‘Captive Audience’ Is a Philosophical Take on Reality TV

It’s easy to dismiss reality TV as another example of consumerism fueled by vanity. But as a writer, Lucas Mann balances an unflinching self-examination with deep empathy for his subjects. He demonstrates this particularly well in his latest book, Captive Audience: On Love and Reality TVan incisive exploration of marital intimacy, spectating as a national pastime, and Kim Kardashian.

Though we missed the Kanyepocalypse by a few days, Mann and I were able to chat about the attention economy, one’s desire to be publicly vulnerable, and how he still wrestles with the decision to write Captive Audience as an open letter to his wife.

* * *

Pierce Smith

You spend most of your book talking about what I’d consider traditional reality TV, but I’m curious if you’ve given any thought to how platforms have empowered individuals (for better or worse) to imitate someone like, say, Jax from Vanderpump Rules?

Lucas Mann

The fact that reality TV has become almost this nostalgic, long-in-the-tooth form was definitely on my mind as I wrote. There’s a section in the book where I talk to this scholar, Marc Andrejevic, who wrote about reality in the early 2000s, and he was saying all the conversation about the genre then, which focused on this worry about totally devalued labor, constant surveillance, etc., has completely shifted over to social media.

The access provided by reality TV is so minimal and mediated compared to all these social platforms. What was really interesting to me, then, was thinking about how and why reality TV even still exists in this climate. We’re in a moment where the intrigue of access is provided online, and also TV has become this prestige form with a million super fancy shows to seek out on Netflix, so what middle ground is there for reality to occupy? What itch is it scratching? But these people like Jax Taylor wouldn’t have their branded social media accounts without the shows. The shows still remain this weird nucleus which everything else is born from.

I’m also fascinated by the gulf between stars’ performances on social media and on their shows. The different aspects of themselves that people hide or promote shifts from Instagram to an episode of their reality show, for instance, even though fans have seen both performances, and are constantly comparing and questioning the authenticity of each. And usually the shows are about 6 months behind in their storylines, so people are reliving drama that has already been partially aired, with different framing and intent behind it. I think it all creates this really seductive, dizzying effect. Access is complete, but often still coy and contradictory.

Pierce Smith

How this ability to perform an individual narrative for a close circle of friends/acquaintances relates to the overall ecosystem of reality tv?

Lucas Mann

This is a tough question and one that the book I think is constantly wrestling with. On the one hand, I don’t want to do the whole “[rips bong] isn’t everything just a performance, man” thing. On the other hand, I think a lot of the way people write off reality TV stars as these sort of inhuman characters that serious, genuine people can’t relate to is bullshit. What I know is appealing to me about watching reality shows is the constant negotiation they demand between how the viewer sees the person on screen and how the viewer sees their own life. Even if that’s unstated or subconscious, I think there’s a tension — what do I see of myself in there? Where is there recognizable humanity in the performance? How would I behave in that situation?

Also, in casual conversations with people about watching reality TV, it almost always reveals itself to be a social experience. There’s something about the appeal that has to do with watching the same people on screen with the same people in your life. How could the feeling of the reality TV performance not in some way seep into the relationships being performed in front of the screen? I don’t think my relationship with my wife feels like a reality show, but watching reality shows and questioning the performances on them does make me think about the performative aspects that every relationship, even one built around thoughtfulness and intimacy, contains. That feeling of wanting to be seen a certain way. Those out-of-body moments where you’re speaking genuinely to a person, but also envisioning how the two of you would look, constantly aware of your own body in relationship to another. I think that’s just part of life.

Pierce Smith

It seems there’s an emerging hierarchy of “Attention”—you have the traditional stars, the reality stars, the influencers, the grassroots podcasters, the viral stars—each new layer compounding the value of the preceding one. Where do we go from here as audience members and aspiring participants?

Lucas Mann

It’s all both fascinating and terrifying to me. One connecting thread seems to be that every mode of communication is trading in this economy of “authenticity.” When I interviewed Jax, for example, he kept saying that what makes Vanderpump Rules work is the authenticity of the dynamic on screen. They’re not some show putting on airs trying to fool you—they’re just being themselves. But then the show is built on the premise that these people who have been stars for like six years now still have to work bartender shifts. His PR person was sitting next to him nodding as he talked to me. So it’s easy to point to reality as losing out to newer forms because its claims to authenticity are so obviously dubious, or at least complex. YouTube influencers position themselves as more authentic than anything you see on TV, but that’s its own calculation, of course. I find that to be somehow far more alienating.

