At its best, reality TV is an artform that transcends the constraints of its genre. Think Real Housewives of New Jersey’s Teresa Giudice upsetting a table while screaming “Prostitution WHORE!” That’s one of the most memorable and iconic moments in reality television history and why? Because it’s dramatic, it’s funny, it’s unhinged, it feels real even though most people don’t behave that way in real life—though they might want to—and it defines the series in one, crystal-clear moment.
At its worst, reality TV is a cringe-worthy reminder of the darkness of human nature. Think Joe Millionaire, The Swan, Celebrity Rehab, the President of the United States, or any number of terrible things that have aired in primetime since the runaway success of Survivor nearly 17 years ago.
Though reality TV has become a permanent part of the television landscape and the zeitgeist, bombarding us with its never-ending army of temporary celebrities desperately trying to extend their 15 minutes of fame, attempts to apply the format to queer subjects have resulted in a mixed bag.
The most successful attempt, undeniably, is RuPaul’s Drag Race. When it first launched in 2009, it was a tongue-firmly-in-cheek riff on popular reality shows from Top Model to Project Runway with a little American Idol thrown in for good measure. Through the years, it’s become a slick, infinitely gifable phenomenon, launching literally dozens of drag queens to middling fame.
Still, Drag Race has stayed true to what made it popular in the first place: presenting a nuanced, but not reverential, take on the LGBTQ community. It’s high camp with a heart. In any one episode, you can have a screaming match, a teary confession, a dramatic reveal, an instantly classic catchphrase, and a truly edifying, even inspiring, moment.
Had the show addressed Sepúlveda’s escort past, rather than letting the internet run wild with it, or even exploited the possibilities of a house full of horned-up attractive gay men, it would have been far more compelling television. It still would’ve been trash, but compelling trash. However, Finding Prince Charming couldn’t figure out what it wanted to be. If it wanted to be a gay Bachelor, guess what?—the best thing about The Bachelor are the absolute trainwrecks the show attracts, many of whom don’t care about finding love so much as finding a few minutes of screen time and an Us Weekly insert.
Being the first of its kind—not including the disastrous Boy Meets Boy or a few episodes of MTV’s Next—Finding Prince Charming had to aspire to something higher, because, by default, it was representative of the LGBTQ community. Whether we wanted it to be or not. And we, as a rule, are very sensitive about how we are portrayed in the media—for good reason, namely, decades of being murderers, best friends, and living scenery on film and on TV. While shows like The Bachelor and Bachelorette can show contestants in a terrible light, the light always has to be slightly more flattering in a gay version. Which drains all the fun out of a reality show.
Any reality show that feels to scripted or too contrived has already failed. A great reality show should never treat its subjects like sacred cows, nor should it be mean-spirited or overly exploitative. It’s a thin line to traverse, and most shows trip and fall at one point or another. Whether it’s Kim Richards’s public descent into alcoholism on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, or, really, anything on TLC. If there’s a bar, TLC slid under it years ago. So what else makes a great reality show? Besides great editing, you need a great cast—a cast that gets it, full of people who have a sense of self-awareness but a lack of self-consciousness.
Gay men can find it difficult being unself-conscious because our lives are often spent being very conscious and guarded about something that sets us apart, fueling a need to conceal it. So there’s not only a problem in being unself-consciousness but also in being vulnerable, which is also required of a great reality star. Drag Race finds a neat way around this, as the drag alter egos of its contestants—as well as their ceremonial, and deeply symbolic, shedding of the makeup after each challenge—provide a sort of mirror to the truth. Painting and subsequently peeling away at the layers of their makeup finds the queens at their most vulnerable and their most philosophic. Just think of Dorian Corey, sitting eternal at her vanity in Paris Is Burning, espousing truth after truth after truth.
But the queens also get what the show is, they know the formulas, and they know their roles. They’re not here to make friends because this isn’t RuPaul’s Best Friends Race. Drag Race season five was perhaps the show’s best season—although the recent All-Stars gave it a run for its money, largely for the same reason: it came with pre-manufactured drama. Coco and Alyssa were already enemies by the time they saw each other for the first time in the work room and the shade descended like manna from heaven.
Drag queens make perfect reality show stars because they’re performers by nature. As are the best Real Housewives. They both come prepared with beef and catchphrases—and with their faces beat for the gods. The men on Finding Prince Charming, on the other hand, were earnest to the point of coma-inducing—amateurs!—with the exception of Robby, a flamboyant queen who knew exactly what she was doing. In the first episode, he comes in screaming at nothing and no one, immediately setting himself apart from all the other contestants by daring to have a personality. Logo’s latest attempt to fill the gay reality void, Fire Island doesn’t look like it will fare much better.
In the show’s first trailer, Fire Island appears to lack any of Finding Prince Charming’s pretensions to elevate the gay community or speak to the idea of love in a post-marriage equality America—though it does make passing reference to Fire Island’s historical importance to gay men. Rather, it’s 90 seconds of abs, cliches, and “drama.” Which is fine. I just have no interest in watching it. Not because it will doubtlessly promulgate any number of gay stereotypes—reality shows are largely built on stereotypes and archetypes— but Bravo had a similar show about straight friends sharing a summer house that I also had no interest in because, like Fire Island, it looked boring as fuck. Besides, The Jersey Shore already did all of this and did it brilliantly. And if you want to talk about compelling trash.
Now compare Fire Island’s trailer to the trailer for the next season of The Real Housewives of New York.
There are gifable moments and instantly classic quotes.
The fights are epic because the ladies have pre-existing relationships and tensions; and because I’ve been watching for years, I have a connection to them. Say, for instance, Fire Island replaced its main cast with some queens from Drag Race. Now that would be something worth watching, for the one-liners alone, but also to view the ways in which established relationships change with the change in environment. That’s why the Real Housewives vacations are almost always better than whatever takes place in their home cities.
There’s seemingly no need to watch Fire Island because you get it all in the trailer: abs, cliches, and “drama.” For a show like this to succeed, it needs big personalities, sweeping generalizations, and a certain fearlessness: put this trash on the curb for the whole world to see, judge, live vicariously through, and enjoy. It has to revel in the crazy not shy away from it. The perfect gay reality show, then, requires giving the audience a little credit. Cast people with whom we can engage and relate—love or hate or quote or emulate or just have an opinion about— not just lust after. This is a reality show, not Grindr.
Speaking of which, a Grindr reality show…now there's some potential.