Religion and Reality TV: Is God Watching?

I came late to reality television fandom, but not because of any aesthetic scruples—as friends can attest, I much prefer films with explosions and high body counts over those with character development and subtitles. Reality television just never grabbed me. Oh sure, like everyone else I followed the trials and tribulations of Richard Hatch (the openly gay, nudist, tax-evading winner of Survivor’s first season), but I never actually watched the show. Due to an unplanned encounter with the glorious mysteries of the genre, however, I am now a serious addict. I mean, I can avoid new series—although The Academy and Farmer Wants a Wife call out to me—but if I watch a single episode of a fresh offering, I become quickly invested in how it will turn out. And don’t get me started on those suspense-building previews: I’m a sucker for a secret twist.

I blame my friend Shelly for my obsession. During my first years as a doctoral student, we had a Sunday evening ritual: she would come to my house, we would make dinner, commiserate about life in grad school, and watch Six Feet Under. One night, though, she asked if she could come early—apparently, it was the finale episode of Survivor and she didn’t want to miss it.

Shelly had invested several weeks in the series and was anxiously rooting for her favorite. As we watched, she fretted about all the fluff and filler in the show—she just wanted to know who was going to win. I, on the other hand, who had no investment in the “plot” or “narrative” (assuming for the moment that those words apply at all here), was enraptured by the structure of the finale itself.

Why had no one told me that reality television was so indebted to religious ritual?

The Survivor finale was a carefully orchestrated liturgical performance. Jeff Probst, the officiant, spoke magic words about fire and torches, juries and voting. Each contestant took a turn moving across sacred space to cast a ballot. But, then, the coup de grâce. Rather than announcing the winner right away, Probst took the vessel containing the ballots, scurried to an awaiting jet-ski and, through the magic of editing, crossed the Atlantic Ocean, arriving home in New York City. The camera followed his trek around the Statue of Liberty as melodramatic music swelled; he then ran through the streets of Gotham, finally arriving at Radio City Music Hall; where the contestants, their torches, and the jungle foliage had been magically transported. This entire sequence consumed at least a half-hour of television time. And, before the winner was announced—in the final 60 seconds of a two-hour broadcast—Probst and the contestants revisited, retold, repeated all of the important moments from an immediately preceding season of television, details with which the audience was arguably already familiar.

While I’m sure the executives at CBS intended for this to be an easy way to sell more installments of ad time, I was blown away by the adherence to a set formula. My initial shock and excitement has not diminished during subsequent seasons of Survivor. My favorite moment falls near the end of each season when only three contestants remain. Given the rules of the game, one contestant has final say over who will proceed to the last round. Rather than simply asking this person who is going forward, the show goes through the entire ritual: campfire, magic words, ballot, revelation of result. Could there be any more direct parallel to the celebration of mass in an empty church?

To this day, these are the details of reality television that grab my attention—the liturgical moments, if you will. It is astonishing to see how the ritual of decision is reproduced across series. Competition shows that involve voting from the home audience—American Idol, Nashville Star, So You Think You Can Dance, Make Me a Supermodel – have one structure; competition shows where judges make the decision – Project Runway, Top Chef, America’s Next Top Model, The Shot, Shear Genius – have another; while romance competition shows – The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, Flavor of Love – offer a third. Each week on America’s Next Top Model, Tyra Banks dutifully welcomes the contestants, lists the prizes, introduces the judges, comments on each contestants’ picture, dismisses the girls so that the judges may confer “privately,” and then reveals the contestant who will be going home by distributing photos one at a time–culminating in a narrowing to two people “in the bottom,” one of whom will be excluded, often after a commercial break. In the final episode of each season, this ritual happens not once, but twice, because there are two eliminations. What is even more astonishing is that near the end of each season, Tyra usually begins to mock this ritual exercise, noting that the contestants surely know the prizes and judges by this time. Her derision, however, does not prevent her from following the rite–liberal Protestant worship, anyone?

And, of course, most importantly, every show must have a catch phrase to seal the moment: “One day you’re in and the next day you’re out” (Project Runway); “Every dog has their day” (Groomer Has It); “Let us proclaim the mystery of our faith” (the Eucharistic rite). Whether the show is performing a social experiment of coupling nerds and models (Beauty and the Geek), looking for the country’s next culinary genius (Top Chef) or trying to “help” people lose weight (Celebrity Fit Club, The Biggest Loser), the formula is the same.

The repetitive structures of reality television not only mimic religious rituals in form, but also in function: they mark sacred time and space. Reality shows have a specific location that is devoted to decision-making and only decision-making. In the case of call-in shows like American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, Last Comic Standing and So You Think You Can Dance?, there is a results episode that airs on a separate night. The time devoted to results has a different mood, mode of interaction, mise en scéne, lighting and personnel than the time devoted to competition and behind-the-scenes interaction. The show’s officiants are distinguished by function, and arranged hierarchically. They almost always include a host, typically a celebrity with an independent aura, who oversees all and serves as mediator between judges and contestants; the judges, experts in the relevant field, who never interact with the contests outside “elimination” rounds (until the very end, when the finalists have obtained their own special status); and a confidant and advisor, who counsels the contestants and has no role in judging, usually contributing some form of humor or clowning–the trickster or jester, if you will.

