Since the COVID-19 outbreak placed the vast majority of America’s population (or at least those who don’t put their need for a scoop of Jamoca Almond Fudge ice cream over public health concerns) under stay-home orders, it’s hard to imagine when?—or if?—life will go back to the way it was. Judging by what experts in health, infrastructure, and social justice have said, however, if we’re to learn from this, much of the way we live our daily lives will have to adjust in a multitude of ways. With all that in consideration, it’s safe to say that those changes will inevitably extend to our entertainment, including the wildly popular, narcissistic, cringy spectacle known as reality TV.
Amid the pandemic, our daily lives now include incessantly washing our hands, donning masks and gloves when we venture into public spaces, and maintaining six feet of distance between every germy flesh bag we pass. But a stark reminder of the new B.C.—Before COVID—comes when we gather in front of our TV screens to watch reality stars make out in hot tubs, get wasted at crowded bars, throw wine at one another in a rage, or launch dance-pop careers in front of a gaggle of their drunk 50-something friends. From the comfort of our couches, we can watch the ladies of the Real Housewives of New York get shithoused, skinny dip in the Hamptons, and throw tiki torches across their co-star Ramona Singer’s backyard in defiance of the white nationalists who carried them in Charlottesville. It all makes me realize two things: 1) I don’t know when this will be able to happen again, and 2) Dear lord, I wish I was drunk with my friends, screaming like a hyena.
Like us, those same women replacing their body’s water content with pure rosé are in quarantine struggling to hang on—perhaps in isolation at a spa retreat, or cleaning their toilets in lingerie. As Hollywood has put film and TV production on hold, with some writers rooms continuing to work over Zoom, the future of reality TV seems uncertain. Variety reports that while networks that provide reality programming—including Bravo, HGTV, TLC, and E!—have a “stockpile” of footage and episodes that should keep viewers afloat, some segments such as the confessionals on Bravo series, which are typically shot closer to an episode’s air date, had not been filmed yet. In fact, reality TV as a whole is at a standstill until producers can return to work safely. Coronavirus has forced us to change the way we commune with one another. Since life may never be the same, ostensibly neither will reality TV. Surely it will go on, but how?
As coronavirus’ spread escalated in Europe and North America, shocking news reports emerged revealing that cast members sequestered inside the Big Brother houses in Brazil, Germany, Sweden, and Canada were unaware of the global pandemic causing chaos just outside of their respective houses. Casts were told of the situation live on the air and simultaneously informed that their seasons would be cut short as a result, with the exception of Big Brother Brazil, which decided to keep the show going, albeit with constant medical oversight and stricter hygiene measures. (What those measures were, exactly, remains unclear.) The result was a record high number of votes from viewers, a sure victory for producers but an ethical standard that felt questionable at best and deeply irresponsible at worst.
While all reality TV, moving forward, will be tough to manage, a major and more specific conundrum lies within reality dating shows: How can 30 women live in a house and all swap spit with the same guy? Should a group of former C-list pop stars and actors be encouraged to engage in sexy hijinks on a beach with their exes when the rest of us are being told to stay several yards away from each other? It doesn’t take a Dr. Fauci-level of expertise to conclude that this type of dating scenario is not possible or advisable when a deadly illness is still weaving its way through society. The upcoming season of The Bachelorette is on pause, and the Bachelor spin-off series Bachelor Summer Games has been canceled this year. Viewers can currently catch the already-filmed musical dating show The Bachelor Presents: Listen to Your Heart, but considering its nonsensical plot and overabundance of warbling from aspiring country pop singers, do they want to? Apparently not. Producers of our favorite franchises will have to drastically change how these series are shot in the wake of larger health risks associated with coronavirus.
A multitude of shows have found ways to lean on the video-call technology that has become part of our regular lives during quarantine. The season 12 reunion of The Real Housewives of Atlanta was initially postponed due to the coronavirus, but executive producer and reunion host Andy Cohen recently announced on his Sirius XM show that the reunion would go forward virtually to avoid any potential health risks to cast and crew. Cohen took a ‘the show must go on’ approach, saying, “If we wait for this pandemic to be over for when we all are in the same room, it’s gonna delay everything. We need to move forward, we need to live in reality right now, and the reality is if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this right now.” The inevitable fights that have long made the RHOA reunion a must-watch are sure to be affected. According to the reality gossip blog Tamara Tattles, producers have been preparing for possible glitches and the chaos of a typical RHOA reunion by doing practice runs where producers have one person scream while another attempts to talk over them. (Notoriously mouthy cast member Nene Leakes will have her work cut out for her overcoming technical glitches to come for her arch nemesis Kenya Moore.) As for shooting a new season of RHOA , as well as other Bravo series including the Vanderpump Rules reunion and the other Real Housewives franchises, plans are on hold.
It’s not just the stars of the Bravo universe that are being affected. Meanwhile, the producers of TLC’s 90 Day Fiancé and its myriad of offshoots ( 90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days; 90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way; and 90 Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After?, to name a few) figured out a way to bring the current pandemic into the series, creating the limited series 90 Day Fiancé: Self-Quarantine, in which couples from the 90 Day universe film their own lives in lockdown without a crew or producers present. Howard Lee, president of TLC, told Variety prior to the series premiere that the show would “look very hot-off-the-press—it will look like the paint has not dried.” He added: “I think our audience is incredibly forgiving right now, and I’m hoping that they accept the way it looks. It will be messy!” Does it look like an even more low-budget Blair Witch Project? Yes, but Lee is right in that audiences are taking whatever they can, and will be forgiving about video quality as long as they can enjoy not being too harsh about video quality, and blessedly not marching with American flags demanding their favorite trash shows film again.
