Few people will admit to enjoying reality TV without also apologizing in the same breath. The form is held in the eyes of the culture as the lowest of the low, a cheap and shoddy distraction at best, or a deeply amoral harbinger of the downfall of man, at worst. But perhaps, when done right, it can belong in the category of grotesque art, compelling and repelling in equal measure. In Lucas Mann’s third work of non-fiction, Captive Audience: On Love and Reality TV , he makes just that case, examining the oft-maligned subject with heart, wit, and the unsparing, clear-eyed intelligence that he displayed in his first two books (about, respectively, an Iowa minor league baseball team, and his brother’s struggle with addiction). Mann is a true fan of reality TV—there is no disaster tourism here. He understands that the Kardashians and their ilk possess some new kind of genius in an art form that we can’t yet describe. But with this book, we are closer.
Nicholas Mancusi At what point did you realize that you wanted to write a book-length appreciation of reality TV, and when did it take the form of a love letter to your wife?
Lucas Mann I always had some vague idea in mind that I wanted to write seriously about liking this stuff. Then in my last year at Iowa, a writer I really liked came through to talk about his new novel, and espoused the idea that you’re writing for 100 years from now, and therefore you don’t want your writing brought down by the particularities of whatever modern thing that might cheapen it. The example that he gave was, “I don’t want to open a literary novel and read about Britney Spears breaking down.” I had a very clear moment in the audience of, “I do!”
It was a crystallizing moment that there was something appealing about the challenge of trying to be sincere and thoughtful and intellectually rigorous with these things that are written off as not so. It was almost like a game, a literary challenge that appealed to me. And the love letter thing grew out of that. I realized that when I think about what I want to say about watching TV, it’s always scene based, sitting and talking with my wife about what we’re watching and what we’re thinking about it.
NM Two scenes at once.
LM Right. That’s always something that’s interested me, even when I was writing about baseball: this moving back and forth between the action that you’re watching and then you watching it. It felt like this intimate thing between me and my wife, that we share with one another, a sort of secret we have with each other. So I realized, these two subjects are related — I spend a lot of my time sitting with this person I love watching these shows and I feel weird about that. And these were the two things that would maybe frighten me the most to write about, in that it was unclear what was literary about either of them.
NM Reality TV seems unique to me in that it’s simultaneously ubiquitous and also derided, often by the very same people who love it as their “guilty pleasure.” What do you make of that? Would you like this book to be seen as a defense of the legitimacy of the form? You sort of apologize a little bit yourself, too.
LM I’m not sure if that was intentional. As much as there is any narrative in the book, I feel like it moves from apologetically talking about reality TV, to trying to make this argument for its legitimacy, and then sort of falling apart. So, I don’t know if I want to defend the genre or alternatively apologize or watching it. Maybe both? But I do think it’s worth thinking about seriously.
NM It’s worthy of criticism, with a capital C.
LM Yes. It’s worthy of trying to understand why we engage with it in a sincerely emotional way, for those of us that do. Beyond either “I don’t” or “isn’t it fucked up that I like this.” I think it’s the only form of culture that remains universally low in people’s minds, particularly in this cultural moment where, in a good way, we’re trying to break down every hi/low binary—fashion is both high art and politics, sitting and bingeing a Netflix sitcom can be a really valuable thing to do, even a fucking Chipotle ad, we grant that it might have something to say about farming. In the ways that most people talk or write about reality TV, even when they do so seriously, those discussions never consider any potential for art or any decency at all. It’s more of an assumed worry for what the badness of these shows means for anyone watching. I ended up realizing that this tension is part of what makes it interesting to watch. It is a more fraught engagement than remains with any other form of art or popular culture.
NM Reality TV interests me in that the intent of the producers can seem very evident, as separate from the will of the subjects.
LM Absolutely. All sorts of authorship are happening. Particularly when you involve the docu-soap stars, the Kardashians and various housewives, they are actively characterizing themselves, and their whole life is based on that characterization. Depending on their power, sometimes that characterization is running hand in hand with the producers, sometimes you feel it running actively against the producers, and that tension is part of what propels the show. But you can feel that in the best, most serious, documentaries as well. There are a lot of fucked up things about reality TV, but often it’s not that far off from questions that we ask of other forms, like journalism or documentary film. Are we just criticizing reality TV because people can get rich off of framing their lives the way they want to? But if we’re criticizing that, isn’t it in some way more morally defensible than someone in a “serious” documentary, getting no money to be a subject in somebody else’s brilliant vision of how sad they are? I don’t mean to say that it’s morally better than anything but at least all of these very real tensions are on display for judgment and way more overt.
NM The dividing line between reality TV and documentary film does seem fairly arbitrary. Maybe make it 90 minutes instead of 30, attach Werner Herzog—Actually, I’d love to see him produce a reality TV show.
LM He also strikes me as someone who would be down. But I do think that “reality TV” doesn’t mean much, beyond an automatic assumption of badness or shallowness. Even within reality TV some people don’t want to use the term “reality,” as they feel it’s too saddled with The Bachelor and the Kardashians. They’ll say “I’m in unscripted television,” or something similar. These lines are very weird and nebulous. There’s certainly a more docu-feel to shows like Intervention, and so they might seem grittier, but they’re also actively trading in grit, in ways that are maybe more problematic than the fluffier docusoaps.
