— More often than not, reality TV draws its drama from real life, and for the past few years, most people's lives have been impacted by a very real recession.
While "American Idol," "Survivor," and other shows continue to serve as escapist entertainment and mostly avoid connecting themselves to viewers’ daily lives, several unscripted shows manage to confront the realities of life in a troubled economy, doing so in their own way.
‘Boss’ formulaic but fascinating
"Undercover Boss" has been a huge success for CBS, drawing more viewers than either of its other two reality series, "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race," and it's clear the show has arrived at the right time. Each episode follows CEOs and corporate bosses who are humbled when they attempt the jobs that their employees do every day, all day, and then those employees are later recognized and sometimes even rewarded by the boss.
Viewers don't seem to mind that each episode is very formulaic, perhaps because it's fun to watch bosses struggle to do the work that makes their lives possible. That might even tap into anger toward CEOs and other executives who earn bonuses while their companies sink and workers at the lower end of the organizational chart suffer.
At the end of every episode, employees whose stories have affected the boss tend to receive some kind of prize: a promotion, a scholarship or donation of some kind, or even a promise that something will change. Those prizes aren't very impressive, but at least the bosses are recognizing their employees, which the show suggests is more than they did before they went undercover.
‘Apprentice’ has eye on recession
The third celebrity edition of Donald Trump's competition is currently airing, and NBC just announced that the original series will return, likely this fall, and it will have an explicit tie to the recession. The seventh regular season is now casting for people "who have been affected by the decline in the job market," and while applicants can even be "recent college graduates who currently have few if any prospects," everyone who applies is asked to give "information regarding how the recession has impacted their lives."
Donald Trump has also linked this current season of "The Celebrity Apprentice" to the recession. The opening titles ask, "What if you could make a difference?", and Trump lectures viewers about working hard despite the hard times. At the start of this season, he said, "Our country's been through a lot, but no matter how bad things get, we get out of bed, we roll up our sleeves, and we do everything possible to make sure that things are running perfectly."
That's probably easier for someone who lives and works in a palatial building overlooking New York, but Trump also said that the show and its cast are "here to do our part: raising money for causes that need our help more than ever." He was referring to the fact that money the celebrity contestants raised while completing tasks would be donated to their favorite charities, though the show's sponsors who buy product placement could probably also use the help, too.
Down and ‘Dirty Jobs’
"Dirty Jobs" host Mike Rowe does a better job than anyone else on TV of showing how hard work really is for people who don’t sit behind desks or computer screens all day — often the people who are affected most by everything from rising prices to layoffs.
As Rowe explains at the start of every episode of Discovery's "Dirty Jobs," "I explore the country looking for people who aren't afraid to get dirty. Hard-working men and women who earn an honest living doing the kinds of jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us." The workers he's profiled include exterminators, bug breeders, snake wranglers and mattress recyclers.
Rowe works alongside those people for a few hours or days, and as he stumbles, makes it clear just how challenging it is to perform jobs that some of us take for granted. Every episode makes its subjects into stars, appreciating them for their humbleness, their humor, and their relentless hard work.
If you have a restaurant that has financial problems, Gordon Ramsay will offer help by screaming at you — and by making over your menu and decor. The national exposure and free advertising his Fox series "Kitchen Nightmares" is apparently worth the abuse that restaurant owners suffer. Nearly always, restaurant owners are in deep debt and their restaurants are failing, and sometimes, they're so in the hole that even Ramsay's help isn't enough to cover it, and they close before the episode even airs.
Although it's edited to focus on drama — and as a result is less-interesting than the UK version, "Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares" — Ramsay does drive home the point that turning one's dream into reality (for a restaurant or, really, anything else) means much more than just having a dream. You actually have to not be a stupid donkey, too.
Design, food, and lifestyle shows
Some budget-conscious lifestyle shows, like HGTV's "Design on a Dime," TLC's "What Not To Wear," or Food Network's "30 Minute Meals," may have premiered long before the recession began, but they appeal now more than ever to budget-conscious viewers.
Networks have added shows that directly address the impact of hard times. For example, HGTV has "The Unsellables," which helps people who need to sell their homes, while "Next Food Network Star" winner Melissa d'Arabian's show "Ten Dollar Dinners" is all about being frugal.
Bravo specializes in docudramas that let us inside the lives of people who aren't exactly poor or even middle class, but as the economy has suffered, so has their income. Conveniently, that also adds drama — and it's fun to watch cocky wealthy people being taken down a notch or 10.
"Flipping Out" house flipper Jeff Lewis was forced to start doing design work for clients instead of just flipping houses, which gave him new people to clash with; "Million Dollar Listing"'s high-end realtors struggled to sell houses; "The Real Housewives" have had the recession impact their lavish lifestyles and income, like the decline of Orange County cast member Jeana Keough's real estate business; and "Kell on Earth" publicist Kelly Cutrone frequently complains about the how the recession has decimated the fashion industry.