Some have looked to the new slate of Netflix reality series that isolate contestants from one another, such as The Circle and Love Is Blind, as examples of what could be possible if producers find their backs to the wall and need to get creative. The megahit Love is Blind posed the question of whether people can fall in love without seeing each other by introducing 15 men and 15 women in separate living quarters via dates that occurred in “pods,” with potential partners speaking through an opaque wall that looked stolen from a Miami spa. (Eventually, however, the couples met in person, and naturally, that’s when the fireworks really got going, resulting in unforgettable scenes with a wine-swigging dog, blowout fights, a Beyoncé-lyric-laden poolside breakup, and a love triangle for the ages.)
More recently, Netflix released Too Hot to Handle, wherein a group of sexually charged contestants is challenged to avoid any sexual contact with potential mates or themselves (yes, that means no masturbating), lest a $100,000 shared prize pot decrease in value after each hookup. It’s a wildly entertaining viewing experience—horned-up people unable to succumb to their carnal instincts is content gold—but as The Independent wrote, the show’s twist on celibacy feels eerily relevant as viewed through our current predicament. Single people quarantining alone have had to find non-physical ways to build intimacy. The Guardian called it “perfect viewing for the socially isolated,” and noted that “it has inadvertently become one of the most relatable shows around” since hundreds of millions globally are also unable to feel the touch of another human, sexually or otherwise.
While casting and filming for future seasons of these series seem to be on indefinite hold, an onslaught of fully online reality dating shows have already sprouted, including a Love Is Blind knockoff called Love Is Quarantine and another called Be My Quarantine. On Be My Quarantine, which drops new episodes on YouTube every week, contestants go on Zoom dates while producers watch (though are never shown on screen), prodding whenever necessary to help push things along should dates fall into a lull. The online series’ creators told me that none of the typical producer manipulation employed on reality shows is necessary, because its homebound contestants are already starved for human connection. The participants have behaved themselves for the most part, avoiding fights or blatant scheming, but the show has still managed to be entertaining, even if it misses the wild shenanigans that make reality TV as popular as it is. Even at the end of a season, producers said, contestants aren’t encouraged to see their quarantine mates until it’s actually safe to do so. That’s a hard sell for viewers who want a definitive ending to a love story.
So what will established franchises like The Bachelor/ The Bachelorette—as well as other shows like Are You The One?, Ex on the Beach, Love Island, Bachelor in Paradise, and Married at First Sight—do to keep contestants safe? On a basic level, when and if filming is permitted to resume, producers can keep contestants physically separated, limit travel (sorry, Bachelor contestants, no more trips to Cleveland), disinfect living spaces regularly, and perform regular coronavirus tests on incoming and current participants to ensure safety. The Directors Guild of America brought in Contagion director Steven Soderbergh to speak to health experts and set up a task force to figure out how and when film productions can resume. That task force is attempting to set new standards that could include regular temperature checks on crew members before they enter studio lots, testing employees for coronavirus antibodies, and isolating the cast and crew in hotel rooms away from friends and family for the duration of a shoot. Producers will likely have to ask anyone on set extremely personal health questions and trace whom they’ve had physical contact with, which comes with its own set of complicating factors and ethical issues.
If that’s still too risky, elements from Netflix’s new dating series and 90 Day Fiancé’s self-filming experiment could potentially inform future installments of other reality shows. Perhaps the new Bachelorette Clare Crawley’s suitors can have coveted one-on-one dates over Zoom after battling in online karaoke competitions. Islanders stranded on individual villas on Love Island could have video sex under a bed sheet while they put their phone cameras on grainy night mode. A bonus episode following the season 12 finale of RHOA relied on unaired footage and freshly shot video taken by husbands and assistants of the cast; voiceovers, too, had a distinctly DIY quality to them. This seems like a snapshot into what we can expect for some time.
Even with every precaution taken, at some point, something’s gotta give. The people have come to expect a certain standard in their reality TV. They want to see action, whether it’s a face-to-face screaming match at a branded wine release event, a ruthless girl brawl at a nightclub, or a hook-up in an outdoor shower. It might be years before we can get to that point again, because even when quarantine lifts and studios get back to filming under new standards, the impact or COVID-19 will linger indefinitely.
Reality TV can’t continue the way we’ve come to know it if we want to ensure the health and safety of the shame-averse characters that inhabit its world, and the crew that keeps it all going and earns their living from these series. We now have to wonder if it’s ethical to put so many people at risk to watch a Bachelor contestant have a bottle of Champagne suggestively explode on her face. As Kourtney Kardashian once reminded her sister Kim when she freaked out about a lost diamond earring on an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, people are dying. Times have changed.
There are enough reruns to hold us over for a while, but this might be the end of the golden age of the greatest genre television has ever known. Pour a glass of Witches of WeHo rosé out for the TV we love.
Alex Zaragoza is a senior staff writer at VICE. She’s on Twitter.