Instagram is so curated that half the memes on there are about people trying to present themselves in a certain way on Instagram. Podcasters try to behave as though they’re not schilling products in as nakedly false a way as we’re used to on TV because it’s just a couple of dudes sitting around having a casual conversation about underwear brands. In a way, it feels as though everything that used to be uniquely reviled about reality stars—people wanting to be famous by aggressively saying “I’m just being myself”—has been taken up and perfected by all these other forms. What makes reality TV continually interesting to me, though—and I write about this in the book—is that it’s the only medium, and only type of fame, that remains universally low and reviled.

Everyone is excited to point out that reality TV stars are shameless fame whores and that reality TV is full of shit. You cannot enter the genre as a performer or viewer without negotiating that assumption. That anxiety, of why these people deserve attention and why viewers are willing to give it, is baked into the experience of fandom.

Sorry, I haven’t really answered your question. The truth is, I have no idea where we go from here as audience members or as potential participants in the attention cycle. And I don’t think my book is predictive in any way. I didn’t want to write about reality from a critical distance—I think from there it’s too easy to lose whatever visceral quality it produces. I hope I at least managed to trace the intensity of what it feels like to be one audience member/person desiring attention.

Pierce Smith

Isn’t anyone who attempts public vulnerability—whether to make a joke or share an essay or a picture of a recently deceased cat—asking, yearning, and hoping for the same type of recognition as Kim Kardashian at this point?

Lucas Mann

I think you’re getting at such a constant source of discomfort in modern life. It’s this weird balance of being able to broadcast yourself, wanting to, but then feeling shame or at least ambiguity, looking at how others broadcast themselves and judging them or trying to find your life in their performance of a life. A lot of the book, for me, came down to trying to honor all the weird tension in wanting to share myself and then also being horrified by prospect of that. I was particularly interested in this idea as a writer. I started writing this book right as I was publishing my second, Lord Fear, which looks at my brother’s heroin overdose and its ramifications. I was feeling this horror at myself for putting this vulnerability (both mine and others) out there, while simultaneously worrying that not enough people were seeing it. It was bewildering, and so I was thinking about that tension of public vulnerability when I was watching these shows. And to your point, I think that’s present in so many little moments, all the time—what we choose to capture or show, then asking ourselves why, putting little performative, self-aware apologies around these things that we sincerely want recognition for. So someone like Kim Kardashian becomes ripe for derision or ridicule because she has so successfully navigated a tension that everyone finds in themselves, and she’s done it for so long. Her performance provides a sort of blown-up caricature of these questions of intimacy, ambition, vulnerability, etc, that I think are there simmering anytime someone is deciding how to phrase good or bad news on Facebook.

Pierce Smith

Coincidentally, I was watching the Kardashians for the first time while reading your book—the latest season, which celebrated their tenth year filming—as the season progressed, it began to feel like they were the In Search of Lost Time of the genre. How do you see reality TV evolving from here?

Lucas Mann

I love that comparison! The longevity of the Kardashians is really unparalleled, and I do think it’s making the effect of their work something entirely new. There’s definitely a thrill to see somebody continuing to push forward at the edges of what was originally assumed a passing fad (both the genre and Kim’s own fame). For a magazine piece, I got to interview Fenton Bailey, a really big-time producer who, maybe most notably, has worked with RuPaul forever, and he said something to the effect of, we don’t exactly know what to call Kim Kardashian’s art yet, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have one. I thought that was a really compelling idea. I don’t know if the Kardashians can be seen as emblematic of the genre as a whole—it’s so huge and nebulous, and they’re so unique—but there’s definitely new ground, it feels like, when the performance is extending past a decade. Added to whatever drama a particular episode has, there’s also ten years of incredibly detailed, shifting, often contradictory back story. The weight of that, even in its banality, can be really startling and effective. In the book, I think I describe Kim as being “in the middle of performing a whole life.” How can the ambition of that, and the weight of that, not be a little bit dazzling?

