For Our Consideration: UnREAL, I Am Cait, and accidental authenticity in reality TV

“That felt pretty real to me.”

“That’s the thing with you, Adam; it feels pretty real with everyone.”

—Adam and Rachel in UnREAL

By now, the formulas that lurk behind “reality television” are well known: the obvious ADR, the carefully crafted conflicts, the markedly high correlation of competitive-reality contestants, and the determination to not acquire friends. But if the formula was totally predictable, reality TV wouldn’t have the ongoing audience reach that it has. What keeps us watching is the potential: Past all the polish, the editing, and the understood conventions of the genre, there’s still a sense that something genuine—something spontaneous, unpredictable, true—has to be lurking underneath. We just have to watch hard enough to find it.

Reality television is designed to mirror the tidy narratives we map over the mess of actual reality, marking arcs in our own lives and enacting real-time parallels …

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