The Reality TV Villain Is Gone. But Is That A Good Thing?

- The Bachelor -
The Reality TV Villain Is Gone. But Is That A Good Thing?

"I'm not here to make friends." It's an adage that's as old as time, or, at least, as old as Ryan Seacrest's frosted tips. It was the hallmark phrase of many reality TV stars in the early to mid-2000s who had personalities that were camera-friendly, but never, you know, actually friendly. In fact, they were quite the opposite of likable: they were malicious, chaotic, outrageous… they were almost driven in their shamelessness.

And they were right to be. Ever since Richard Hatch claimed the $1 million prize on the 2000 finale of the first season of Survivor (which also happens to be the first series to feature the phrase, "I'm not here to make friends"), it became clear that, when it came to reality TV, it paid to be bad. Reality competition series were built for people willing to break the rules and the hearts of those around them, and by doing so, the villainous contestants were creating future disposable income for themselves with their earned prize money, and great TV for networks and audiences. Win-win, right?

Until recently. The past few years has introduced the ultimate plot twist: the gradual erasure of the reality TV villain. And some long-running series are struggling because of it.

The Bad Old Days

Can you name the winner of Season 1 of The Apprentice? I'll give you a minute.

...

I imagine some of you managed to pull Bill Rancic's name out of that overflowing filing cabinet in your brain. But I also imagine all of you can name Omarosa Manigault Newman, the reality TV villain-turned-real life villain who was as inescapable in 2004 as ringtones. In fact, she didn't even need her last name — "Omarosa" was enough to conjure images of a modern-day Cruella de Vil who fed off of message board vitriol instead of puppies.

In fact, most reality stars of the mid- to late-2000s who actually built careers in the genre could be classified as villains: Russell Hantz turned campsite vandalism into repeated stints on Survivor and his own A&E series; Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag turned their supporting roles on The Hills into starring roles in the tabloids; and Flavor of Love's New York became such a star, fans rooted for her to find love in not one, but two seasons of I Love New York.

In modern reality TV's infancy, being normal or, worse, nice just didn't cut it. Otherwise, we would be able to name Dina Manzo, Aaron Buerge, and Tina Wessen just as easily as we can name Danielle Staub, Juan Pablo Galavis, and Jonny Fairplay.

Image: CBS

Back then, there was a very specific recipe for finding a villainous break-out star on a series. A producer writing under the pseudonym James Callenberger told Vulture in 2016 that while casting directors typically looked for people who were honest and not self-conscious for general casting, "for villains, you need two extra ingredients: delusions of grandeur and susceptibility to producers’ persuasion."

But as reality TV matured, so did its subjects.

Today's Real World

When volunteering as tribute for the Reality TV Games, you're accepting your role as a victim of editing. Your fate is in the hands of producers and editors, who — even to this day, as we learned with Vanderpump Rules — manipulate behavior and footage to favor ratings.

Production owns your narrative, and, as a 2000s reality TV villain, you either leaned in to cash out (Laguna Beach's Kristin Cavallari) or allowed your storyline to end with the finale (Project Runway's Wendy Pepper). But, in 2020, when the credits roll, the scrolling begins. The proliferation of social media in the last decade has redistributed the power — with every negative edit comes an Instagram Story from a cast member speaking their truth. Whereas personalities used to fade into the post-series ether hosting Justin Bobby and Jade Cole before social media became mainstream and unavoidable, contemporary cast members now understand that they’re crafting long-term personal brands the minute they step on set.

And who wants their personal brand to be “villain”?

No one who is looking to make money, at the very least. With TV appearances comes more social media followers; with social media followers comes paid #sponcon opportunities. (Mediaix estimated that Bachelor alums, at the very least, can make between $400,000 and $1M on Instagram, depending on the size of their followings.) But, like any brand, influencers have to be focused on honing a palatable image — bad behavior doesn't necessarily attract marketing budgets. So why play the villain to allow a network to rake in millions, when you could play safe and profit off of your image even after you leave the show?

