A Cruel Reality

Left: Prince Harry. Right: Matt Hicks, Prince Harry-lookalike

By Nathan Nye

I love reality TV. I actually don’t watch that much of it, but as a construct, I enjoy seeing the shameless manipulation of events that could resemble real life packaged into a surreal viewing experience.

But, sometimes I am forced to consider if we’ve gone too far.

The show I Want to Marry Harry, which I must admit I have not seen, recently premiered on FOX, and the premise has perturbed my love of reality TV.

A group of women is being misled into believing that they’re courting Prince Harry of the Windsor Royal Family by giving them glimpses of a Prince Harry-lookalike who has been instructed to lead them to believe he could be royal. Of course, this is not the case. As the actor playing the butler says in a promotional clip, “there’s going to be heartache and tears before bedtime.”

The mockery of contestants, particularly women, is central to reality TV’s brand, but having a show in which the concept is “Let’s Tell A Bold-Faced Lie” is pretty twisted. This is has been tried before with shows like Joe Millionaire in which a construction worker with a heart of gold pretends to be a millionaire and dates women. The point of the show was ostensibly to be about class and dating and the role money plays in love. The furthest the show went to explore that angle was ominous voiceovers that said things like, “Will she still love him when she discovers he is in fact just an average Joe?”

But I Want to Marry Harry is not that. It’s not concerned with this guy or what he wants. He is a pawn in a game that we, the television prankster audience, are passively employing through FOX.

Ostensibly, these shows were started to give us a peek into a world that either mirrored our own to build solidarity or was completely inaccessible to ours to indulge fantasy. Instead, they’ve somehow become hours and hours of schadenfreude.

And in fact there is a whole new genre spawned by the self-awareness of reality’s newfound purpose, namely cruelty. Shows like Rupaul’s Drag Race take the absurdity and often capriciousness of those other shows and winkingly employ them. The result isn’t very different, there are often drag queens diving into dunk tanks or being forced to create a dress out of materials from a dumpster, but it feels more self-aware. I’ve always given them a pass for being cruel, but self-aware about their cruelty, which should probably be examined in a later blog post.

I’m left wondering if the possibility of reward offered by reality shows like The Bachelor is a fair exchange for the kind of suffering they inflict on their (generally willing) participants. I’m left pondering why I enjoy other’s discomfort so strongly. I’m left questioning my role in perpetuating human misery as sport. I’m left with the weird feeling that maybe reality TV could be both creatively and morally bankrupt entirely.