Melody Murray is a former producer with credits including "The Real World" and "Bad Girls Club."
In 2012 she retrained as a therapist, and now observes the behavior of patients, not castmembers.
Murray says our attraction to reality TV stems partly from envy, and partly from a desire for connection.
On a recent afternoon, I sat down to watch reality television with Melody Murray over Zoom.
Seated in her living room, a loft-like space in Seattle, Washington, with big windows and plenty of natural light, Murray cued up "Love on the Spectrum," a Netflix series that follows austic cast members as they search for love. As each individual is introduced, Murray provided a brief run-down of their personality and journey. In one early scene, Chloe, 19, goes on a date. She asks her potential suitor what his hobbies are, and he says he likes to go to the gym.
"To be honest, I have never stepped foot in a gym," she responds.
Murray spent more than a decade producing and directing reality shows including the "Real World" and "Bad Girls' Club." Her job then was to cajole behavior and feelings out of cast members. In 2012, she retrained as a therapist. Now, she dissects those patterns in her patients.
"What I love about this is they are both so honest," Murray told me. "She's not faking that she likes to work out." Later, the two have a frank discussion about sexuality. Chloe's date thought he might be gay, but tried watching gay porn and was unmoved. Chloe is openly bi. The exchange is blunt and to the point.
"Lying to ourselves is a waste of time, ultimately. You see none of that here," Murray said, visibly delighted. "It's fantastic."
Afterward, I binged all of "Love Is Blind," another show we watched together, in two days. It had all the elements I've come to love in a reality show: messy, symmetrical people navigating situations intended to create conflict, drama, and a dizzying array of emotions.
Over the past two decades, reality shows have become a staple in my entertainment diet: "My Strange Addiction Intervention," "Millionaire Matchmaker," the occasional "Bachelor" show, and, in recent years, lots of Bravo, with a focus on the "Real Housewives." In quarantine, my habit accelerated significantly with the introduction of "Love Island," a beautiful mess of a time-suck.
Despite the thousands of hours I've devoted to the genre, I still can't fully explain the appeal. It feels both authentic to my personality and, not infrequently - like after I've watched 20 minutes of adult women screaming at each - a little gross. I wondered if Murray could help me - and millions of other people - understand their attraction.
Growing up in Alvin, Texas in the 70s and 80s, Murray never dreamed of working in reality television
The genre, after all, didn't really exist yet. A few years after graduating from the University of Houston, however, she moved to Los Angeles, landing a job as a runner for "Extra." Telepictures, the film company behind the show, also produced a number of reality shows dominating the cultural landscape at the time, including "The Bachelor."
Murray was compelled by the genre, which used contrived premises to extract real emotion. Her first producer credit was on "Love on the Rocks," in which couples' homes were tricked out with cameras that captured their every move.
"We saw sex, we saw fighting, we saw boredom, we saw everything," Murray said. The crew compiled the highlights, which were then reviewed by a family therapist and a sex therapist, who sat down with the couples and prescribed various interventions.
Murary found the dynamic fascinating. "There was never judgement, there was never criticism, there was just, 'This is what is going on, and let's figure out how to help this family,'" she said. "Where I come from, being from the South and being Black, no one ever talks about their problems. No one talks about what isn't perfect, what isn't figured out."
Her path wasn't strictly linear, but Murray steadily progressed up the reality rungs, landing producer and director roles on shows including "Next," "The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency," "Osbournes Reloaded," and "Bad Girls Club."
Eventually, Murray started seeing a therapist, delving into her own issues. Raised by a single mother who suffered from addiction, "I had such a shitty childhood," Murray said. Her therapist, a no-nonsense middle-aged man who had also survived childhood trauma, offered her empathy and the support she needed to move through shame. "He blew my fucking mind," she said.
These sessions began informing her work as a producer. She said she genuinely wanted to know why they made out with that person; why they fought with that person; why they cried in a particular moment.
"Once your life is out there, then everything you do beyond the show is up for public scrutiny"
Beyond the question of why I watch so much reality TV is the issue of ethics. My concerns are triggered often - by the more obvious personality disorders of various "Real Housewives" (especially when they intersect with on-air parenting), the treatment of race (or lack thereof) by popular franchises like the "Bachelor," and the general practice of watching very young people whose brains aren't fully formed get drunk, say stupid stuff, and fight as a form of entertainment.
Among my many quarantine accomplishments was binging the third season of "Love Island," which aired in 2017. Googling cast members after the finale was an exercise in the dark side of reality television. In addition to garden-variety breakups and promotional appearances, there was tragedy: In 2019, Mike Thalassitis, a contestant who came off particularly poorly, died by suicide.
