The Family, Big Brother - Reality TV can be saved

Adam Shenton 05/11/2008

Reality TV was never meant to happen. No one ever wanted to invent it, not in it's present form, anyway. The continuous parade of desperate simpletons endlessly manipulated by cynical editing in order to grab at ratings by giving Heat Magazine something to write about, that was all an accident.

The original aim of the shows now seen as pioneers of the genre was a degree of realism, whilst they were always intended to be fairly light entertainment the objective was to cover what's real. It was a simple premise: Someone's life is interesting enough for it to occupy all of their time, so surely there must be enough going on to fill a decent half-hour TV show.

This manifesto was corrupted in an extremely short space of time. The Real World was eating itself as soon as it's second series aired, but the true example of the changing meaning of reality can only be edemol's archetypal reality show. Big Brother has become a clichéd mess, but ten years ago it was cracking television.

The first series of Big Brother was like nothing else on telly: a group of people locked in a relatively sparse house; aside from some chickens to look after and the odd task they had nothing to occupy their time except each other. Superior to all subsequent series, part of its success was due to the naivety of the housemates, all of whom hadn't a clue how much attention their actions were drawing. A lot of contestants were actually normal people, which made the group dynamic all the more interesting to witness.

With each year however, the show got more impatient and less willing to simply sit back and let the people be the point of interest. Numerous gimmicks were added to the house, and each new housemate needed their own shtick in lieu of an actual personality. No one seemed to realise that a never ending cavalcade of arguments does not make essential viewing. The inability to walk four meters without starting some sort of shouting match is not an engaging character trait.

There is however some hope for reality TV aficionados. Channel Four series The Family is an attempt to recover the genre from its current nadir by looking back to a thirty-year-old format that helped lay the foundations for modern television.

Ostensibly a remake of the 1974 show of the same name (though the opening voiceover still claims the show is “unprecedented”), the program follows a family of five as they go about their normal life. No fancy tasks, challenges or celebrity guests, the Hughes' go about their usual business. Shot entirely with remote cameras all placed within the family home. It feels intimate, it even feels real. Microphones buzz when phones go off; when the dad goes off on one we're shown him switching the cameras off one by one

The family covered are as average as a family can expect to be, though some are more watchable then others. Youngest daughter Charlotte passes by with little screen time, but fourteen year old Tom aimlessly bounces around the house, daydreaming and play-acting to himself. Jane, the mum, is pleasant enough but Simon the dad is at times truly entertaining. An absolute specialist in dad-humour, at times he mercilessly winds up his children, other times he is endlessly wound up by their actions.

The only one of them who could claim to be a stereotypical reality contestant is nineteen year old Emily, who goes out every night and argues with everyone in earshot. Rather then grating however, her self-destructive behaviour becomes drama as it affects those around her. These people don't all split off at the end of the season run, they're family, and with each other for life.

That's not to say the show is perfect. When the show deviates from it's rawness it begins to fall into the usual reality bugbear of fakery. The opening voiceover from a family member devolves the whole thing into lame semi drama, as does the occasionally heavy handed editing. The production seems determined to shoe-horn everything into a drama format, putting episodes together with a contrived 'theme'. The mum's fortieth party becomes about aging, and then each of the family members has their own little episode. Also annoying is the incidental music. It's better when the sounds are those of the radio and telly in the background, and the editing trundles along like the family's life.

That said, it's still infinitely preferable to MTV's unstoppable tirade of reality that barely bothers to hide what's false. Or the Steve Jones-fronted embarrassment When Women Rule The World.

No one wants to see attention hungry losers, not really. The spectacular and the staged are the preserve of fiction, not a half-arsed half-fiction. If you aim to put 'real' people on television use them to their strengths. Let them form friendships, bonds and relationships and document it. Do that and you might just end up with something worth watching.

The Family comes to an end this week weds on CH4, ahead of this you can watch a preview of the final episode here

Can Reality TV be saved?Or did it eat itself a long time ago?