The Ultimate Reality Show
Updated: Jul 27
The latest series of Love Island is in full swing. You don’t need me to tell you. It’s a national conversation that sparks heated debate between friends or strangers about the cartoonishly attractive islanders and the unreal world they inhabit.
The great irony of reality TV is that for the most part it isn’t real. While a few shows may resemble documentaries, most have contrived plot lines that heighten the drama and spectacle. These days there is a reality show about almost anything, from dating and baking to runways and races. Reality shows dominate the media landscape, have spawned a clan of Kardashians that people cannot keep up with, and launched the unlikely political career of a reality star named Donald. Clearly reality TV needs to be taken seriously, if it has the power to take over American politics, shape our culture and even our very perception of truth.
Reality shows have a formula, and are usually dreamt up around the thematic of an event or an industry standard or a group microcosm. Shows based on pure events are a series of discrete encounters experienced by other people in different roles, from emergency first responders to lusting low-budget daters. You watch one scenario after another, witnessing dramas play out between relative strangers. Alternatively, reality shows led by industry judges purport to teach us about the norms of their industry through competition between amateurs striving to become a singing idol, master chief or chosen apprentice. The winners are conditioned to meet a certain kind of norm, not really representative anywhere else, that corresponds to the values of the industry interpreted by those judges.
The third formula for reality viewing is through a microcosm where selected people live in their own world, inside a house or on a love island. These group microcosms are often blended with competition to force group interaction and social negotiations, and sometimes structured as a contest of skill (although skills matter little and alliances matter more). Our interest is held by the forming and reforming, the betraying and sticking together, of participants within their microcosm.
One of the longest running reality shows was conceived as an ambitious science experiment that gripped hundreds of millions of viewers. You could be forgiven for not hearing about it, as it aired twenty-five years ago. It was a far-sighted, eccentric living laboratory called “Biosphere 2” (Biosphere 1 is more commonly known as Earth) where eight people were sealed off inside a three-acre glass enclosure located in Arizona, for two years. The aim of the programme was to see how a stable and productive closed ecosystem could function and become self-sustaining.
Biosphere 2 was designed to be a model for how humans could live in equilibrium with their environment. The bubble was fully enclosed, open to energy from the Sun but closed to any new material, including fresh air. Scientifically, the challenge in creating this liveable environment was in understanding the deep interconnections and in working out the ‘carrying capacity’ of the microcosm for the eight people and other species. Eight different ecological systems, or biomes, were built inside Biosphere 2, from aquatic and agricultural zones to a marsh, savannah and desert. Each was recreated with its own soil, plant and animal life. The intention was to start with a high level of biodiversity, with around 3,800 living species sealed within the glass walls.
Using cameras, television and online forums, coverage of the experiment reached 600 million people. Life inside the microcosm was inherently dramatic, and fatal for many species. Each person had responsibility for an individual biome. With limited resources and everything so connected, people were conflicted and faced with excruciating decisions they could not ignore. What if more rain was needed for plant growth to absorb the carbon dioxide building up inside, killing off some species and converting the desert into savannah? How much time should each person devote to their science experiments and how much to growing food for their survival? Should the community run their world according to their needs and consciences, or following the direction from project organisers on the outside?
Life inside did not go to plan. The community ultimately split into two factions despite the shared ultimate goal of the project, increasing the emotional stress of isolation. Everyone wrestled with the physical stress of chronic hunger. Oxygen levels sank to inexplicably low levels (later understood to be the side effect of absorption by unsealed concrete in the structure), despite desperate attempts by those inside to control the atmosphere. After a year, with the lives of the participants threatened by oxygen deprivation, the seal was broken to let in more oxygen from outside. Despite this life-saving breach, mass extinction of species still occurred with around forty percent of the original 3,800 species killed. To make things worse, cockroaches and ants filled the niches left by many of the extinct insect species, overrunning the environment.
Biosphere 2 ran its course and there are many valuable lessons from the experiment and the reality of an evolving system that resists our attempts at control. Both the failures and successes are very relevant to our present condition. For two years when the experiment was live, the science project was an extreme version of ‘Survivor’, reminding viewers today that our planet is itself an island from which no one can be voted off and no outside help is available if the atmosphere or environment changes.
Inadvertently, Biosphere 2 offered the kind of reality TV that was impossible to ignore. In fact, the idea for Big Brother, the series that spread reality TV globally, came to its creator from a weekend spent watching uplinks of Biosphere 2. However, ‘voyeurism’ is not the right word when watching the events unfold and unravel in this now-defunct microcosm. Unlike the contrived set up of countless reality shows that have followed, this one remains deeply personal to all of us. We identify with the participants and have sympathy for their situation, because we are increasingly aware that we too are participants in the midst of a biosphere crisis.
The ultimate reality show that everyone should be watching is, of course, Biosphere 1. It should be a national conversation that sparks heated debate between friends or strangers about our own biosphere drama and the uncomfortable truths about how we live in the real world.