Kareem Abdul-Jabar described Bravo’s wildly successful Real Housewives franchise in this way: “The villain in this piece isn't the women or the show. They are mere reflections of some dysfunctional aspects of our society that the show allows us to see more clearly. For most of them, I have the same affection as I would a beloved character in a novel. And, like any wonderful novel, I never want it to end.”
Abdul-Jabar points out that reality starlets have opened up the crevasses of society that we don’t often like to indulge. But that point goes further in that now art is imitating life, or as least something like real life. It’s echoing the topics of reality TV from the ambitious politics of former vice presidential nominees (House of Cards), to the dreams of The Voices (Nashville), or the most Desperate of Housewives (Real Housewives).
The television that we all love to hate, be it Real Housewives or Real World, Mob Wives or Basketball Wives, or any of the many Ryan Seacrest productions filling up the airwaves on E!, could arguably have helped paved the gateway to something even better: multidimensional depictions of people onscreen.
A point that goes far beyond letting stars be free to represent feminism by being multifaceted rather than perfect, the best television comes from characters who seem real. And our perception of reality, whether we like to admit it or not, has been shaded by “reality” television and all of its boozy fights, dysfunctional families, famous for being famous stars, and classless classy figureheads.
So is it shocking to then say that reality makes characters like the brilliant philandering booze-hound that is the damaged Don Draper seem more likely? Or that Walter White might actually turn from mild mannered New Mexican chemistry teacher to cancer-plagued Scarface wannabe? Or that Hannah Horvath could be ambitious but applying it in all the wrong places, and that her over entitlement is a symptom of her upbringing and generation that makes her her? Even the well-liked ones, say a Liz Lemon, is fraught with her own hangups about balancing work and family, dealing with the deterioration of friendships, and in general the worst luck in love — until Criss Cross (still one of the best and most under-appreciated puns in recent television history) saves her from most of those troubles.
Reality trainwrecks let us go from the Huxtables to the Kardashians and on to a Modern Family. It pushed us past the group of single, white friends "living in New York trying to make it work" trope that created so many successful sitcoms (looking at you Friends, Seinfeld and even How I Met Your Mother at times) into friend comedies like New Girl.
This is not to say that there weren’t envelope pushing multidimensional characters that were less than perfect on television before. But the The West Wing, which began in the late 1990s is less devilish than something like The Wire, with a 2002-2008 run that comes on the heels of major geopolitical change in the world — and a wave of first-gen train wreck reality show. And then you have the Netflix remake of the 1990 BBC drama with Kevin Spacey as the devilish Francis Underwood (whose initials literally spell F.U.) in House of Cards, who quite possibly could be described as a man with not a single redeeming quality (with a wife that could be described in close to the same way).
Being likable hasn't become nearly as marketable a commodity as being watchable; and the fact that reality stars' lavish lifestyles or career prestige usually can’t cover their moral bankruptcy, has echoed that sentiment, and made it possible for good scripted television to follow that same formula.