Author, actor and all-things real, Hayley Doyle talks reality TV, and why she now prefers to spend her time in the real-life realm
By Hayley Doyle
The family WhatsApp group has been pinging like mad.
And I’ve had to mute.
In truth, it’s a side group. Just the women. We set it up during one of the grim lockdowns when we were hopelessly addicted to Married At First Sight Australia, aka MAFSA. The men were watching it too, of course. And they liked it way more than they’d ever care to admit. But their comments on the group chat just didn’t have that zest of all-female banter. They just didn’t love it as we did. I mean, we really, really loved it. After a day of homeschooling my son and failing miserably to teach him phonics - again - whilst juggling work, a toddler and a swift walk around the block for some exercise, MAFSA was the highlight of our evening. It was PJs on, a bowl of comforting pasta and a huge helping of marital bliss stroke disaster in dreamy Aussie locations. But quite simply, it was love that kept us glued to our screens. The ultimate quest. As a viewer, you wanted the marriages to work out. You wanted to believe that you were watching an experiment that gave the best results possible.
A year later, I watched the next season of MAFSA. I had butterflies as the opening credits rolled. Yes!! My guilty pleasure was making a welcome return. Sure, I got addicted. I got involved. I was super strict on social media, careful not to find a spoiler. The WhatsApp group was lively and we took respectful breaks when one person hadn’t been able to catch up on the latest episode…But by this point, we weren’t in lockdown - thank goodness - and settling back into normal life. Suddenly a 90-minute episode felt like forever now that our diaries were open again. And the repetition. Oh my. Had it been this repetitive last year? I started to wonder whether the amount of fresh content per episode was only about 20 minutes max. Like my family, I would fast-forward all the upcoming shock teasers and repeat scandals, and end up missing something erm, vital. Still, when the final vows took place and we found out who was going to stay together and who was going to break up, I couldn’t wait to follow them on Instagram and see what they were up to. I was ready to embrace an air of satisfaction.
But I felt nothing.
Actually, I lie. I felt icky. A bit meh. As soon as I saw their profiles, I just didn’t care. I was bored. Uninterested. And what’s weird is the fact that I didn’t want to feel this way. I wanted to care! I’d just been on a 30-hour-plus journey with these couples! Suddenly I couldn’t give a hoot about any of them. So this is why I’ve muted the WhatsApp group. I can’t do it again. I hated that empty feeling and refuse to claw my way back.
But that’s the point, you might cry! We often hear that people love reality TV because it doesn’t make them think. I disagree. I don’t like what it makes me think about. This whole culture was born in an era where fat-shaming was acceptable. While toxic comments - thanks to the likes of Simon Cowell, who created a brand out of being nasty, or “honest” as he spun it - are now dated, reality TV stars are generally image-obsessed and viewers cannot help but be influenced or pass judgement. If we think back to the early days of Pop Idol and X-Factor, we were lured into watching delusional wannabes singing out of tune and dancing with two left feet, portrayed like court jesters and circus clowns, before ta-da! And the audience was finally presented with some actual talent.
Well! They’re putting themselves in the firing line! If you’re gonna start acting like an idiot on camera for the whole world to see, we can point a finger and laugh at you, right? A cruel new space had been created for tabloid gossip and as much as we now try to adapt to a “kinder” world, that space still sadly exists for those who buy into it. Despite a prize being the result for many of these reality shows, the only real winner is the media. As American comic, Bob Saget, once said, “I don’t like the negativity of reality TV - the ‘you’re no good, so you have to leave, I choose you, but I thought you really loved me.’ It’s all about how bad people are…” Unless you opt for Pimp My Ride where it helps somebody out, at least?
When Big Brother premiered in 2000 on Channel 4 it was an immediate rating hit. Like many, I was baffled. Why would I watch a bunch of normal people doing nothing in particular in a house all day? Of course, I spoke too soon. I was bitten by the hype. Before I knew it, I was catching glimpses of the 24-hour live feed, hooked on watching the housemates sleep. Who snored? Who got up to use the loo in the middle of the night? I tried to imagine who I’d be friends with. Who I’d avoid. Gosh, could I be a good housemate? Fun? Annoying? Popular? Hated? Suddenly, the excitement of a Friday night went up a few notches. Nobody was venturing to the pub until after the eviction, I mean, it wasn’t like we could check the results on our phones back then, was it? Everybody had a favourite. An opinion. Instead of admiring a superstar for their craft and talent, the whole nation became gripped by people who were becoming famous simply for being themselves. She’s painting her toenails, we love her! He burped, how cute! A new era of celebrity was born.
But when it comes to entertainment that stimulates emotion, from happiness and laughs to absolute heartbreak, surely it’s more worthwhile to care about fictional characters. Allow the story to hook you in. There will be tears, but there will be a triumph. A filmmaker has a point to make and will want to wrap it up somehow, so unlike reality TV, there will be a satisfactory endpoint. You can watch a character’s demise and sympathise without feeling that they’re being exploited for your own enjoyment. You can still feel familiarity and shock and cringe, but never at the expense of another human being. And that’s not to say, oh, I’m only going to watch multi-award winning or high-brow movies from now on. I’m still going to indulge in silly shows and cheesy rom-coms. I’m just not using my time on reality TV anymore.
I don’t think it’s going anywhere, though. Just because I’m giving up on the daily doses of watching paint dry on somebody else’s four walls doesn’t mean the majority agree. Production costs are low. Content is endless. Those shows will keep coming! I know I’ll enjoy reminiscing by watching an old clip of Rylan falling to his knees in disbelief he’d made it to the X-Factor live rounds or Tiffany Pollard’s scream across the Celebrity Big Brother house when Angie Bowie said, “David’s dead.” But if I’ve got 30 hours, I’d like to spend it with people I like, rather than people I might enjoy disliking.