Finally, and most importantly, this most heavily ritualized moment of the show marks contestants as included or excluded, favored or rejected. Space, time and people are sorted–narratively and formally–into sacred and profane.

Of course, I’m not the first to notice the religious dimension of reality television. In their most recent report on depictions of religion on television, the Parents Television Council, a “non-partisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment,” concluded that reality shows contained more positive representations of religion than did other television fare.

Of all negative treatments of religion, 95.5% occurred on scripted drama and comedy programs. Only 4.5% of such negative treatments occurred on reality programs. Furthermore, 57.8% of positive treatment also occurred on reality programs, while only 42.2% of positive portrayals occurred on scripted programs.

According to the Council this showed that “Hollywood” (the metonym for those writing those religion-negative scripts) was hostile toward organized religion whereas ordinary Americans (those generating the “reality” of unscripted series) “enthusiastically endorse religious belief.” How this finding is to be squared with another report from the Council that characterized reality television as constituting a “race to the bottom,” given its reliance on sexuality, profanity, crudity and violence, is explained by neither report.

The Parents Television Council is right to note that there is a whole lot of God-talk happening on reality TV. (Although I am aware of only one explicitly religious reality program: A&E’s God or the Girl, which followed several young men trying to discern whether to enter the Catholic priesthood.) Typically, this God-talk is in the form of supplications for assistance in winning the competition, but it might also take the form of ruminations on God’s providence. The Council noted an example from Amazing Race: Family Edition. The Weaver family credited God with providing sustenance and comfort when their husband/father died, and prayed to God to help them succeed at tasks so they could win the million-dollar prize. The Council didn’t distinguish between these two references to religion; both were equally positive.

Very infrequently, contestants express gratitude for the opportunities the show affords or the talents and abilities they possess. Almost never do contestants reflect on whether the competition or the behavior they are exhibiting is consistent with their religious beliefs. When one of the stage mothers from this year’s I Know My Kid’s a Star was reminded by her daughter that her venom and vindictiveness might not be consistent with the Christian identity she herself so proudly proclaimed, the mother dismissed this comment, saying that her faith and “the game” had anything to do with one another. On the other hand, Muslim housemate Kaysar from Big Brother 7 frequently commented that he was unwilling to lie and cheat to get ahead in the game because he wanted to provide a better public face for Islam in American popular culture.

Although it sorted examples from scripted and unscripted dramas and comedies, the Council’s report never defined the terms “positive” and “negative.” If I was working for the Council, I wouldn’t know how to classify the numerous references to God, Jesus, and Christian faith during Big Brother 8. Two of that season’s cast members, Amber and Jameka, were shown praying out loud virtually every episode. (Jameka even won an award for “Favorite Moment of Prayer” from the Fox Reality channel.) They continually asked for God’s guidance and action on their behalf. They even went so far as to tell other contestants before competitions and votes that it didn’t matter what they did: the result was already foreordained by God, and they were just playing out God’s will. (The other contestants never asked how this dovetailed with intercessory prayers, but I’m sure Amber and Janeka would have had an explanation for the apparent inconsistency.) Personally, I was more than a little disturbed by the idea that God was interested in the outcome of Big Brother, while at the same time seemed to be taking a rather laissez-faire attitude with respect to genocidal violence in Darfur. Turns out neither Amber nor Jameka winning was part of God’s plan: instead, God chose to back the smoking, drinking, womanizing atheist who called himself “Evil Dick.”

Amber and Jameka are not alone–virtually every reality series, if not every season of every reality series, has had God-fearing contestants praying that God will help them successfully win the cash prize. Brandon and Nicole, the Christian modeling couple of Amazing Race 5, were constantly praying and touting their religious values and commitments. Of course, this didn’t prevent them from lying to win the competition, yelling at each other, or making money by posing in underwear ads. Like Amber and Jameka, it also didn’t help them secure the final prize. Stephen Baldwin frequently touted his recent conversion during his run on Celebrity Apprentice. Of course, he also used it strategically: his faith was typically invoked to defend his honor when questioned by Donald Trump, but not when asked to perform arguably underhanded tasks by his teammates. One episode was sprinkled with Baldwin’s comments that his inspirations for a particular project were direct communications from Jesus. Unfortunately, Jesus didn’t pull through in the clinch–Baldwin was eliminated before the final round.

Until recently, I thought perhaps reality shows on the Bravo network might be immune from this sort of invocation. After all, the demographic for Bravo TV isn’t exactly evangelical Christians. Moreover, Kathy Griffin, who so brilliantly skewered “Thank you, Jesus” speeches when she received an Emmy last year, has her show, My Life on the D-List, on the network. But God-talk has seeped in here as well. This season’s Top Chef featured a devout Muslim who talked about God giving her a gift of cooking and, hopefully, helping her win. She was eliminated at the end of the first episode. Just a few nights ago, Miguel, a hoofer from Step It Up and Dance, said he hoped God would give him the strength to win. I’m waiting to see if God is finally going to help one of these folks.

