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Expert warns reality TV will soon go too far

Dec. 12, 2011 at 8:49 AM ET

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There's no need for a spoiler alert when it comes to discussing these reality TV couples. Viewers already know where the on-screen action is headed.

Anyone else feeling a little deja vu out there in reality TV land lately?

I sure am. And if you’re watching "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" or "Kourtney & Kim Take New York" these days, there’s a good chance your Spidey sense is also tingling. We know exactly where each of these shows are going before they’ve even aired: "Real Housewives" lost one of its husband characters, Russell Armstrong, to suicide in August, and Kim Kardashian’s much-hyped marriage to Kris Humphries was kaput even before "Kourtney & Kim" started airing.

Frankly, it's creeping me out a little.

Not that things started that bad, relatively speaking: "Real Housewives" kicked off with its usual outrageous parties and catfighting, with crutches being hidden away and chickens being soaped up prior to cooking. But ever since Russell Armstrong started popping up in episodes, the weird factor heated up something fierce. Last week the couple was shown in therapy, with Russell declaring his marriage was "almost fixed."

Meanwhile, on "Kourtney & Kim," you have a marriage that was broken from the start; just a few episodes into this new season Kris was preparing to live apart from his new bride so he can train for the NBA. Because, you know, there are no basketball courts in New York City. 

So yes, that’s what that feeling is: Creepy, with a dash of queasy and a jigger of schadenfreude. It feels like the natural next step for the voyeuristic medium, which has long promised intimate looks at families not our own, and in the process taken us just about as far as you can go into those lives. Then the lives spilled out into reality so fast that the cameras couldn’t keep up. Now, we’re left watching two slow-moving train wrecks in action and it’s hard to look away.

"People will watch to see if we can find signs of 'did we see that coming?'" said Robert Galinsky, founder of the New York Reality TV School. "'Was I a good enough detective to see the signs that Russell Armstrong was going to take his own life?' 'Did I tap into my inner David Caruso and detect that Kim was faking her wedding?'"

Arguably, there's some good coming out of this. Perhaps producers are refusing to submit to self-censorship and illuminating domestic violence, suicide, and bad marriages. Ultimately, it’s about ratings. And as long as viewers tune in, they’ll give us whatever we want from the reality buffet -- even if we get indigestion.

Reality is all about the here, and the now -- if it’s done, it's over. So they have to keep pushing the envelope. And with both "Housewives" and "Kourtney & Kim" we’ve been invited to watch the evolution of two of the worst things that can happen to couples -- sudden death and divorce. It's hard to imagine that other reality shows won’t find some way to give us more somewhere down the line.

Galinsky figures we haven’t even gotten close to ultimate reality TV: "The line we cross is when we see something ultra-violent -- domestic violence or the like -- live," he said. "Reality TV still has a filter, yet a questionable one, and we haven’t crossed the threshold yet, but we'll see it soon in the form of a murder, suicide or some other magnificent violent act that will make its way onto the screen."

Waiting for that "magnificent" violence to erupt may be some viewers' idea of a good time. But what we have now, the slow crawl to the inevitable ending we know is coming, doesn’t really feel much like entertainment any more. It’s evolved into something else, something we may not have a word for yet.

"Real Housewives" and "Kourtney & Kim" routinely inspire us to chuckle at apparently shallow people and their apparently shallow lives, which is all well and good when it’s just poultry being washed the wrong way, or expensive earrings going missing in the ocean. But when reality turns truly real, we don’t know what to do with it -- so we put it in amongst the other wacky goings-on, where it just doesn’t fit. It turns death and divorce into something else we can secretly find entertaining in from afar.

Is that what we really want to get out of a relaxing night on the sofa?

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