Watching My Favorite Reality Show*

I’ll bet you’ve watched at least some of them. They can be addictive, even as you admit they’re not exactly edifying. Yes, I’m talking about TV competitions and reality shows. They’re everywhere, and they cover all sorts of topics. There’s MasterChef Australia, Power Couple, The Chase, Cash Cab, Survivor, and The Bachelor, to name just a few.

They’ve found their way into crime fiction, too, and that’s not surprising. All sorts of things can go on when the camera is turned off. And there’s the suspense and tension of the competition, too. And that’s to say nothing of the stress of the ‘ratings war.’ So, it’s little wonder that we see those shows in the genre.

In Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Delicious and Suspicious, we are introduced to Lulu Taylor, who owns Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, one of Memphis’ popular restaurants. Aunt Pat’s has a chance at television fame (and the resulting increase in sales) when Rebecca Adrian, food critic for the Cooking Channel, visits. She’s in Memphis to search for the best barbecue restaurant in the city, and Aunt Pat’s is a strong contender. It’s exciting to think of the possibilities that the fame will bring, but Adrian is, to say the least, not a pleasant guest. She alienates nearly everyone. Still, Taylor makes certain that she serves the very best the restaurant can provide. Only hours later, Adrian dies of what turns out to be poison. And it’s not long before gossip starts about Aunt Pat’s. Mostly in order to clear her restaurant’s name, Taylor starts asking questions to find out who the killer really is.

Isis Crawford’s A Catered Christmas features a cooking competition on a popular local television show. The Hortense Calabash Cooking Show has invited five local caterers to compete on the show. One of those companies is A Little Taste of Heaven, which is run by sisters Bertie and Libby Simmons. It’s an exciting chance at important publicity, so the Simmons sisters get to work planning what they will cook. Then, on the day of the competition, an oven on the show’s set explodes. The blast kills Hortense, and of course, puts an end to the competition. The natural conclusion is that one of the five competitors must have been responsible. But it’s not the only possibility, and it turns out that Hortense had plenty of enemies. So, the Simmons sisters have a number of possible suspects as they look for answers.

A reality show turns very, very creepy in Ian Rankin’s Dark Entries, a graphic novel illustrated by Werther Dell’Edera, and featuring John Constantine, from the Hellblazer series. In this novel, Constantine (a paranormal investigator) is hired by the staff of Haunted Palace. That’s a reality show in which young contestants are trapped in a ‘haunted house.’ The only way to win is to get into a hidden room and claim the prize. This group of contestants has been bothered by visions and other scary incidents, but they aren’t the ones that the show’s staff have rigged. It seems, instead, that these young people are seeing these visions themselves. Constantine’s been engaged to find out who, or what, is behind the eerie events, before anyone is killed…

Max Allan Collins has written two novels featuring a sort-of reality show called Crime Seen! The host, former sheriff J.C. Harrow, tracks down criminals with the help of tips and information from viewers. In the first, You Can’t Stop Me, the show’s team uncovers a dangerous murderer who just might have been the one who killed Harrow’s family, and got him started with the show. In the second, No One Will Hear You, Harrow is about to wrap up the show, which was never intended to be a permanent fixture. But then, a killer sends a grotesque ‘demo tape,’ challenging the show’s crew to spotlight him. At the same time, there’s another killer at work, too. So, instead of ending production, the team has no choice but to try to find the killers before more people die.

And then there’s Douglas Lindsay’s We Are the Hanged Man. Met DCI Robert Jericho is ‘volunteered’ by Superintendent Dylan to participate as a consultant on a reality show called Britain’s Got Justice. In this show, contestants compete as apprentice police officers, and Jericho is to be one of the experts/judges. As it is, Jericho isn’t particularly interested in doing the show. He’s got other cases and concerns on his mind, and he’s not a big fan of reality television to begin with. Everything changes, though, when one of the contestants, Lorraine, ‘Lo’ Allison, goes missing. At first, it’s suspected that she simply decided to drop out of the competition, and gave no warning. But soon enough, it’s shown that she wanted to win as much as anyone else does. So, the police start a missing person search, and, since Jericho’s been involved with the show, he takes a major part in it. Among other things, this novel takes a cynical look at reality television, its creators, and the people who watch it.

And that’s the thing. A lot of people do watch this sort of TV, even at the same time as they acknowledge that it’s not exactly highbrow. And it can make for a very effective context for a crime novel. Do you ever watch reality/unscripted shows? What’s the draw if you do?




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pascale Picard’s That is the Matter.


