I’ve become, quite accidentally, a devotee of reality television as self-care in recent weeks. I’d always been a fan of things like Top Chef or Project Runway, but had stopped watching some years ago due to an outside influence that turned them from guilty pleasures into shameful ones; something I internalized, sadly. It took the one-two punch of Hulu offering up seasons of both shows on its launch page and a randomly stumbled-upon NYT article about the latest season of Project Runway to draw me back in and, reader, they were everything I need.
There needs to be an essay written — perhaps there already has been — about the way in which the familiarity of these shows is comforting, that each episode is constructed both as a complete narrative in and of itself (Who Will Win being the primary plot, the artificial machinations and rivalries of the contestants as subplots, with special attention spent on one or two contestants’ backstories providing more emotional context each episode) and part of a greater, season-long storyline. That there are few real surprises beyond, perhaps, the winner and loser of each episode isn’t the bug that some complain about; it’s a feature. These shows aren’t watched to be surprised, their value is gladiatorial soap opera.
I’ve written before, I’m sure, about the emotional value of trash culture — that something you enjoy but feel unchallenged by can be relaxing and good for you purely by distracting you from real worries and allowing you to de-stress and let your mind relax from panic mode. It’s on this level that Project Runway and Top Chef work for me, and so, so successfully. Getting sucked in to who’s in and who’s out, or watching chefs screw up during Restaurant Wars, feels like the very best way to unwind after work, and stop thinking about more important things for a brief second.
And then there’s Queer Eye, but that’s another thing altogether…