Thursday 29 February 2024

Drama, Conflict, and Cruelty, The Real Appeal of Reality TV.

In the basement of the psychology department at Sheffield University, where I studied for my degree, there was a nursery school in which one whole wall was a two-sided mirror. Students such as myself would file in to a thin dark room on the other side of that wall and watch. It was a sneak peek into how kids behave when they think no-one can see them. And we saw some fascinating things – like the boy behind the bookcase who hit three or four children as they were sent to fetch a book, only to then join them crying at the teacher’s table. A sign of intellect or criminal prowess? Only time would tell.

This was way before I had ideas of being a crime thriller writer, I just wanted to study people and find out what makes them tick. And TV was about to help out with that, big style, because a few years later, in July 2000, Big Brother launched and a new era of Reality TV was born. Here was the chance for all of us to stand on the other side of that two way mirror and see how real people behave in the real world. 

But no one could have anticipated the fame and shame consequences that would befall Reality TVs participants. We came to love them or we loved to hate them. And there was no going back. Ever since, the nation has tuned in to watch everything from people competing for a job on The Apprentice, to looking for love on First Dates and Married at First Sight. We’ve rooted for our favourites on The Hunted, revelled in the drama of Made in Chelsea and relished secrets and lies in The Traitors. A recent survey of 2000 people in the UK by ONEPOLL found that nearly 40% of us watch some kind of reality TV every week, and this rises to 50% for under 35s and 48% for females.* 

Why do we love it so much? Some psychologists believe it is all to do with Social Comparison Theory. We enjoy watching confrontations, people making a fool of themselves, or doing anything to entertain us, because it makes us feel better about ourselves. Others believe the shows we choose say something about our individual motivations: some of us are looking for companionship, some are looking for escapism and the competitive amongst us are enjoying taking sides. 

The truth is we love human drama in all its forms – from the books we read to the movies and TV shows we watch. But Reality TV provides something more on top. Dr Carol Lieberman, a psychiatrist who works on reality shows says, “We love reality TV because it allows us to live vicariously through the show participants without being publicly humiliated ourselves.” Many reality TV shows now employ psychologists to help them to pick the right ‘characters’ and much time is spent on designing the best scenarios to elicit an emotional reaction. So if the scenes are staged and the characters hand-picked, what is real? It turns out this question is what many people have come to most enjoy about such shows. We have to figure out what part of the show is Reality and what part is Television, so we become ever more engaged in the experience. We become part of the game.**

And so, it turns out the two-sided mirror is not enough. What we really want is to watch real people in extreme situations, and we don’t mind if this has to be stage managed. We might have been happy to watch the best of the best compete to be Sir Alan Sugar’s apprentice back in 2005, but by the time he was Lord Sugar it was more interesting to watch the egotistical being put in their place, or the whole team imploding in conflict. Perhaps this is why in 2019 the New York Times branded British Reality TV a ‘Theatre of Cruelty.’ ***

All this got me thinking, if Reality TV shows have to keep evolving to apply ever more pressure on participants so that they react in ways that keep us interested and entertained, how far would they go?

And if someone making such a show really hated the genre and the kinds of people who chose to participate - people they see as fame hungry, shallow, attention seekers – what then? What dire situation would they be willing to put people in to grab attention and make the public watch. This is the premise of The Escape Room. A reality TV show to end all Reality TV shows.

I decided that an escape room was the perfect vehicle to explore a reality TV show gone dark, because people readily volunteer to be locked inside such places to experience the thrill of being trapped. And so, my protagonist Bonnie and seven other contestants are taken to The Fortress, a three story cylindrical, concrete sea fort off the coast of Portsmouth. They arrive feeling confident that they can solve the puzzles and break free, but what they soon come to realise is that when you’re trapped inside a structure built to keep the enemy out, it can easily keep you in. 

And when one contestant’s failure on a challenge leads to his death everything changes. It’s not about fun anymore, it’s about survival. 

The death of a contestant seemed like a logical step in the dark evolution of such shows. We have all heard of the deaths sadly associated with reality TV, but thus far all have occurred outside of the show. In The Escape Room the contestants are unsure if the death is accidental or intentional. What they are sure of is that to escape they only have one option: to win. 

The Escape Room by L.D. Smithson is published by Bantam (£14.99).

Everything is a clue. Bonnie arrives on a remote sea fort off the coast of England to take part in a mysterious reality TV show. Competing against seven strangers, she must solve a series of puzzles to win the prize money, but this is no game - and the consequences of failure are deadly. No one leaves. Under scrutiny from the watching public, the contestants quickly turn on one another. Who will sacrifice the most for wealth and fame? And why can't Bonnie shake the creeping sense that they are not alone? The only way out is to win. When the first contestant is found dead, Bonnie begins to understand the dark truth at the heart of this twisted competition: there's a killer inside the fort, and anyone could be next. If Bonnie wants to escape, she needs to win... Are you ready to play?

L D Smithson can be found on “X” @LeonaDeakin1

* OnePoll (2016) The reality TV habit 

** Rose, R.L, & Wood, S. L. (2005) Paradox and the consumption of authenticity through reality television.

*** The New York Times (2019) British Reality Television Is A Theatre of Cruelty

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