Wednesday, October 5

Get off your phone! The reality shows trying to take us back to basics | television & radio

ORne of the more positive outcomes of recent years was a re-evaluation of the pace of modern life. Covid abruptly forced the world to slow down and reassess its priorities and since then, many of us have considered what it means to go “back to basics”, to disconnect from the present day to a time when life was simpler. So it was only a matter of time before reality TV did the same.

In fact, shows such as Channel 4’s back-to-basics “social experiment” The Simpler Life have been commissioned in waves for years now. It sees 24 Britons adopting the Amish lifestyle for half a year at a Devon farmstead, growing their own food, wearing traditional Amish attire (straw hats and braces for the men, milkmaid dresses and bonnets for the women) and most notably, living without modern conveniences such as the internet and electricity. It fits in with a long-held fascination of television programme-makers: stripping it all back, reimagining our present way of life, whether it’s to critique capitalism or the move away from traditional Christian values.

But today these shows focus mainly on a new scourge – the internet. BBC Three’s new dating show, Love in the Flesh, follows five couples who have started relationships “through apps, stories and DMs” but have never met “in the flesh”. Hosted by Love Island alum Zara McDermott, participants will be “whisked away from the pressures of daily life and screens” to see each other face-to-face for the first time in a luxurious Greek beach house (not “villa”, they assure us). In this Love Island meets Catfish hybrid, they will see if the chemistry remains “when there are no filters and no screens to hide behind”.

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The Courtship, a new Regency era-themed reality dating show, is a mashup of both the aforementioned shows. In what NBC believes to be the antidote to apps, it focuses on a “modern girl tired of modern dating”, Nicole Rémy, who is ditching screen swiping in favor of a more chivalrous approach. “We’re often living in a world that isn’t so focused on making true, deep connections with people,” Rémy told Variety. “The Courtship was a breath of fresh air.” Rémy will date a number of suitors who will not just have to win her heart from her, but her from her court from her (her friends and family from her). When an admirer leaves, they do so with a final dance (giving the exit a sort of Strictly Come Dancing feel). The Love Island villa has been reimagined as a castle and neon bikinis are ditched in favor of full Bridgerton-esque regalia.

NBC’s Regency era-themed show The Courtship, featuring Nicole Rémy, far right. Photograph: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

Often these shows are billed as being vaguely done in the name of pseudoscience. The real takeaway is usually that producers are running out of reality show formats and the only thing better than drama is a drama in period costume. The Simpler Life does at least monitor the volunteers’ health and wellbeing in order to glean results but already viewers appear less convinced about the virtues of life offline. It was released to tepid reviews and two episodes in, The Courtship has been downgraded to a subsidiary NBC channel.

Conversely, the Netflix docusoap Byron Baes, which follows the lives of Australian influencers (and essentially doubles up as a live-action Instagram feed in the process), continues to make waves. Its blend of scripted dialogue and trashy interactions between the social media savvy cast is winning over reviewers, generating huge amounts of internet buzz and being lauded as this year’s newest hatewatch. For now, reality TV seems to be at its best when mixed with the worst parts of online life.

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