If you think that Andy Cohen — the executive producer of Bravo’s many “Real Housewives” shows and the host of the network’s late-night talk show “Watch What Happens Live” — has seen it all over his years in television, think again. In the second episode of his E! docu-series, “For Real: The Story of Reality TV,” Cohen, the program’s host and executive producer, is moved to tears at the sight of four of the cast members of the original “Real World.” Wiping his eyes as Julie Gentry, Heather B. Gardner, Norman Korpi and Eric Nies greet one another, a choked-up Cohen tells them, “It’s beautiful to see you all together.”
Cohen’s tears surprised him, he tells Variety: “I had been excited about it, but I never expected to start crying.”
“For Real,” a seven-part series about the history of reality television that premieres on E! on March 25, is the 14th show Cohen has produced for NBC Universal, a total that includes the eight “Real Housewives” installments currently in rotation on Bravo. Bunim/Murray — a production company iconic in the world of reality TV, having created MTV’s archetypal “The Real World” in 1992 — approached Cohen with the idea for the series in 2019. He’d always wanted to work with the company, he says: “This is the perfect marriage.” With Bunim/Murray, Cohen, who has an overall deal with NBCU and a first-look deal at Bravo, quickly sold the pitch to E!, where it fit in with the channel’s docs programming.
The unscripted genre, spanning nearly 30 years since that “Real World” premiere, which kicked off the modern age of reality, is, as Cohen says, “a vast topic.” To make sense of it, “For Real” divides the seven episodes into subgenres, such as celebreality (“The Osbournes,” “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and everything in between) or romance (“The Bachelor,” “90 Day Fiancé”), with each episode anchored by sit-down interviews conducted by Cohen.
“For Real” was entirely produced during COVID, and Cohen filmed most of the interviews in a Brooklyn studio in late summer, he says, except when he traveled to Los Angeles for the premiere episode to talk to the Kardashian family at Khloé’s house. Cohen points to interviews he did with Jason and Molly Mesnick of “The Bachelor” about how the contestants are manipulated by producers, and an interview with Black women of reality TV, as conversations in which he learned things himself. Vivica A. Fox, who appeared on Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2015, recounts to Cohen her experience of Ivanka Trump telling her she’s “articulate.” As he winces, Fox says, “I don’t think she knew at the time she was insulting us.” He replies, “I don’t think she knows now.”
“It’s a total microaggression, and awful,” Cohen says to Variety.
Cohen remembers one marital breakup on an early season of “The Real Housewives of Orange County” as the moment he realized that the show wasn’t merely providing silly, escapist entertainment but was chronicling people’s actual lives — as riveting as soap operas, which Cohen loves. “Oh, my God, Jeana is separating from her husband! What do the kids think? Is she going to start dating now?” he remembers thinking after hearing that cast member Jeana was splitting up with Matt Keough. “These are the reactions you have about a friend or someone you care about. But it’s also the reaction you have when you’re watching ‘All My Children’ and Erica says, ‘I want a divorce.’”
Cohen is well aware of the criticism leveled at reality television — as one of its most prominent producers, he’s often its target. But as “For Real” illustrates, one striking thing about the genre is that it can’t help revealing the world as it is, whether that’s how people live in the COVID era, or how this season of “The Bachelor,” meant to be the franchise’s victory lap for casting its first Black man as a lead in Matt James, instead has imploded from the weight of the racism inherent in the show itself. “You want to create these escapist shows,” Cohen says, “but the truth is, the real world as it is will always seep in.
“And I know that a lot of people say it’s horribly detrimental to society. But I think that if you think it’s terrible to society, you probably don’t watch the shows!”