Tuned In

Reality TV: Bringing Families Closer Together

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Afro-Blue, the Tuned In Jrs.' personal favorite, on The Sing-Off.

Being a TV critic means that I have a job that, as far as my kids are concerned, is essentially like being paid to eat candy. But I get to share few of my goodies with them. Daddy is not likely to bond with the Tuned In Jrs (7 and 10 years old) over Breaking Bad or Homeland, and although they can both identify Locke and Hurley on sight, it will be some years before we break out the Lost DVDs.

When I was their age, I watched whatever my parents happened to watch in primetime–M*A*S*H, Happy Days, a few in-retrospect-age-inappropriate dramas. Today, thanks to niche programming, DVRs and maybe the general protectiveness of my generation of parents, there’s parents’ TV over here, and kids’ TV over there.

With one exception: of all things, reality TV. The Sing-Off and Top Chef have made the Tuned In Jrs. greater authorities on a cappella vocals and sous vide cooking than I was before at least age 30.

When reality TV swept primetime with the debuts of Big Brother and Temptation Island, people had lots of guesses as to what would come of it, but I don’t recall anyone predicting that it would become the new family viewing. But at least from my anecdotal experience, we’re not alone: I know families who don’t watch primetime sitcoms and dramas with their kids, but get together to watch Masterchef or Survivor.

There’s reality TV and reality TV, of course; I’m not planning on exposing my kids to Jersey Shore anytime soon. Other parents might be bothered, say, by the stream of bleeped profanities in Top Chef. (I just use it as a teachable moment to explain that the phrase “swear like a sailor” actually applies better to chefs. Reality TV is educational!)

But since they’re essentially oversized game shows, competition reality shows are generally straightforward and free of complicated subtext, amusing without the grating tone of sitcoms “made for kids.” (I love me some Phineas and Ferb, but if my kids never learn of the existence of live-action Disney Channel and Nickelodeon comedies, I will have done my job.)

Probably more so than any scripted show we might watch, they’re interactive—you don’t want to know how long or how often we’ve argued the merits of, say, The Sing-Off’s Pentatonix vs. Afro-Blue. And I’ve even gaind appreciate for some “adult” reality shows by watching them with my kids. I didn’t get the appeal of the first season of Top Chef: Just Desserts, with its goofball challenges, compared with the show’s regular edition, but my kids have opened my eyes: where standard Top Chef is a drama, Just Desserts is an absurdist comedy. (Chicken cake! Pork and beans brownies!)

There are certainly places I draw the line: I don’t see much inappropriate about American Idol for my kids, for instance–I just want to steer them clear of it because I’ve liked the show less the last few seasons. The Sing-Off, on the other hand, has just the right mix of earnestness, dorkiness and low stakes.

With those low stakes, however, have come low ratings even by NBC’s standards, so it may be that The Sing-Off will end up teaching them their first, valuable lesson about what it’s like to fall in love with a show that gets cancelled (or at least demoted to a holiday special again). The Tuned In Jrs., of course, are baffled that the show isn’t more unpopular, so I’ve used that as a teachable moment as well: sometimes, other people just have no taste.

You see? Reality TV really is educational.

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