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Dead Tree Alert: What's Right With Reality TV

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In the print edition of TIME this week, I’m marking the 10th anniversary of Survivor (I’ll have a couple thoughts on the season premiere later) with a critical essay on what a decade—or a generation, going back to The Real World—of reality TV has done for us, and to us: “In 1992, reality TV was a novelty. In 2000, it was a fad. In 2010, it’s a way of life.”

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m not exactly uncritical of reality TV, but I also don’t believe in holding it contemptuously with a pair of tweezers; I hate a lot of reality TV and love a lot of it and I’m not ashamed of the latter. More to the point, I think it’s as silly to ask, “Is reality TV good or bad?” as to ask, “Are sitcoms good or bad?” or “Are novels good or bad?”

The answer, of course, is yes. It is good, or bad. And what’s more interesting to me is that in its own way reality TV, don’t laugh, is like jazz: a distinctively American form (albeit with imported influences) that reflects essentials of our culture for better and worse.

By the way, I don’t usually like to shill for newsstand sales here, but if I’ve ever done an article that’s worth getting in hard copy it’s this one—not for my prose but for the massive Sgt. Pepper’s illustration of some of reality’s biggest stars. Including, by the way, Deadliest Catch’s Capt. Phil Harris, who died just as this was going to press, so consider the picture a tribute. RIP. Capt. Phil.