Filed under Douglas Lindsay, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ian Rankin, Isis Crawford, Max Allan Collins, Werther Dell’Edera

26 responses to “Watching My Favorite Reality Show*

  1. I love Vernon God Little where there is a game show where the viewing public vote on which Death Row inmate gets executed next. Very dark humour!

  2. Col

    I do like Max Allan Collins, but I hadn’t heard of these ones. I think he writes them faster than I can read them! Douglas Lindsay too, but I’m more familiar with his Barney Thomson series.

    • They’re both really prolific, Col, that’s for sure. If you try We Are The Hanged Man, I’ll be interested to know how it compares for you with Lindsay’s Thomson series.

  3. Col

    Just remembered Stephen King’s The Running Man – might have been pseudonymously published as Richard Bachman first. A fantastic book, much better than the film with Arnie.

  4. Oh, how interesting! I never knew so many authors used reality shows in their books. Years ago, I was hooked on Cash Cab. Loved watching the strange characters who lurk at night. I haven’t watched reality TV in years. At night, we watch either true crime (Discovery ID), a few favorite crime shows, or movies.

    • Interesting, isn’t it, Sue, how people’s taste in television changes. I used to watch Cash Cab sometimes, myself, ‘though I don’t really now. But certainly, reality TV is integrally woven into our culture now. And it wasn’t as much fifteen years ago.

  5. Oh Margot – this really is TV of our age which although they all have similar format span so many different subjects! We got hooked on a recent Sunday night painting programme in this very format despite none of us having an artistic bone in our bodies! I know I must have some examples somewhere but they are being elusive at the moment!!

    • Reality TV really does cover a number of different topics, doesn’t it, Cleo? There’s everything from bars to jungles to painting to food to romance, to… I have to admit, I haven’t heard of a painting-related reality show, but it sounds interesting. And sometimes, even if one doesn’t have a lot of background in a topic, a reality show does have a way of capturing the attention.

  6. Keishon

    Reality TV? This makes me ask you: have you covered everything in crime fiction yet? Your knowledge and connections are impressive, Margot. Do you ever repeat these themes or does your long-form participation keep you on your toes for ideas? I’m just being nosey. Interesting post as usual.

  7. I did watch the first couple of seasons of Survivor but other than that I am not a fan of ‘reality’ shows. They seem to me to be further from reality than stuff actually marked as fiction. But to each their own.

    I liked Chris Grabenstein’s Fun House which sees a Big Brother style reality show encounter a murderer. Even the normally taciturn John Ceepak pokes at some fun at reality TV.

    • I know what you mean, Bernadette. about how unreal reality shows are. Certainly they’re over-the-top dramatic, and I’m sure a lot more is staged than people know. Thanks for mentioning Fun House. It’s not just a good example of what I had in mind here, but it’s also a well-written series.

  8. I try not to watch them because they’re so addictive! I remember in the early days of Big Brother having the TV on late at night when all that was showing was a bunch of people in bed sleeping – I was snorting away about how ridiculous it was, but I still had the TV on!! I’m better now… 😉

    • It’s good to hear you’re over that these days, FictionFan. 😉 You’re right that reality shows can be addictive. I’ve not watched Big Brother, but I’ve watched a few episodes of one or two other reality shows, and been surprised at how inviting it is to leave the TV on.

  9. Watching reality TV is like watching a train wreck, you don’t want to see but you can’t look away. The cooking ones pull me in. I see there’s a good number of books I could be reading instead of watching. Thanks, Margot. Another fun topic.

    • Thanks, Mason – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I like the way you describe reality shows, too. It’s a really effective description. And it’s interesting how different reality shows can pull us in, whether they’re cooking shows, romances, or something else.

  10. kathy d

    Reality shows! Aaauugh! No. Aren’t we living in one every day between the White House, Congress and the media. I can’t even watch the news half the time or read the whole newspaper.
    My favorite TV news programs are now reality shows.
    I hold up my sprig of garlic in protection.

  11. Not a fan of these shows, and on the whole read older books, pre the reality boom. I suppose Hunger Games was a kind of reality show? And I’m pretty sure I have that Douglas Lindsay book on my Kindle – downloaded after YOU recommended it! Just haven’t got round to reading it yet.

    • I know how that goes, Moira. I have so much to read… At any rate, you really could say that The Hunger Games is a reality show. I hadn’t thought of it quite that way, so thank you. As to the Lindsay? I hope you’ll enjoy it. It’s gory in some places, and explicit. But there is some dark wit about reality television.

  12. I have never watched a reality show, but I have watched Iron Chef on Food Network years ago. One of the more recent Jane Haddam books, Wanting Sheila Dead, is about a reality TV host. I am a fan of Haddam’s books but I haven’t kept up lately, and Wanting Sheila Dead is the next one for me to read.

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