NM I think you could write a whole book just on the moral double binds of Intervention alone. It invites you to feel virtuous and superior compared to the subjects, but at the same time revels in that degradation, a nastier pleasure for the viewer.
LM There’s certainly an element of schaednfruede—“thank God I’m not that motherfucker.” But you are the guy who’s invested in that motherfucker. As I say in the book, I’ve tried to be way more moralizing about watching Intervention than any other show because I have a personal history with that stuff. So part of my pleasure in watching was narrating to my poor wife about why this particular structure for the idea of recovery was flawed—but I still can’t turn away as I’m saying that! The spectacle, the disgust, it’s all still there.
NM When I think about the appeal of reality TV, it seems that much of the viewer’s enjoyment is in a kind of punishment of the subject. “You had the hubris to think that you deserved to be famous, so now we get to enjoy your life on display in this kind of purgatory.” What do you think is happening in the brain of the viewer?
LM I think a lot of it has to do with the power dynamics that you are invited to read into it. The more empowered a star is that you’re watching, the more your pleasurable ire can be turned toward them. When a subject is less empowered, your pleasurable ire turns towards the producer, on the subjects’ behalf. Some shows move back and forth. But the form has the amazing ability to quickly create genuine pathos, out of what should be the opposite of genuineness. You can be watching with total cynicism, and then something twists, and for 15 seconds something human catches you, and you really, really feel it. So I think it’s too easy to say that the whole thing is about antipathy. I think it’s about how overwhelming that feeling of antipathy can be, and then the surprise when they get you to feel pathos instead. The humanity can’t help but peek out.
NM That reminds me of a particular scene you write about in the book, where Rob Kardashian is basically just forced to eat shit at a group therapy session.
LM Yeah. He’s this sort of spoiled rich brat in this universe of spoiled rich brats, but there are these moments on that show where’s he’s just been this sacrificial lamb, and you feel the camera closing in on him and his body and him gaining weight and the shame that he feels about it and the shame that his family puts on him about it, while also pretending to be caring. And the oppressiveness of him in space with people pretending to care for him, saying “what’s wrong? what’s wrong?” and the realization hits that he is so compelling at telling you what’s wrong. I’m bringing all my fat kid baggage, too—“This is a character I’m kind of seeing myself in” but also “wow, I feel good that he’s fatter than me” and then the rage at the way people are treating him, and also anger at the whole thing. It’s hard to unpack, but it remains really vivid.
NM How does the appeal of these newer shows compare with something like Survivor?
LM I think the process from that early Survivor/Big Brother moment when reality sort of boomed, has been a process toward more awareness and cynicism about the shows and how they’re made, and yet, whether it’s harder to come by or whether it comes through more open acknowledgement of the artifice, the visceral appeal is still there. There’s something unstoppably human that’s still there.
NM It seems like the lesson from the success of those early shows was that we don’t even need the artifice. We don’t need the game show element—we can save a million bucks.
LM And when people get tired of the current iterations, there will be the next generation of shows making the next turn. It’s kind of like what Teen Mom or The Hills ended up doing, where nobody is hiding the structuring or scripting at all, throwing away the entire pretense of genuineness, but trusting that the moments of humanity are still going to come through, maybe even because they’ve tipped their hand.
NM To put a counterpoint on that, I wonder if you love this show as much as I do: The Great British Baking Show.
LM Oh yeah. I love it.
NM Although, I absolutely do not think that America could produce a show like that.
LM They’re so nice.
NM There’s no prize. They’re competing for a plate. And they all love each other. That seems like an example to me, and there are very few if any, of reality TV devoid of cynicism or nastiness entirely.
LM I don’t think that it’s an accident that it became very popular in this country, despite having existed for a long time in the UK, immediately after Trump’s election. I do think that we are in a moment of aggressively kind reality TV, which I see as a response to the last moment. The tone of the new Queer Eye, for instance—
NM Huge fan.
LM —I find stunningly moving despite the fact that I’m cynical about a lot of it. Same goes for Ru Paul’s Drag Race, at least in its general tenor, which is one of wonderful uplift. I watch these shows with such a relief in the hysterical kind spectacle of it.
NM The hubris of thinking that fame will cast your life in meaning—how fair would it be to compare that to writers?
LM I hope that the book is making those parallels, somewhat overtly. I was curious to explore these ideas of intimacy and ambition honestly: what you want to get out of the performance of yourself, and also what you give up. I was interested in those questions as someone trying to write again. Particularly when my book Lord Fear came out, I was having the dueling sensation of, what the fuck did I just put out there, why did I do that? But also on top of that, goddamn I wish more people were reading this thing that I almost wish wasn’t out in the world. It was such a fraught experience, and I wanted to try to understand the impulses behind it. As a reader, the books that I like most hold that tension. It felt important to try to interrogate writing in this way. It helped me to not write about reality TV with a sense of judgmental removal. Otherwise, it would have felt like lame, toothless cultural criticism from on high, without any risk or tension.