The veracity of reality TV programmes was, once upon a time, a major sticking point for viewers. If we caught out contestants with an obviously choreographed fight (the moves rarely change – a pointed insult before a splash of wine in the face), it was almost grounds to contact Ofcom. Now, though, we barely bat an eyelid at their flagrant falseness. The producers are practically characters on the shows, so obvious is their presence.
Each time we settle in for an episode of The Only Way Is Essex (Towie), the opening sequence reminds us that, while all the people are real, “some of what they do may have been plucked, plumped, trimmed” or whatever other beauty-based pun Denise van Outen uses to mean “heavily scripted”. The final scene of MTV’s The Hills notoriously owned its viewers with a direct nod to its fabrication, the cameras panning away from a brooding Brody Jenner to reveal that he was standing on a backlot, with the lights, camera and action of Tinseltown surrounding him. Everything from the trees to the Hollywood sign were revealed to be fake, inferring that the stories we had been following for four years were, too.
Watching these shows no longer requires the suspension of belief: now, there is outright agreement that the “reality” in the title is purely decorative. One show that barely bothers to uphold any notion that the events are taking place in our world is Celebs Go Dating. When it launched in 2016, we expected action that would have real-life ramifications, with a cohort of unlucky-in-love personalities dating members of the public. While it seemed unlikely that every contestant would find someone to join them happily ever after in the Daily Mail’s showbiz section, the show really has proved little more than a PR exercise. Four years and eight series in, not one couple is still standing – but there have been plenty of articles off the back of it for all involved.
It goes without saying that the recent cast of Love Island signed up in the hopes of, at the very least, accruing a social media following the size of a small province. But a romantic relationship of some sort is still considered at least a byproduct of appearing on the show, even if cast members regularly voice disbelief at finding love on a show supposedly engineered for the purpose. With Celebs Go Dating, however, neither the celebs nor the viewers seems to have any expectation that anyone will leave with a partner. Unlike Love Island, the show has never pretended its aims go beyond self-promotion. It almost entirely comprises reality TV stars who became famous for stints on other reality shows.
Of the cast members on the current Celebs Go Virtual Dating, Pete Wicks hails from Towie, Chloe Ferry from Geordie Shore and Shaughna Phillips from Love Island, while the fourth – professional rugby player Levi Davis – is best known from his stint last year on Celebrity X Factor. It is Wicks’s second time on the show and he is not the only repeat performance – Chloe Sims, Joey Essex and Sam Thompson have all come back for more, never finding “love” (which is not surprising as it is not what they came on for). In the series before, of the eight celebrities, six were from reality TV shows. Every year a Towie alumni is cast – usually two at a time.
Celebs Go Dating, like other shows of its ilk, exists primarily as a recycling bin for reality stars. It is a television genre in itself, seemingly created to sustain those whose CVs consist only of similar programming. We simply watch them move sideways from one manufactured world to another, pseudo-actors oscillating from set to set. When they are not on Celebs Go Dating, they are on Ex on the Beach, Celeb Road Trip, Celebrity Coach Trip, as well as gameshows such as Celebrity Release the Hounds and CelebAbility As it stands, the trajectory of the typical reality TV star is to continue appearing on each iteration of these shows until kingdom come (or until they are offered their own spin-off).
We once tuned into reality TV to see “normal” people in incredible situations, but reality TV stars have professionalised being everyday. As the reality TV industrial complex continues to swell, it will be interesting to see how sustainable this pretence is – and if we will ever see a truly “normal” person on reality TV again.