I have a confession to make: I watched – worse, I enjoyed – The Glee Project, Oxygen’s spin-off from the Fox show in which a bunch of all-singing, occasionally-acting teens attempted to demonstrate that they had what it took to get a seven week guest-shot on the main show. But this weekend’s finale made me think a bit about what we expect from a reality contest.
For those who don’t follow the show – I’m assuming that’s almost everyone who visits this site – the “shock” conclusion was that each of the four finalists won, in their own way. Two finalists managed to get the grand prize, which would’ve been surprising enough considering there was only supposed to be one winner, but then the two runners-up each got offers for two-episode guest-roles on the show, as well. Which, on the one hand, is great for the contestants, and even good for producer/judge/Glee creator Ryan Murphy’s PR, but… Isn’t it a bit of a bait and switch for those watching to see certain people lose?
Here’s the thing: I love well-done reality contests like this. Top Chef? Early Project Runway? Can’t get enough of them; I even adored last year’s weird Works of Art on Bravo. But the appeal of such shows isn’t really seeing who’ll win, as such – It’s buying into the whole soap opera aspect of the whole thing, all the manufactured dramas and “betrayals” and people saying ridiculous things like “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to win” almost convincingly. Really, it’s about signing on to a very particular formula in which you can cheer your favorites and, possibly more importantly, boo at the bad guys.
Every reality contest has bad guys; I’d go so far as to say that it’s the one unavoidable staple of the genre, even moreso than the rules of the contest or even, it seems, having someone win. More often than not, they’re what make the shows fun to watch, and something more than “just” a competition – They create the drama that keeps viewers watching, and generally drive the narrative between the contest tasks through comically pantomime activities. A reality show can live or die on its villains – Why else do you think Hell’s Kitchen or American Idol are so successful? Because both shows make the villains into the judges – and it’s the villains, I believe, that provide the real momentum for a reality contest: It’s not just that we want to see our favorites win, we want to see the bad guys lose.
The Glee Project played up to expectations all the way until the finale, with two villains – Vain, arrogant Alex and cold, insincere Lindsey – making it into the final four. And, in a sense, those expectations were ultimately fulfilled when Damien and Samuel, easily the weaker two performers (Divas make better performers, who knew?), got the grand prize. But, by giving roles in the show to the “bad guys” in the narrative, The Glee Project sneakily sucker-punched the audience, rewarding the villains of the reality show in the same way that Glee‘s Sue Sylvester manages to come out somewhere close to the top no matter what. But where that works on Glee – in large part because that show needs to keep things relatively status quo in order to keep working without breaking formula – it didn’t work here; it broke the formula we’d expected, and unlike the continuing Glee story, we can’t pretend that the villain’s come-uppance has merely been delayed until later.
Normally, there’s a lot to be said for bucking conventions. But when it comes to this kind of thing, it’s not enough to just provide one half of the happy ending viewers expect: for a reality contest’s finale to “work,” someone has to lose. It’s not that all endings are inevitable, but some are necessary to the weird emotional catharsis that the genre demands.
Which is to say: I’m not looking forward to Alex’s guest spot on the third season of Glee.
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