When did reality TV become … nice?
Ever since “The Real World” debuted on MTV in 1992, reality TV has given us so much anger: Accusations. Betrayals. Brawls. Plenty of chardonnay in the face.
By 2006, when “The Real Housewives” reared its triple-processed blond head, the Mean Reality TV genre had clawed its French Tips into America’s brain. Pumpkin spitting on New York. Stassi smacking Kristen. Jeff outing Zeke. Aviva throwing her prosthetic leg at Heather. Trump firing Omarosa. From the White House.
In the past few years, though, there’s been a collective softening on reality TV. After years of witnessing beautiful people shred their dignity to find a spouse or get off an island, we’ve rediscovered the comforts of regular folk whipping up custards and crafts and getting tough on that messy garage. Nice Reality TV, let’s call it, has become a respite from all the real-life madness we can’t control – the Twitter mobs, the 1 percent gobbling up all the wealth, the breaking news and fake news, all abuzz on our phones.
There’s a reason each episode of “Making It,” the NBC competitive crafts show hosted by Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman that aired its first season last summer, kicks off with Poehler announcing: “Life is stressful enough. Let’s make a show that makes you feel good!” In our politically contemptuous, personally overwhelmed and financially disempowered lives, escape can come in the form of a perfectly organized sock drawer, a flawless opera cake and the wonders of beard oil.
The Nice Reality TV formula is one that HGTV, the fourth most-watched cable channel in 2018, has been building since “House Hunters” hatched atop the real estate bubble two decades ago. Whereas Mean Reality TV feeds on scandal, Nice Reality keeps it behind the scenes, if it must exist at all. Shows such as the squeaky-clean “Fixer Upper,” a ratings magnet that wrapped up last year after five seasons, and “Property Brothers,” an HGTV cornerstone since it debuted in 2011, keep the drills whirring inside the home — ignoring the clamor of harsh reality outside of it.
Today’s wave of Nice Reality TV takes HGTV’s aversion to conflict, and overwhelming whiteness (recently lampooned by “South Park” in a bit called “White People Renovating Houses”) and diversifies it: We’ve been introduced to avid British bakers, a non-English-speaking organization expert and a rebooted “Queer Eye” Fab Five.
It’s hard to imagine this moment in a pre-digital streaming era. Reality TV, circa mid-aughts, had to lust – for beauty, money or infamy – to keep its dominance over scripted TV. Back then, the musty cop and doctor shows couldn’t compete with the primal wish fulfillment of winning a million dollars or marrying a Harvard real estate prince who looks like a personal trainer. And prestige TV, such as “The Sopranos,” was available only to HBO’s elite subscribers. Digital streaming platforms, such as HBO Now, Netflix and Hulu, not only spread prestige to the masses, but also helped kindness find its widest audience.
Now we can self-soothe whenever we need it. After a bad day. After the kids go to bed. Or even after an election gone sideways, as Hillary Clinton did with HGTV, as she wrote in her 2017 memoir, “What Happened.”
The latest entry in the growing pantheon of Nice is “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,” the Netflix show from Japan’s decluttering expert, which released eight episodes at the start of this year. Where “Hoarders” used horror-movie music to show the stuff Americans can’t get rid of, Kondo instead comes in, freshly dressed in her trademark white, and greets the messy home as if it’s a Shinto shrine and not a hovel for Nutcracker dolls. She smiles at the junk drawers, coos at out-of-control closets and gushes, in one insta-meme, “I love mess!”
Twitter tried to make her controversial – protect your books from this walking Fahrenheit 451, everyone! — but it didn’t stick because, well, she doesn’t hate books; she’s a best-selling author. The truth is, even if her cleanup strategies are just common sense masquerading as the latest in the #blessed witchcrafts, Kondo’s positivity toward the slovenly home is a much-needed relief, especially for women who disproportionately clean the home more than men. Kondo, who minored in women’s studies in college, vicariously delivers permission (“It’s OK if your house falls into disorder”) and optimism (“It’s never too late to whip it back into shape”), as well as an unflagging belief in the organizational power of little boxes.
Some of Nice Reality TV’s best examples are imports such as “Tidying Up,” because maybe we’re all tired of the American penchant for bluntness. When tension happens on “The Great British Baking Show,” which has been running in Britain since 2010 and in the United States since 2014, it typically gets resolved with sportsmanship and manners. No one gets dragged or doxed or promises to start therapy, not even when Diana supposedly wrecked Iain’s baked Alaska. There’s a great weight lifted knowing that the worst crisis we’ll suffer is some ice cream gone soupy.
See also: “Terrace House,” an exceedingly polite “Real World”-like franchise brought to Netflix in the United States from Japan.
“The Great British Baking Show” also shows a multicultural modern vision: people of all races, religions and backgrounds, struggling to conquer dampfnudel or some other sweet obscurity. Watching a group of strangers bond, no matter their prior affiliations or competitive rank, counters all the ways in which we’re pushed to tribally insulate and view anyone different with suspicion.
Nice Reality TV also offers us a marker of how far we’ve come. The rebooted “Queer Eye” has crossed even more into tear-jerker territory than the first generation. The world is less hostile to five gay strangers than it used to be. In the series premiere, Tom, a 57-year-old Georgia Dad who drinks “redneck margaritas” in his stained recliner, is given the tools to woo a special lady friend into his life. Tom sobs when he says goodbye to the Fab Five and tells his lady friend that he’s never “hung out with gay guys before, and they were great. They were so open with me, and I was open with them.”
His new worldview is the sweet promise of Nice Reality TV: Transformation doesn’t always have to be stormy and upsetting. Sometimes, it can just be plain nice.
Margaret Wappler is a writer for The Washington Post.