Reality TV Reunion Shows: Promoting Violence Cloaked as Healing



In a previous blog post, I explored the idea of reality show producers as puppeteers and cast members their marionettes. No where is the metaphor for this relationship more apt, than during the apex of each show's season finale: The Reunion.

The concept of reunion is about coming together. Often for closure and to salve some of the wounds inflicted, especially those that were non-intentional. However, on reality TV, the reunion show amounts to little more than a showdown at high noon. Women are seated on couches like opposing teams on a bench. Each group is organized based on how that seasons friendships and loyalties have aligned. Rivals and or frenemies are poised for a face off, the obvious tension between them coiled tightly like a spring.

Seated on the “throne” between the two groups is the reunion host, who serves as both instigator and moderator. Daytime TV host Wendy Williams recently hosted the reunion of TV One’s R & B Divas and Bravo’s Andy Cohen is a familiar fixture during the reunions of his wildly successful shows featuring predominately Black casts, the Real Housewives of Atlanta and Married to Medicine. Both are exceptionally adept at walking the fine line between instigating and probing the behavior of the cast. Hosts also use this as an opportunity to engage directly with viewers and fans by sharing questions (and critical comments) from viewers and fans, queries which often only serve to put cast members in the position of defending themselves not only from their show frenemies, but also from their loyal audience of viewers.

The energy on these shows is laden with anticipation. After all, this is the moment when cast members are expected to atone for the past seasons sins-or at the least, offer some sort of rational explanation for their dysfunctional behavior. The implicit expectation of the reunion is that cast members will explain their bad behavior and/or words and olive branches will be extended to anyone that she has offended or harmed during the season.

What is not explicitly outlined is that the reunion show form is probably the most opportune moment for a cast member to do or say something significantly controversial enough to solidify her place on the following season’s show. Let’s face it: on reality television, nice girls finish last and lose their contracts. (Real Housewives of Atlanta’s DeShawn Snow was among the show’s first casualties simply because she was just “too normal”).

By now, the formula is in place. In order to drive ratings, a cast member must be willing to push the envelope with increasingly greater and greater levels of ratchet behavior during the season, with her grand performance taking place during the reunion. Perfect case in point, the recent reunion show of Love & Hip Hop Atlanta during which a melee broke out between multiple cast members, all vying to be Queen Bee for the next season.

From a purely business perspective, I get it. Over the top reality show violence and dysfunction drives ratings, which drives advertising, which drives revenue, which drives the longevity of a show. Outside of the damaging racial stereotypes, emotional and physical abuse, and overall show dysfunction, the problem about a reunion show is in its veiled intention and Machiavellian way in which the producers and hosts secure ratings by ensuring that a volcanic explosion between cast members happens. And don’t get me started on the omnipresent security teams on hand. Their presence sends a message to the viewer that the producers are committed to protecting the physical safety of their cast. That they’re in fact not supporting the violent behavior of their cast.

The reality is that the very presence of security teams ensures that a woman who would ordinarily not leap across a couch to attack her nemesis is virtually guaranteed to do it because in her mind she knows that the fight won’t get out of hand. That she (and her target) won’t be seriously hurt because security will make sure the fight is broken up before things get too messy. Which then empowers her to feel confident enough to go crazy on a show and not suffer any real consequences for her behavior. Which isn’t something that happens in the real world.

In my opinion, there is no difference between a reality TV reunion show and the contrived, confrontational formula of the Jerry Springer, Ricki Lake, and Jenny Jones formats of the 1990’s. Just as viewers eventually grew disgusted by these formats, it’s my hope the same will occur with the reality show reunion. There is nothing real about the reunion. It’s just an opportunity for producers to sling more violence all while cloaked with words by the hosts such as “closure” “moving on” and “understanding”.

Isn’t it time for us to wake up and smell the manipulation?

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