No genre endures more disparagement than reality television. Detractors claim it’s empty, stupid, even corrosive to society. This point of view is so pervasive that Lucas Mann begins “Captive Audience,” his new book about reality television, with a confession: “The genre means a lot to us, to me. I’ve never expressed that sentiment with even a gesture toward sincerity, because it’s embarrassing. But I think I mean it. Sincerely. At least for now I do.”
Despite this conditional admission, “Captive Audience” is a multifaceted defense, part scholarship, part memoir. Mann mobilizes the work of critics such as Roland Barthes to add academic rigor to his project, and he interviews TV editors and producers. Whether you adore or abhor reality television, you’ll come away from “Captive Audience” with a rich sense of what it is, how it is made and what it means.
Among the most interesting findings revealed by the experts is that for fans of reality TV, “neither voyeurism nor fantasy were chief motivations. . . . The main sensation was that of time passing imperceptibly, and the genre was most popular among those lacking in social interaction, hoping to find some background companionship as the time passed.” Mann follows up this research with anecdotal confirmation from his own experience. When he’s alone, reality television is there with him.
More important, it is also there when Mann is not alone. The beating heart of his book is an examination of reality TV’s role in Mann’s relationship with his wife. It is their shared obsession, and he recounts conversations, arguments and quiet moments that are born from it. Stranger still, he presents this in an epistolary form, writing not about her, but to her. It’s jarring at first, and then it’s surprisingly endearing.
The reality star who most interests Mann and his wife is NeNe Leakes on “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.” Introducing herself on the show, Leakes said, “If you just ask anybody about me, pssh, NeNe, she’s real fun.” Mann then zooms in on the dissonance between her generic expensive kitchen and her exuberant personal style. This tension, Mann explains, is what makes her “voraciously watchable.”
Later in the book, he takes a step back and considers the process by which “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” and Leakes in particular made their way into his life. Andy Cohen is the steward of the “Housewives” franchise, and Mann expresses distaste for the way Cohen has staked his claim over Leakes and her talents. Then he admits his hypocrisy: He and his wife are a “straight white couple setting aside our Tuesday nights to giggle along to a gay white man’s self-proclaimed fantasy of black femininity, still finding joy in the way we parrot lines back to each other in voices that are not our own, all too happy to dub our stolen performances problematic as we continue.” Mann does not make an effort to justify their actions or explain them. He and his wife are simply participants in a strange, complex form of entertainment.
Mann’s conflicted confession reflects this medium.“Captive Audience” probes at what memoir and reality television share, but that subject is more interesting in practice than in theory. In the most striking passages, he describes watching his wife, both in her profession as an actress and in her leisure time on the couch. In one instance, she’s recovering from serious injuries sustained during a car accident: “I was in awe of you,” Mann writes, “even just the way you giggled at whatever we happened to be watching, wincing but still allowing yourself to giggle.”
He offers many similar passages, and each time they feel like the kind of statement one might not admit to a friend or partner but would say to a camera — as though he’s a survivor in a soundproof booth.
Bradley Babendir is a freelance writer in Boston.
By Lucas Mann
Vintage. 272 pp. Paperback, $16