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Lillian’s Lowdown: Netflix doesn’t know how to make reality TV

I’m a big fan of reality television. I don’t care that it’s formulaic, or fake, or low-brow. It’s entertaining, and even though it’s a genre that is often disregarded as “trash TV,” it’s still difficult to get right. After consuming a lot— a lot— of reality TV, I’ve developed a discerning eye for what makes a reality show great. Unfortunately, Netflix reality shows tend to fall below the bar.

There are three elements that can make or break a reality show. First, and most importantly, there needs to be drama. Drama is the lifeblood of reality TV. It needs to be frequent, petty, and blown far out of proportion. There need to be fights about isolated incidents that span multiple episodes and which are mentioned two seasons later, there needs to be mild missteps and egregious blunders, and there needs to be series-long animosity between cast members. 

Netflix reality shows lack this kind of conflict. Oftentimes, arguments and fights are toned down, short and missing any sort of bite. 

Compare a show like MTV’s “Floribama Shore,” which features a cast of series regulars with a close but tumultuous bond sharing a house, to Netflix’s “The Circle,” where a cast of season-long contestants are separated and only permitted to speak through a screen.

In “Floribama Shore,” there’s been conflict over everything from emptying a tube of toothpaste to criminal charges over bar fights, but in “The Circle,” no disputes stand out. The biggest concerns are typically over who of the cast members might be the show’s “catfish,” but even then, arguments are low-stakes with little emotion attached to them. 

A reality show needs to move fast, too. Reality shows naturally have a looser narrative than a fully scripted fictional TV show, and while they have a lot of potential for success, they also have a lot of potential to lose the audience’s interest. Something major has to occur, either externally or between cast members, at least once per episode, and the setting or formula must be interrupted semi-frequently. 

Take Bravo’s “Below Deck,” for example. “Below Deck” takes place almost entirely on a yacht and follows the lives of those who serve the boat’s charter guests. Despite its limited setting and predictable formula, it still manages to keep moving at a comfortable pace and produce a fair amount of surprise due to its rotating cast and unexpected hiccups. 

Meanwhile, Netflix reality shows tend to have a pacing problem, especially with shows like “The Circle” and “Love is Blind,” which seem to drag on rather than progress. Cast members spend far too much time in one place having one conversation about one topic. Nothing truly shocking ever happens, with even the most tense moments being somewhat predictable. By the end of it, viewers feel less inclined to move on to the next episode and more inclined to take a nap.

Finally, a reality show needs distinct personalities and at least a few likable cast members. Netflix reality shows have no problem featuring an antagonistic personality but often have too few or too many of them. A show like Netflix’s “Perfect Match” brings on plenty of memorable people from a variety of different Netflix original reality shows, but too many of them are unsympathetic. This brings the discord that other Netflix reality shows lack but lessens the emotional appeal. Viewers want someone to root for along with someone to hate. 

None of this is to say that Netflix reality shows are ill-made and wholly terrible. They’re clearly high production ventures that provide plenty of entertainment, as proven by their popularity, but Netflix original reality shows tend to contain pacing issues, few twists and not enough conflict to sustain interest. There’s room for improvement, and as long as more reality shows are produced for Netflix, I’ll certainly be watching along to see if and how they develop.

Lillian Barry is a sophomore studying journalism at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to share your thoughts? Let Lillian know by tweeting her at @lillianbarry_.

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