Saturday, April 6, 2013

Bravo From Bad to Worse

There's been a lot written about how we're in a golden age of television. The cable model being able to appeal to smaller niche audiences has allowed television shows like HBO's "Game of Thrones" and AMC's "Mad Men" to flourish. Not so much has been written about the flip side of the equation, which is that reality shows are getting worse than ever, and spreading across the cable landscape at an alarming rate.

A few days ago I came across a press release for Bravo's latest slate of new and returning series. The network is one of the poster children for cable channels that have moved drastically away from their original branding. In the early days, it was an arts channel, home to "Inside the Actor's Studio," the early iterations of "Project Runway," and you could frequently find them running Cirque du Soleil specials on early weekend mornings. Now the channel is wall to wall reality programming, and their flagship is the "Real Housewives" franchise.

The new slate is an utterly depressing reflection of this. Nearly all their new and in-development shows are nominally differentiated variations on the same gut-turning formula of putting a group of spoiled, rich, ego-centric fame-chasers together and watching them behave badly in the name of furthering their dreams. "Below Deck" puts them on a yacht. "City Sisters" puts them in New York. "100 Days of Summer" puts them in Chicago. "Eat, Drink, Love" stakes out Los Angeles. “Southern Charm” tackles Charleston, South Carolina. And it's no mystery where "Princesses: Long Island," "Taking Atlanta" and "Ladies of London" are set.

The rest are a mix of human interest series that center around food, fashion, real estate, and rich people's problems. One of the shows in development is literally called "Rich People’s Problems," featuring Phaedra Parks, an attorney who was one of the "Real Housewives of Atlanta." Other new shows feature a "Divorce Diva," extreme parents, college admissions consultants, a songwriter mentoring youngsters in the music industry, a retired basketball player, newlyweds, two businesswomen opening a fitness club, and Courtney Kerr, whose gimmick is that she's on the hunt for a man in Dallas.

Some of these have some minor value as documentary shows, but mostly the audience is just expected to gawk at the subjects, the same way they do with the most awful examples of the genre, "Buckwild" and "Honey Boo Boo." You feel okay about it because they're getting paid, and many of the participants are rich and famous and want the exposure. However, it's all too clear what Bravo expects out of these shows: catfights, drama, hedonism, excess, and a few minutes of feel-good redemption now and then to ensure that the reality stars don't become completely unsympathetic.

These shows are heavily edited of course, to the point where most of the narratives are largely constructed. And so Bravo has made the logical choice this year to start developing scripted television, based largely around the same material. These include "Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce," "Heiresses," and "High and Low." I think the titles are self-explanatory except for the last, which is about the staff of a restaurant and takes place during the 1980s. And I'm sure we can expect all the same character types that we see on Bravo's other shows - catty rich girls, emotional gay guys, hardworking dreamers, artists, foodies, divas, and hot messes.

Of course, this shouldn't be a surprise when you look at Bravo's list of returning shows, the ones that have kept them going. We're up to five regular "Housewives" spinoffs that have been on for multiple seasons, a third year of "Shahs of the Sunset," and two different "Million Dollar Listings." The last surviving competition show from the "Project Runway" days, "Top Chef," increasingly looks like an odd man out, despite its high profile, and “Inside the Actors Studio,” which has made it all the way to season nineteen, looks positively retro.

I used to watch Bravo quite a bit when I first got cable, back in the late 90s. I liked that it was a little pretentious and a little highbrow, and that it would take risks on shows like "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." I think that's why this sad state of affairs stings worse for me than the similar declines of networks like TLC, A&E, MTV, and the others that have been swallowed up by similar reality programming.

I know that Bravo is far from the worst offender when you put it up against some of these other outlets. Heck, sometimes I find things on network television that I can't quite believe are real shows. Celebrity diving? Celebrity military boot camp? And "The Swan" is back?! It's clear that Bravo's bad habits are only a reflection of what's happening to the rest of television.

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