president by winning the 9pm time slot on NBC.” If ordinary punters want a piece of that kind of action, you can’t blame them for trying.

MARRIED AT FIRST SIGHT NZ, Three, Sunday and Monday, 7.30pm.

MY RESTAURANT RULES, TVNZ 2, Monday and Tuesday, 7.30pm.

This article was first published in the October 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.