Producers should have seen this coming. What else would you expect when you seek out social media savvy cast members for your series? Robyn Kass, the longtime casting agent Big Brother and other CBS series, told Variety back in 2018 that the show's process for finding its stars has shifted largely online. (As for how they used to find reality TV stars? "We walked the streets of Santa Monica or went to nightclubs and bars, talking to people we saw and asking for their phone numbers," she told Variety.) If you're good enough at social media to be discovered by Hollywood, then you're good enough at social media to control your own narrative.

And this is exactly what's plaguing one of Kass' shows.

Out With The Old

During the first Big Brother: All-Stars season in 16 years, there's been quite a bit of conversation about "old-school" vs. "new-school" gameplay both inside and outside the house. The former encourages risky nominations and erratic voting with a social game that allows you to slip through the chaos; the latter encourages unanimous voting and group-style gameplay in the hopes of riding a large alliance for as long as possible. While "old-school" players made it a practice to rock the boat, "new-school" players are more likely to hide safely in the cabin.

By why? Partly, it's true that Big Brother 16, the season that introduced the power of large alliances, simply proved an aligned majority to be almost an unbeatable strategy in the game. But in the years since, it's also become clear that there's little incentive to cause chaos — or, frankly, to win. You want to stay in the house as long as possible to build your brand on screen — and, if you happen to win, that's icing on the cake. If you don't, well, at least you can shift your chyron from Fitness Model to Social Media Influencer.

Image: CBS

While some might argue "old-school" players are more evolved than "new-school" cast members, it's simply that the world has evolved. But the game isn't evolving alongside it. What that means — to the chagrin of the fabulous and tragically ousted Janelle Pierzina, who tried to encourage fellow All-Stars cast members to vote in the interest of winning the game — is that you can no longer expect the unexpected when it comes to Big Brother. Without viable villains, willing to work harder for the producers than their profiles, the series becomes predictable, skewed in favor of the first Head of Household, with live feeds that are staler than anything you'd eat while on slop.

It’s not the only series suffering from this. The Amazing Race has made it too much of a practice to borrow from Big Brother’s already underwhelming cast members, and while Survivor: Winners at War was a blast, the franchise hadn’t had a season with stand-out personalities since 2018’s David vs. Goliath.

Even worse news for long-running series, for shows like The Bachelor, the narrative has shifted to make the franchise itself the villain. Olivia Caridi, who appeared on Ben Higgins’ season and was cast as the villain, parlayed the role into 200,000 Instagram followers; a podcast, Mouthing Off with Olivia Caridi; and a sort of Bachelor martyrdom that made fans question the series’ motives, and led to a (half-assed) apology from Chris Harrison four years later. And it’s obvious to any viewer just how problematic it was for the show to cast The Bachelor’s Corinne Olympios as a franchise villain after watching her deeply troubling season on Bachelor in Paradise.

I'm not arguing that the death of the reality TV villain in an Instagram age is a bad thing, though. Anyone who has watched Survivor or Big Brother in the last 10 years can attest that bad behavior isn't always fun to watch — just see Survivor: Islands of the Idols and Big Brother 15. We've simply come to a time where reality TV has to evolve past strategy games that encourage back-stabbing and low-blows. If your series requires a villain to be interesting… maybe the game just isn’t interesting enough.

Image: Netflix

There are some disruptors. Netflix's The Circle is just one example of a modern strategy game that makes for great TV and great vibes. The game itself is interesting enough to survive on its premise — watching legitimately good human beings navigate its twists and turns make it even more refreshing and fun to root for. And even Love Is Blind's Jessica "Messica" Batten was more indecisive thirty-something than villain, creating conversation around a series that was thankfully void of the mean-spirited plot devices that the era that brought you The Swan would find impossible to resist. Jessica was, dare I say it, relatable in her villainy.

And, in 2020, isn’t that all we need? During the year that killed hugs, handshakes, and high fives, we’re searching for escapism through human connection more than ever. And that comes in the form of series and authentic characters that fuel conversation — not hatred.

So, yes, in 2020, the traditional reality TV villain is dead. Because, as it turns out, we’re all actually here to make friends.

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