Look at Emmy nominees across this year’s reality categories and you’ll see that a growing number of unscripted series are facilitating discussions about sensitive subjects including disabilities, addiction, race, LGBTQ issues — and even religion. Some shows tackle a bit of everything, such as “Queer Eye” and last year’s unstructured reality program Emmy winner, “United Shades of America With W. Kamau Bell.”
Reality shows can promote understanding by introducing viewers to people and communities they might not otherwise encounter and facilitate conversations.
“One of the biggest challenges our country still has is empathy,” says Tom Greenhut, exec producer of “Intervention.” “Empathy for people they may feel have a uniquely different experience from them, whatever that may be. From empathy we can have compassion, and a little compassion goes a long way.”
Jonathan Murray, exec producer of 2016 unstructured reality program Emmy-winner “Born This Way” has used unscripted TV to force social discourse since co-creating “The Real World” which debuted in 1992.
“I’m proud of how reality, in many ways, has led the effort in more inclusion of people who’d been previously marginalized by television,” Murray says. “I was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s as a gay kid who wasn’t seeing anyone like me on TV. So first-hand I knew what it felt like not to see positive representations of yourself. Starting with ‘The Real World,’ it was very much a mission to reach out to communities that hadn’t been featured, and to bring different voices together.”
“Born This Way,” which follows seven young adults with Down syndrome as they assert their independence, continues that mission.
And even seemingly lighthearted reality shows can get serious.
“We know the complexities and interests and places that drag contestants come from,” says Tom Campbell, exec producer, “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” “But we didn’t know Ongina would reveal on the main stage that she was HIV-positive. That was really eye-opening.”
Or the time Roxxxy Andrews had a flashback to being abandoned by her mother, prompting tears from the judges and causing RuPaul to remind the contestants that they’re family, they’re loved and no one was going home that week.
“There are so many times in the control booth when we’re sobbing because these truths reveal themselves, and I’m not exactly sure why,” Campbell says. “I know our contestants have so much life experience to share, and they feel free because it’s a safe space to do it. Maybe there’s something about the pressure cooker of a reality show — they’re working hard, maybe they have less sleep than normal — and things just come to the surface. … It’s really the queens who are such brave, sensitive souls, and who are willing to share their stories that makes the show extra special.”
Likewise, on “American Ninja Warrior,” contestants’ personal struggles help open viewers’ hearts.
“During the course of a season we’ll see 800 people who are diverse in terms of who they are, what they do, what they look like,” says “American Ninja Warrior” executive producer Arthur Smith, who’s also CEO of A. Smith & Co. Prods.
Athletes, ranging in age from 19 all the way to 70, have included amputees, cancer survivors, a woman with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a young man who’s autistic and a man with Parkinson’s — they all compete on the same course and under the same conditions as every other contestant.
“We never shy away from these things. We embrace them. It’s become part of the fabric of the show,” Smith says. “It’s about getting to know people you wouldn’t normally meet.”
While LGBTQ issues often arise on “Queer Eye” since the makeover specialists — the Fab Five — are all gay, some of the deepest discussions stem from the people they’re helping.
“It’s all about authenticity,” says David Collins, creator and exec producer of “Queer Eye,” noting that when the Fab Five meet each “episodic hero,” onscreen, it’s really their first encounter. “It’s as real and authentic as it can get. In the next four days we stay back as far as we can and observe and let that relationship happen. That’s where those truths start to come out, where a dialogue starts to happen. It’s where our guys get to share their perspective, and it’s where we start seeing similarities as opposed to differences— we also start to see that it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Fun probably isn’t the best word to describe the in-depth discussion about race and police brutality that the show’s African-American cultural guru Karamo Brown (who, Murray proudly notes, was in “The Real World: Philadelphia”) had with a white police officer who was one of season one’s makeover subjects. Their difficult, honest conversation led to better understanding and mutual respect between the men.
“I know it’s kind of corny, but I feel like we entered the show with the idea that we’re more alike than we are different, and that’s a gap we need to bridge,” says “Queer Eye” exec producer Jen Lane. “It’s not rocket science. We just want to shake hands with people who maybe don’t share our views, and realize there’s a whole lot more to being human than which side of the divide you’re on.”
That’s also why when W. Kamau Bell interacts with individuals and communities in each episode of “United Shades of America” — be it talking to prisoners in San Quentin or members of the KKK — he seeks empathy.
“This season we did an episode about people living with physical disabilities. It’s hard to do in one episode, because it’s such a complicated subject. I will never think about this the same way again,” says Bell, who in that episode tried navigating his way, blindfolded and using a cane, down the sidewalk of a busy street.
“We did an episode about the Sikh religion and some people were like, ‘I’ve never heard about any of this. My mind is blown by all of this information,’ while some people on the inside of that community were like, ‘Your pronunciation is really not that good,’” Bell laughs. “Hopefully, for some people it’s a window into something they’ve never seen and they’ll do more research, or be smarter about it when they have dinner party conversations. I have to accept the fact that there’s no way for us to get everything 100% right, and be OK with taking the slings and arrows as long as I think we’ve put forth an honest effort and didn’t ultimately damage the community in the process.”
Creating understanding and empathy is only part of what reality shows can do. They can also educate and inspire.
“Destigmatizing addiction was a huge thing that hadn’t really been done before ‘Intervention.’ The show also showed the audience just how hidden addiction can be,” says exec producer Gary Benz.
“It’s important for people to see the whole world that is in front of addicts with long-term recovery,” his colleague Greenhut says. “It’s important that we’re honest with the audience when each of these individuals shares the darkest moments in their lives. We have a mantra: health and hope. That’s what’s really important here, hope.”
When asked about his proudest moment in television, Murray has two answers.
“Season three of ‘The Real World,’ where we had Pedro Zamora on; President Clinton said Pedro did more to educate young people about HIV and AIDs than anything he could do on the federal level, because MTV was such a direct connection to young people,” Murray says. “But 25 years later, ‘Born This Way’ is right up there with season three of ‘The Real World.’ ”
Campbell says unscripted series speak volumes about today’s culture. “’In the future you’ll be able to look back on these reality shows and get a snapshot of how people were living, what they were saying, what they were feeling. That really does document our times.”