ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Tonight's the finale of "The Bachelor's" 25th season on ABC. It's been a controversial season, and we're not going to get into the details of that just now. But our next guest argues that this show, like all of reality TV, teaches us lessons about our culture and our society. Mariah Smith hosts the podcast "Spectacle." Each episode focuses on one reality TV franchise. And she told me the idea that these shows teach us something interesting about ourselves is a concept she's been talking about with her family since she was a kid.
MARIAH SMITH: My dad was a professor, and we all had TVs in our room. And we could essentially watch anything, but we would have to discuss it afterwards. So if I wanted to watch "MTV Spring Break," I could watch it at 8 years old. But I would have to talk about, OK, how are the women being treated in this? What do we see about human behaviors?
SHAPIRO: What was the show that first got you hooked on reality TV as a fan before you became an expert?
SMITH: I would say the first show that got me hooked is "The Real World." And I remember watching "The Real World," the Hawaii season where Ruthie ended up going to rehab in the middle of the season. And I was like, wow, this is quality television.
SHAPIRO: Tell me what you mean when you say quality television because quality television is different from prestige television, right?
SMITH: It is. It's very different. I was shocked at the reality in the show because I was so young, and I was so far removed from anything that was happening, you know, in that house or in that sort of age bracket. And I just felt that it was so raw and real that I couldn't imagine any other show hitting the nail on the head as well as "The Real World" did.
SHAPIRO: You know, one thread that runs through many of these shows is that they bring together people of different backgrounds, whether that's, like class, race, geography, sexual orientation, whatever. And in your podcast, you look at how much this has actually shaped American culture as opposed to just reflecting it, like in the episode where you focus on "The Real World" and specifically Season 1 of "The Real World." Tell us about that.
SMITH: So we really look at where America was then, and it's sort of spooky. It reflects almost exactly where we are now, and that show was in 1992. And it broke down race. It broke down socioeconomic differences. It broke down sexuality. One of the key moments on "The Real World," which I find fascinating, is Norman, who we spoke to on the podcast, was in that original cast, and he's a gay man. But on the show, they said he was bisexual for...
SMITH: ...No other reason but to say they were afraid of diving deeply into the word gay.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SPECTACLE")
NORMAN KORPI: They had to direct somebody to say bisexual because the advertisers were definitely pushing up against something like this, which - I found out much later on that it was very difficult to, you know, sell a show.
SHAPIRO: Right. There were soft-pedaling this for middle America.
SHAPIRO: Or all of America.
SMITH: Exactly. And speaking of, there was a cast member on the show, Julie, who was from Birmingham, Ala., who had really had no interaction with people different than her. She was a young, white woman. And they showed a Confederate flag at the beginning of her segment. They showed that she was truly part of the Deep South. And I think that just by watching these people - as "Real World" famously says, these seven strangers living in a house - you see how it's possible for you to interact with different people and differences. And you're getting a real example of that, and hopefully you can emulate some of that in your real life.
SHAPIRO: You say in this podcast that each show is a time capsule of the moment in which it's produced. Can you give us an example or two?
SMITH: Yeah. So in "The Real Housewives Of Orange County," in the midst of it, as the seasons went on, it was in the middle of one of our housing crises. And in I think Season 4 or 5, there was a housewife, Lynne Curtin, who was in the middle of that, and she got evicted from her home.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE REAL HOUSEWIVES OF ORANGE COUNTY")
RAQUEL CURTIN: Mom? Some guy just, like, comes in with, like, papers and says, you've been served. This is your eviction notice.
LYNNE CURTIN: What?
R CURTIN: Yeah.
SMITH: And it showed that, wow, these are real things happening to real people. Granted, it's on a reality show where we don't know how much is manipulated, but that was very - a real and raw moment where we saw her family go through what so many families in the country had been living through at the time.
SHAPIRO: And when you look at a show that's been on for a really, really long time, like - I don't know - "The Bachelor," do you see it evolving to reflect the times? Or do you see it as kind of like a time capsule of when it was created 20-some odd seasons ago?
SMITH: It's totally a time capsule of when it was created 20-something seasons ago because it still holds these heteronormative ideals of marriage, of sexuality, of gender identity and dynamics. And it is slowly, slowly, slowly crawling into the present day, but it really is a relic of the early aughts. It really is something that shows us, wow, this is what we were fascinated by in the year 2001, and it still grabs us today.
SHAPIRO: You know, one critique of reality TV is that it models values that we really shouldn't actually be encouraging...
SHAPIRO: ...Like the way to handle a conflict is by flipping a table or the way to measure somebody's worth is how they look in a bikini or just, like, overconsumption is great. So I don't want to be a buzzkill or a prude, but do you think there is a downside to the impact of reality TV on American culture?
SMITH: I really don't because every piece of media - and I grew up in a home where my parents were very adamant that you can learn from all types of media. And I feel like there is value in every single thing that's on television whether we support it or not. And I don't think - despite some of its drawbacks and despite some of its sort of stuck-in-the-past-ness of it all, I do think they're still these cultural landmarks that help guide us through the years.
SHAPIRO: To state the obvious, our last president was a reality TV star on "The Apprentice." And while each episode of your podcast looks at one show, there has not been an "Apprentice" episode. Are you planning on doing one?
SMITH: Well, so this is just Season 1. And if we get a Season 2, we'll discuss it. But I am not eager to discuss "The Apprentice" even though I know it's so, so valuable and important with how we got to where we are.
SHAPIRO: Why not - just 'cause it's been covered so much in coverage of Trump?
SMITH: It's been covered so much in relation to the former president. And I just think we need to put it to bed for a little bit, and then in a few years we can discuss.
SHAPIRO: OK, last question. If you could get cast on any reality TV show, which one would you choose?
SMITH: Oh, God. I would actually choose "Vanderpump Rules" because...
SHAPIRO: This is, like, the Bravo documentary-style Lisa Vanderpump "Housewives" spinoff.
SMITH: Yes, yes, because even though I'd be a very obvious newcomer, I love the history that the cast members have with one another. And it makes the show so spectacular that I would just love to...
SHAPIRO: You wrote a restaurant review of her restaurant.
SMITH: I did.
SMITH: I did. So clearly, I love Lisa Vanderpump's projects. But I feel like they have such a great connection and such great chemistry that the TV they make is out of this world.
SHAPIRO: Mariah Smith is host of the reality TV podcast "Spectacle."
Thank you so much for talking with us about it.
SMITH: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAISE YOUR GLASS")
MEMOIR: (Singing) Just raise your glasses high.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.