Apparently, God doesn’t much like reality television. Rarely do habitual prayers do well. Eva Pigford of America’s Next Top Model 3 managed to secure the prize, but she’s an exception. By some accounts, Mormons are starting to dominate the casts of reality shows. If any demographic seems to do well in these contests, it tends to be gay and lesbian folk. Makes it tough to figure out what was responsible for openly gay Mormon Todd Herzog’s victory in Survivor: China. No divine grace was extended to openly lesbian clergy Kate Lewis and Pat Hendrickson during season 12 of The Amazing Race. Of course, they had the gall to say they didn’t think God cared who won.

The notion of a God interested in the outcome of reality show contests shouldn’t be surprising to any observer of American religion. After all, prosperity gospel preachers have been enormously successful in building churches, congregations, influence and media empires. Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life continues to be studied by congregations. Joel Osteen received an undisclosed, but reportedly astronomical, advance for his sequel to Your Best Life Now. (He did confess having trouble coming up with a title for the sequel to his superlative-laden debut work.) Americans seem to want a God who has a stake in the minutiae of their personal existence. Osteen’s God, for example, is a God of details. He writes in Best Life that God cares about the outcome of our lives and wants us to be happy, successful and blessed. The examples he gives from his own life include help in finding a parking place when running late for a conference, and the ability to convince airline employees to bend regulations so he could store camera equipment in overhead compartments. Oh, and God also helped Osteen in some Texas real estate ventures that, even on Osteen’s superficial account, sound kind of shady. Perhaps a God concerned with lateness and luggage does get invested in televised talent competitions.

One final religious dimension to reality television is how it provides a space for fostering moral conversation. (As much as I owe my obsession with reality television to my friend Shelly, I must also share credit for the following observations with her.) In some ways, reality television shows–especially of the “lifestyle” variety, like The Real World, Bad Girls Club, The Hills, The Girls Next Door, and various celebrity family telejournals–are the modern equivalent of morality plays or Lives of the Saints. We aren’t watching people experience their lives when we watch reality television–everyone knows that. (After all, why does Survivor have one of the largest writing staffs of any network show?) Instead, we are watching character types perform scripts of identity. We are watching the Slut, the Drunk, the Strong Black Woman, the Nerd, the Angry White Guy, the Racist, the Conservative, the Liberal. And rarely can these character types get mixed up. It’s tough to find examples of the black slut or the angry nerd. Reality shows provide audiences with examples, (usually clearly marked by editing, voice-over and preview content) of good and bad behavior, helpful and unhelpful scripts. Isn’t this what religious and mythical texts have always contributed to society? As the coherence and authority of organized religions has shifted in contemporary times, other cultural forms have begun to perform similar work.

Reading blogs dedicated to these shows, it is easy to find fans taking sides in the disputes the characters are having. Who is right, who is wrong? Who is the injured party and who is the one who needs to apologize? Although the behavior of reality television’s denizens is extreme, exaggerated and outrageous–much like that of mythological characters–it provides lodestars for a certain moral calculus. As much as audiences have become incredibly savvy to the manipulations of “reality” television, there is still a strong investment in the moral arc of the season’s events and the character’s actions.

The framework of competition muddies these issues. One of my favorite examples is from Survivor: Pearl Islands. During that season, Johnny Fairplay orchestrated a lie to gain a huge advantage in the competition. The lie involved convincing the other contestants that his grandmother had died. At the finale show, his grandmother was in the audience, quite proud of Fairplay’s wiliness and cunning. Even the other contestants applauded Fairplay’s ingenuity; many of them expressing the sentiment that they wished they had thought to do something similar. But they were not forgiving of dishonesty per se. That same season, contestant Lillian Morris chose to wear her Boy Scout troop leader uniform. She was skewered by her fellow contestants for representing herself as honest, but then on a few occasions playing deceitfully, as they all had, to protect her own interests. As counterintuitive as it might seem, contestants across the reality landscape are typically lambasted by their cohorts if they become too competitive. As my friend Lynne noted after watching several episodes of The Biggest Loser, reality television is a formula for mental illness. The competition is a competition, but everyone is required to disavow that fact and act kindly, with generosity and decency. Any surprise that a capitalistic country developed this genre? And is the sorting between “normal morality” and morality in a land ruled by the motto “Out Last, Out Play, Outwit” really that much different than the task of finding moral guidance in sacred writings littered with violent, sexist, racist, and imperialist overtones?

There are moments when I could turn back the clock on my reality television obsession. These usually come when I have spent an entire Saturday engrossed in a marathon showing of a missed season of America’s Next Top Model or the better part of an evening watching an extended results show for American Idol. There are other moments, however, I am extremely grateful for my hours spent spying on fabricating living rooms, listening in on whispered conversations, anxiously awaiting the results of a victory sprint. For there is something at the heart of reality television that provides insight into the contradictions and complications of lived American religious identities.