“What if we made a show where we followed a politician, from the beginning of their career through their presidency?” my boss asked. “Wouldn’t that be crazy?”
This was in 2009 at a reality television production company. I worked in development, the part of television where you are responsible for thinking and imagining what could be made into a television show. A lot of bad (and good) ideas come out of these departments. From a solid show base, you create a formalized pitch and someone tries to sell it to another production company or a channel and, if the other channel or distributor likes it, they commission a pilot or multiple episodes as a proof of concept. If they like that, the show gets a chance on television.
While this process may vary, every show starts from a developed idea—and that political candidate reality show was one of them: a show where we “made” a politician simply by watching them and backhandedly promoting their work and agenda. This wasn’t the worst idea that I had to cringe through (The worst was a competition show we piloted for a network about immigrants competing for a green card.) but it was the only show that was thought up that seemed decidedly wrong. In 2009, we were in the throes of reality television and a budding, new political landscape carried on Barack Obama’s shoulders. The line between documentary and reality was very thick: there was no overlap. You couldn’t stream the two in parallel. There was the observational and there was the pulp. This show would have been pulp.
What was so scary about the idea was that it would have questioned reality by making politics entertainment, taking a potentially enlightening PBS feature and turning it into a serialized Kardashian romp of everyday foibles in DC. I didn’t dissuade my boss from further developing the concept but I neglected to remind him about it and I dragged out the process of thinking up what the show could be until it was eventually forgotten, abandoned with other absurd show ideas like a game show about judging people based on their looks and a show that was literally just a camera strapped to a dog.
This was a different time in television. This was literally another era nearly ten years ago, when reality television was a delightful exaggeration of real life as exhibited by Jon & Kate Plus 8 and A Shot At Love With Tila Tequila. Everyone knew reality shows were faked yet we enabled them to happen because they were cheap to produce and easy to consume. Today, reality shows and stars have evolved from one hit wonders like Adrianne Curry and Evan Marriott to cross-cultural, intra-media walking lifestyle brands like Carla Hall and Gigi Hadid. For the most part, the stars today build a cult around likability and approachability as it relates to a show, either in the literal sense (Hall) or the aspirational sense (Hadid).
Thus, it goes without saying: Donald Trump is a product of the last decade. Likely the original reality star, the business person in the public eye who was known for…being himself, his success in politics is representative of both brand awareness and a disability from actually needing to do anything. Did he actually do any business on The Apprentice? No. I have never seen the show but I have worked on too many reality shows that were crafted in the same regard: the talent—The Donald.—steps in to “diagnose” things with an ear piece in, where an Executive Producer helps them process information and direct storylines that they see happening. The talent—The Donald.—is an elevated contestant, handled in a different way but perceived to be the one in charge. This give-and-take changes per show but Donald very much seems handled.
Trump was normalized then before he was normalized now. He has intellectual, cultural carte blanche because he has brand legacy. He can pussy grab all he wants now (and then) because of his brilliant business acumen as dictated by The Apprentice. You knew him as an agent of change because he was able to fire so many Americans hoping to make it in business. He knew when to hold them and knew when to fold them, on television, with the help of many people invisibly chirping in his ear.
Now that has become real life. That alternate reality, the pulp art, is life. There is no imitation anymore. For a lot of last week I felt guilty, that I had somehow enabled all this by working in reality television, smiling and nodding as equally questionable men thought up “ideas” like producing a politician. The shows we were making in the mid to late aughts were a means to escape reality, of the Bush administration, of war, of whatever. Society enabled us to parade Flava Flav around as a neo-minstrel type looking for love. Our need for these exaggerations of life via television evolved until it peaked and died and here we are today. But, as shows got crazier—from The Bachelorette to The Swan, Dating In The Dark to Dating Naked—so did society.
The types of things we laughed at, the exaggerated persons that seemed so distant and unreal, became normalized as the Internet introduced reality platforms for all. You can get a modeling contract from your mugshot. Aspiring weather personalities start fires for views. A Kim Kardashian sex tape virtual reality experience is coming. These are not normal things yet here we are.
Perhaps this is the future, where reality television once was a fire you kept inside a box for a long time only for it go insane, to get wild, to become so uncontrollable that it consumed everything and became the fire all around us. This is the result and it’s fine.
For that: thank you, reality television. You gave us Donald Trump. We knew this was coming but we never changed the channel.