It's impossible to draw a causal link from Thalassitis' appearance on "Love Island" to his death. But it also feels irresponsible not to connect the two, a glaring instance in which the harmless fun of watching beautiful people come apart on camera doesn't feel so harmless.
Reality television draws a particular kind of person into its orbit, according to Murray. "I think it speaks to the need for validation," she said, even if it comes from absolute strangers. But the decision to allow a crew to film your every move and condense it into an amped-up version of yourself comes with real, often unintended consequences.
"Once your life is out there, then everything you do beyond the show is up for public scrutiny," she said. For someone already primed to base their worth on external validation, this equation can be particularly precarious. "That delicate nature of being someone who wants to be on a reality show plays into how delicate someone can be in every other part of their lives."
When Murray started working in the industry, the impact of a show on cast members' mental health or the broader ethics of the genre didn't really cross her mind. "I was loving the travel and fun of diving into these different worlds," she said. The talent she worked with were adults, she reasoned. They were getting paid, and the application process was lengthy. "You have a lot of time to really process if this situation is going to work for you," she said.
But as she worked on more shows - and got older, and more sensitive to how imperfect self-perception is and how malleable people can be - concerns began to bubble up. To this day, she has little sympathy for the idea that reality television distorts or manufactures character.
Yes, the end result might be edited to play up the more outrageous or controversial aspects of someone's personality, but in general, she believes the final result is a distilled version of who that person was while they were being filmed. Complete fabrication is rarely necessary.
"There are so many people who will step right up and be the 'villain' of a show, or be the douchebag," she said. "A lot of people who will really carry that on with no problem whatsoever."
This was largely before social media, and the widespread understanding that footage "lasts forever," a searchable albatross that stalks you forever. Still, the consequences of airing cast members' concentrated personas, particularly when they were young, vulnerable, and still figuring out who they were and how they wanted to present themselves, began to weigh on her. Even now, Murray suspects it's difficult for many young reality television stars to metabolize the long-term impact of appearing on a popular show.
If she had to pin down the moment that drove her to switch from capturing people's emotional issues on-camera to helping clients work through them in therapy, it was 2011, in Las Vegas. A director on the "Real World," Murray spent a lot of time in the control room, surrounded by dozens of monitors streaming footage from around the house. It was like a "human zoo," she said.
Earlier that day, she'd observed a 23-year-old cast member have a difficult exchange with his mother, who was visiting the set. For Murray, who had grown up in a similar situation, the dynamic felt intimately familiar.
After Ross' mom left, Murray broke protocol and went to see if he was okay. He wasn't. "We sat on the floor and cried together," Murray said.
This impulse was in direct opposition to her job, which "is just to capture what's happening," Murray said. "It's not to intervene."
In 2012, Murray enrolled in the clinical psychology master's program at Antioch University. Today, she has her own private practice in Seattle, Washington.
The skills she uses now have a great deal in common with the skills she developed as a producer. A focus of her work is helping provide context: unpacking how past experiences, home environments, and early familial relationships continue to shape the present, everything from who we are drawn to romantically to how we handle conflict to why we seek out chaos. Context, she's found, helps people move through shame by tracing patterns back through the generations.
Reality TV offers human interaction without the hard work of participation
Part of the reason I like reality television is the mindless pleasure of watching beautiful people parade through a procession of shiny, luxurious backdrops. There's also an element of smugness: my life is far from perfect, but at least I'm not getting wasted on camera or flipping over tables to make a point.
Murray suggested part of the draw might also be envy. "A lot of times when people have conflict with someone, they ghost them. They ice them out; there's no confrontation," she said. On reality TV, however, the go-to response to any disagreement, no matter how small, is direct confrontation, ideally at a public event with numerous onlookers.
As someone who struggles with conflict at any level, this talent - the ability to shout one's feelings at friends and virtual strangers alike - is something akin to inspirational.
At its core, though, my attraction is more basic. Reality television lets me watch people who are far more interesting than me intermesh their lives in ways I never would; it provides some semblance of human interaction without the effort of actual participation. It's like looking into a neighbor's window, but with far more staging and drama.
When my mood is bad and the prospect of talking to anyone feels like a new way to screw up, other people's loud, messy, semi-manufactured realities are especially comforting.
Murray suspects a certain loneliness is a motivating factor on the other side, too. "I think what happens when you are considering being on a reality show is that perceived connection to people," she said. "But those people are absolute strangers."
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