Three decades into the modern-era reality TV craze, we’re back to where we started.
Since seven strangers first stopped being polite and started getting real in 1992’s debut season of MTV’s The Real World, the genre has transformed and evolved—or maybe devolved, depending on the example—through every iteration of plausibility, dignity, relevance, exploitativeness, critical appreciation, authenticity, crassness, insightfulness, experimentation, inventiveness, and “realness,” whatever that may mean.
Given the genre’s propensity for intense and rapid mutation, it’s certainly noteworthy that now, as we near the 30th anniversary of The Real World and the 20th anniversaries of Survivor, The Bachelor, and American Idol, reality TV seems to have returned to its roots. Case in point: the surging popularity of HBO Max’s The Bridge, which premiered its six episodes on the streamer Feb. 11.
The appeal of The Bridge, as far as I can tell after bingeing its buzzy first season over the weekend, is that it’s the series today that feels most like the early seasons of Survivor, without being so overtly a rip-off of Survivor that you’d dismiss it immediately as a lame copycat.
Survivalist reality competition shows have, like everything in the genre, become increasingly and exhaustingly complicated, to the point of trolling. Beyond the likes of Naked and Afraid, even Survivor, still a gold-standard series all these years later, has introduced so many twists and rule changes as to veer dangerously close to garnering comparisons to that Bamboozled game show parody on Friends. (Jeff Probst always seems one season away from bellowing, “You get the immunity idol...and a Wicked Wango card!”)
The Bridge begins by dropping a dozen British strangers in the middle of the wilderness, in this case the shores of a bucolic lake in the Welsh hills. They must survive for a month at their campsite on limited rations, all while completing the show’s titular challenge: They have 20 days to build a bridge across the lake to an island housing £100,000. They must work together to construct the bridge, but in the end only one contestant takes home the grand prize.
If the environment and aesthetic is different from the sun-baked, jungle-adjacent beaches Survivor was known for—cold, dampness, and rain cloud most of The Bridge, with narrator James McAvoy employing his cozy brogue to warm up the viewing experience as best he can—the human experiment being staged is instantly recognizable. Outwit. Outplay. Outlast. Just you know, more British. A bit more polite... but perhaps, too, even more real.
As is the case with a show like Survivor, the game itself is both paramount to the intrigue of the show, but also a pointless backdrop. How will these people interact with each other under circumstances that are not just extreme at face value—staying alive in the wilderness—but exacerbated by the physical challenge of the task at hand and the dangling carrot of a whole lot of money?
It’s a personality competition. It’s a manipulation competition. It’s a power struggle and a mental marathon.
The audience watching has the advantage of being omniscient, bearing witness to all the schemes, secrets, and strategies mapped out by some contestants behind others’ backs. But they also endure the addicting frustration of not knowing how in the hell all of this is going to shake out. Nothing is more unpredictable than human behavior—the reason why these shows are so juicy—and until the last moment, I legitimately had no idea who was going to be chosen to take home the grand prize, a thrill akin to watching Richard Hatch emerge victorious two decades ago.
Would it be Zac, the stripper with more abs than should be biologically possible, whose ego motivated him to put himself forth as team leader, a position in which his inevitable failings put a target on his back? Or Sly, the 60-year-old from London who is one of the few contestants with any experience engineering something like a floating bridge, but whose age-earned lack of filter bristled against the entitled whippersnappers at camp?
Would Tara’s recent recovery from battling COVID and her desire to live life more fully carry her to victory? Or would it be more of an advantage to fly under the radar (Sam), assert oneself as a domineering force (Sarah), or just be nice (Julie)?
As could often be the case with Survivor, the rules of gameplay when it comes to building the bridge, which seem to be introduced and altered on a whim, can at times be confusing. But the show’s great advantage is in creating a scenario where, in theory, the task at hand is so tangible—build a bridge across the lake—that its progress, or lack thereof, makes for the kind of pressure cooker that sets all personalities involved at an instant boiling point.
The most fascinating aspects of The Bridge, then, are the most human ones: the gender dynamics when it comes to a challenge that requires brute strength, the resentment that kicks in when someone isn’t pulling their weight or becomes too outspoken for their own good, or the times in which the cast would have to plead their case for why they or somebody else should stay in the game.
(Do any of these speeches approach the iconic rat and snake monologue by Sue in the first Survivor? Of course not. Has any reality moment ever?)
That is to say that The Bridge is, for all its slight faults and uneven storytelling, refreshing.
There’s a bare-bones appeal to The Bridge that almost reads as nostalgic in the age of reality-TV bombast. While the cinematography is gorgeous, it is not overproduced in the way that so many modern competition series are, to the point that you wonder whether anything is authentic: Was that moment orchestrated by producers? Was that person fed a line? Would the competition really shake down that way?
At the risk of being repetitive, that was what was so great about those first Survivor seasons; as much of a complex behemoth as the series has become, there was a fascinating simplicity to it when it started. The big moments were organic, whereas now everything can seem staged, and every person who appears on a reality TV series does so as a student of the decades of examples that have come before. Being “good at reality TV” is now marketed as a skill. Once upon a time, that just meant a person could be themselves. The Bridge seems to suggest it’s possible to go back to that.
At a time when the reality TV genre has seemed to lose the plot, it is noticeably going back to its roots to find itself.
E! is airing next month a documentary series hosted by Andy Cohen titled For Real: The Story of Reality TV, about the history and evolution of the genre. The series not only hosts a reunion of the original The Real World cast but also a conversation with the stars of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, as the juggernaut ends its influential run.
Whereas reality TV made a fast detour over these last years into a siloed arena of pop culture where it was deemed a “guilty pleasure” or mindless distraction, it’s recently charged back into a space where the demand is for it to engage with the world as we know it.
You see that certainly on The Real Housewives franchise and across Bravo, which has folded conversations about race, politics, sexuality, and the pandemic into the mix. You see it in the Bachelor Nation fan revolt against The Bachelor series and its host Chris Harrison for the tone-deaf ways in which they deal with race. You see it in the meteoric rise in recent years of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which found that a competition series can be made even richer and more entertaining when it engages with the reality of the LGBT+ experience, or the recent popularity of the Queer Eye reboot.
Does the gimmicky reality series still exist? Without a doubt. But there’s even something throwback about the simple stupidity of something like Love Is Blind, which has echoes of Married at First Sight and Joe Millionaire in its baiting ridiculousness, or Too Hot to Handle, the Netflix series that challenged its hot young cast to remain celibate and failed because it wouldn’t allow itself to embrace how asinine it really was. That cardinal rule of reality TV is to know what you are and lean into it.
What’s plagued reality in recent years is a loss of identity. An attempt to shock, go viral, or hook viewers with preposterousness and escalating bad behavior has made these shows lose any resemblance to reality. It’s heartening to see this cyclical return to the genre’s foundational roots: the illusion that something real and unprecedented is happening while you watch—even if far removed from your own reality.
Building a bridge over a Welsh lake and hoping that I’ve impressed enough people to win £100,000? That’s no closer to my reality than proposing to a person before I’ve ever seen their face, walking naked on the beach to celebrate my birthday on Survivor, or sharing a New York apartment with seven strangers while cameras film. But when these shows are grounded enough, you’re able to project yourself into these scenarios and gauge how you would react. Would you stop being polite and start getting real?
You can ponder just that when the original Real World cast reunites for a new series premiering March 4 on Paramount+. In reality TV, as in life, everything old is new again.