Although RuPaul considered being a part of reality series in various incarnations for more than a decade, the general tenor of reality TV always kept the international performer from taking on the challenge.
“Reality and our culture had a meanspiritedness, especially after 9/11,” he says. “There was a hostility in the air, and I didn’t want to be a part of it.”
However, an evolution in the reality space has opened the door for more sweetness to go with the spice. With the 2009 premiere of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” RuPaul found a way to reveal the art of drag to audiences in a supportive manner that doesn’t eschew a little competition and cattiness.
“Even though you get some of the juicy backstabbing moments of a competitive reality show, it’s a show that’s focusing on artists who have been marginalized,” says “Drag Race” executive producer Randy Barbato. “Everybody in front of and behind the camera goes into it with a kind of spirit of celebrating talent.”
In addition to feel-good reality-competition series such as “The Biggest Loser,” “Drag Race” demonstrates that positivity can cut through the clutter as easily as shrieking and hair-pulling did in the genre.
“We never have to resort to those crazy shenanigans that other shows do,” RuPaul says. “At its core, this show is about the tenacity of the human spirit, and people relate to that. They get to root for the underdog.”
It was a story about another kind of marginalized person that inspired producer Dave Broome to devise the format for “Biggest Loser.” He read a heartbreaking story about an overweight man begging for help to change his life on a flier at the gym. But Broome knew that a show that didn’t ridicule fat people would be a tough sell.
“There was not a lot of feel-good in the unscripted space at the time,” says Broome, whose skein launched in 2004 when the only other series like it on the air was “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” “The key to these kinds of feel-good TV shows is taking subject matter and dealing with them in respectful ways.”
Yet keeping things entertaining remains a key ingredient.
“We’re trying to inspire a country,” says “Biggest Loser” exec producer Todd Lubin. “To make that also dramatic is a challenge for us. We struggle with that all the time. It’s a good problem to have.”
Eight years after “Biggest Loser” debuted, there are still only a handful of feel-good shows in the competitive category, but some established skeins are being influenced by the touchy-feely vibe.
For instance, the judging on “American Idol,” which used to be characterized by Simon Cowell’s withering criticism, has gotten much warmer in the past two seasons.
“Idol” exec producer Nigel Lythgoe says the country was ready for a change after Cowell exited.
“We felt as though we needed the feel-good factor of watching talent nurtured,” Lythgoe says. “To replace Simon with anybody would have been a pale imitation and would have been cruelty for cruelty’s sake.”
But Lythgoe readily admits that America has started to lose its taste for the negative, as evidenced by shows like “The Voice.”
“Do you want to bring a kid on so you can chop their legs from underneath them? With all this bullying going on?,” adding about “The X Factor,” “Even Simon Cowell became much gentler and warmer.”
Lythgoe feels strongly that seeing a progression among the talent featured on “AI” is important, but he says he’s seen a distinct difference in the types of kids auditioning for this kindler version of the show.
“A lot more people come to audition that would have not done so in the past — they know they’re going to be let down gently,” Lythgoe says.
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