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'Cue the Sun!' is a riveting history of reality TV

Random House

Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum first conceived her sweeping chronicle of the rise of reality TV in 2003 — shortly after the debut of The Bachelor and three years into Survivor. But back then the reception from fellow writers was as icy as public attitudes towards the genre. “You better write that one fast,” she recalls a friend warning her. “Reality television was a fad… a bubble that would pop before I could get anything on the page.”

Twenty years later, Nussbaum’s Cue the Sun!: The Invention of Reality TV is a near definitive history of the genre that forever changed American entertainment. The book’s 20-year journey to publication is a tiny mirror of its subject’s rise to the center of American culture. As Nussbaum shows, “Critics had written off reality programming as a fad back in the 1940s, when mouthy civilians first shook up the economics of radio; and in the 1970s, during the flareups over An American Family and The Gong Show; and then again in the 1990s, when Fox and MTV set out to disrupt the major networks.” The dismissive pattern continued for decades – and critics were wrong every time. The much maligned reality genre has “always been a trap” for someone in Nussbaum’s profession— as a critic you would either “clutch your pearls,” failing to “see the fun in it” or succumb to the temptation to “treat reality too lightly.”

Across 14 chapters, Nussbaum successfully walks a tightrope. Avoiding censure and trivialization, her narrative keenly captures the reality genre “through the voices of the people who built it” — “step by step, experiment by experiment” in riveting, energetic detail. Determined to see it as the makers and audiences did, and to translate the genre’s diversity, appeal and significance to the page, Nussbaum conducted interviews with a staggering 300 people who worked in every conceivable capacity – from network executives to show creators to crafts people and cast members – on some of the most important reality shows.

From these interviews, Nussbaum fashions a compelling oral history, transforming the scattered highs, lows, and tipping points of a genre constantly in flux into a cohesive exploration of the invention, evolution and importance of the modern reality show.

As juicy and provocative as it is analytical, Cue the Sun! exposes the seamy underbelly of reality TV where that’s needed but also corrects unduly negative, and unfounded, assumptions. For example, on the motivations of the people who become the casts of these shows, Nussbaum concludes: “For many people, doing this kind of television wasn’t a naïve misstep at all – it was a conscious choice to participate in an extreme sport, one whose risks they embraced.” This insight emerges as a common theme across most of these chapters in the voices of wildly diverse on-screen participants – across programs as disparate as the 1970s An American Family, Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire, and Survivor.

While many critics have painted reality TV in broad strokes, Nussbaum captures fascinating complexity and nuance. Perhaps the most poignant chapter focuses on PBS’s pioneering precursor to modern reality programming. The tip of the spear in an emerging genre dubbed the “dirty documentary,” in a single season An American Family exploded the traditional nuclear ideal through California’s prosperous Loud family. Putting a microscope to five teenage kids and two parents at odds, for seven months, the show delivered a microcosm of America’s rapid cultural shifts as the Louds navigated infidelity, a son’s sexuality, and divorce. While the filmmakers played it straight, according to Nussbaum, the Louds felt stung by the 24/7 cameras and scathing public reaction. It was a startling precursor of what was to come.

Decades later, with the possible exception of a Dating Game contestant who turned out to be a serial killer, perhaps no episode is as jaw-dropping as the story of Survivor. Nussbaum’s storytelling reaches the height of its powers in a blow by blow of Survivor season one that will give you the creepy crawlies: fleas under the skin, snakes on the belly, parasites in the intestines. But it’s hard to figure what’s more treacherous, the wildlife or the humans committed to making compelling TV at any cost.

Despite the book’s strengths, at crucial times the accounts of insiders prove insufficient; context and a critical counterpoint are needed. But in its commitment to handing the mic to the makers, the book eschews outside perspectives. There are exceptions: With An American Family, we gain insight into the challenge of being gay man on TV in the 70s through snippets of contemporaneous media and viewer letters. The book also nods to criticism of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy from the gay community.

But when it comes to the situation with race on The Bachelor franchise, Cue The Sun! is noticeably quiet. It acknowledges that creator Mike Fleiss stepped down after an internal investigation into allegations of racial discrimination led to a “racial reckoning.” And Nussbaum spoke to one of the two Black contestants from The Bachelor's first season, LaNease Adams. Following her stint on The Bachelor, Adams buckled under relentless public scrutiny and racist online attacks, with mental health concerns eventually sending her to the hospital. Still, she blames herself for being "naive about racism" and defends the show's treatment and handling of race. Adams’ comments are fascinating, but not exactly illuminating.

Nussbaum declines to explore the perspectives of Black critics and viewers. Given that The Bachelor’s racial conflicts were legion, and Black women are both a vibrant part of the audience and of the critical community, that seems an odd choice. In a complex chapter with plenty of controversy about gender, ethics, and exploitation, maybe there wasn't room, but it still reads like something is missing.

Despite that blind spot, overall Cue the Sun! is both entertaining and enlightening — full of eye-popping insight and rollicking prose. An enthusiast herself, Nussbaum makes even a reality-show-skeptic understand the appeal. She describes The Bachelor as “a schmaltzy, sexist carnival that doubled, for viewers, as a swoony stunt, the Evel Knievel canyon leap of matrimony.”

And she writes just as vividly about how Queer Eye led to the reinvention and precipitous rise of the Bravo network as executive Lauren Zalaznick “gentrified the sketchy neighborhood of reality programming, with all those basic bachelorettes and bug-eating contests,” transforming it into a “glimmering Tribeca of the mind.” There are dueling interpretations of how this new Bravo emerged from the invention of Queer Eye. But the brilliance of the show, as Nussbaum smartly highlights, is that it was – in the words of Queer Eye Director of Photography Michael Pearlman – “a pleasant change of pace: a reality show that was all about empowerment, rather than humiliation.”

Bravo’s successes might be the ultimate symbol of a sunnier story about the genre that upended television. But Nussbaum ends in a darker place, explaining how the genre remade American politics by reinventing Donald Trump on The Apprentice. Love it or hate it, that titillating and consequential tale is the writer’s mic drop to a virtuoso performance.

A slow runner and fast reader, Carole V. Bell is a cultural critic and communication scholar focusing on media, politics and identity. You can find her on Twitter @BellCV.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Carole V. Bell
[Copyright 2024 NPR]