What Reality TV Is Really Teaching America

Maybe if I watch enough reality TV, I won't be such a sore loser.



It’s award season in the magazine industry, and this year, I’m up for a couple. Oh, this isn’t like the Emmys or the Grammys or even the National Magazine Awards; it’s stuff that only people in a certain segment of publishing even know exists. But it’s a big deal to me, just like it’s a big deal to my husband when the hospital chain where he works gives him a bonus. It’s nice to be noticed, you know?

There’s a banquet and a ceremony in a couple of weeks,  and my editor asked a month or so ago if I wanted to attend. I thought about it, long and hard. It would be really nice to be there if my name gets called as the winner. It would be totally cool to walk up through the tables to the front of the room and get handed my award. I even thought about what I might say in an acceptance speech (although I’m not actually sure there are acceptance speeches at this ceremony), and all the people I’d thank for making this moment possible, yada yada yada. I’d keep it short, of course, and I’d be witty as hell, and everybody would laugh and toast me and think, “Well, no wonder she won.”

But then I thought about the very real possibility that I might not win. In which case, it wouldn’t be cool at all to have to sit there and clap for the other person who won instead, and try to look as if it didn’t matter, as if I’ve already won so many, many awards in my lifetime that this one really wasn’t important at all and that I didn’t mind. And that would have been hard. Because I don’t like to lose.

I don’t like to lose at a friendly game of Scrabble or volleyball. I am, in fact, what might be termed the proverbial sore loser. I’m not the kind of person who sashays up to the net after a loss at pickleball and smiles cheerily while tapping paddles with the other players and saying, “Good game!” Oh, I do all that — but inside, I’m plotting my revenge. I’m more competitive than I should be. If I got a tattoo, it would say “schadenfreude.”

When it comes to TV, I mostly watch sports, naturally. But more and more, I find myself gravitating toward reality TV — or rather, a particular sort of reality TV. I like those competition shows — the ones like The Voice and American Idol and Chopped and Top Chef and Project Runway. You know the format. Every week, somebody wins — and a lot of other somebodies lose.

I’m happy for the winners, sort of. But I’m really fascinated by the losers, and by the grace with which just about all of them accept their fate. Oh, every once in a while somebody gets snippy and says publicly what surely, surely every one of the losers is thinking: I wuz robbed! But for the most part, they summon up a smile and shrug and say, “Oh well. Better luck next time.” Hardly any of them cry, which is what I’m pretty certain I’d do if a panel of judges said mean things about the dress I designed or the song I sang or the appetizer I made and then told me to hit the road.

So I’m gonna keep on watching those shows, and hoping some of that gracious-loser stuff rubs off on me. Last year, one of the Philly Mag writers was nominated for, like, five of these awards. He went to the ceremony. He didn’t win in any of the categories — not one. He’s a nicer person than I am, so I’m sure he smiled and clapped for all the people who won instead of him. I’m sure he’s not still stewing over those losses, wishing disastrous skin conditions and mysterious gastrointestinal maladies on his competition, hoping they get divorced or experience a car crash or are falsely arrested for insurance fraud or have their identities stolen online.

I’m sure he got over it quickly. But if I lose the way he did, my competition might as well know: I’ll be thinking of them. For a long, long time.

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