Pierce Smith

When does a confession become genuine?

Lucas Mann

I was wrestling with this question throughout the whole book, and I don’t know that I have an answer. There’s so much contradictory emotion happening when the shame of what’s being confessed meets with the catharsis, and maybe even pleasure, of the act of confession. When confession becomes public, maybe even artful, how does it not lose a little genuineness? It’s one of the things I was most curious about as a viewer of reality TV—I’m there watching someone confess and I’m moved by them, but then I’m also like, man, they’re good at this. It feels dirty and inherently false, but I don’t know that it is. And then to try to mirror that in my own confessional writing, I felt deeply sincere in what I put out on the page, but I was necessarily putting something meant to be intimate out there for public consumption. The challenge, maybe, is thinking about how something can be performative and genuine at the same time? Is that acceptable?

Pierce Smith

What does a critically acclaimed version of reality tv look like?

Lucas Mann

No clue. I don’t think there’s an aesthetic hierarchy that’s been allowed to develop in conversations about reality TV. When it’s discussed in criticism, the conversation seems to linger at the level of the moral and sociological—what pathology is this show putting out into the world? What demographic is represented or exploited by this particular conceit? Lately, it seems like there’s been some positive critical conversation about some reality shows that I love—the Queer Eye reboot, The Great British Bake-Off, RuPaul’s Drag Race—and while it’s awesome to see smart, generous things written about these shows, it still seems to be a moral and sociological conversation. These shows can be positive because they’re putting forward a starkly kind portrayal of humanity, or promoting an important and progressive world view. Which is great! But I’m not sure that’s aesthetic critical acclaim that a novel or a fancy scripted Netflix series might receive.

Pierce Smith

You mentioned the epistolary framing and how it, at times, felt like mansplaining—as you further distance yourself from the writing stage of this book, where do you stand on your decision to use this framework?

Lucas Mann

In some ways, this goes back to your question about confession. The book felt like I was consciously toeing the line of sincerity, care, and then what the publicizing of that does to the act.

The epistolary frame wasn’t planned—it developed naturally. In ways that didn’t anticipate, the discussion of watching reality shows became a discussion of the shared experience of doing so, saying, Do you remember this? Did you feel the way I felt? Did it mean the same to you? Maybe you didn’t know at the time, but this is what I was thinking when we were watching. It felt super genuine to write this way. But I’m a fan, as a reader and a writer, of nonfiction that problematizes itself a little.

The act of writing about a shared experience is fucked up—how can it not be a power move? One authorial voice is making meaning out of a situation that wasn’t that author’s alone. And the gendered aspect of it was important for me to highlight, as a man writing about his relationship and also writing about shows that star mostly women and are considered a type of entertainment more geared toward women. At what point does trying to inquire into or honor an experience become a sort of de facto erasure of other perspectives, since the writer has control? I’m not sure.

But I had no interest in pretending like I wasn’t trying to think through that, wasn’t constantly questioning myself, maybe even regretting it. If you’re writing from the point of view of a cis, straight, white guy, even if you think you have the best intentions, how can part of the project not be interrogating the potentially destructive weight of your voice on the page? To be honest, I have no idea how I feel about the epistolary framework. Even now, I vacillate between thinking it provides the intimacy that is the heart of the book and thinking it’s gross, dumb and selfish.

Pierce Smith

How is reality tv different from any type of art that claims Truth as its difference?

Lucas Mann

I’m not sure how to answer this. And again, I do not want to be the dude ripping a bong and saying, like, Is anything really true? I do think that conversations about reality are sort of louder and easier versions of any conversation about any form trading in nonfictionality. There’s the question of who is the author of the narrative, the producer or the subject? The question of, at what point does shaping a narrative for emotional effect become dishonesty? The question whether aims of profit or fame sully the “pure” act of documentation.

I’m not saying that journalists and serious indie documentarians are doing the same thing as reality TV producers; only that the questions echo between all the forms. One difference is that we assume the worst motivations in the makers of reality TV, and are more generous in our assumptions about those who have been anointed serious journalists, filmmakers, etc. In many cases, that’s warranted, but the moment anyone claims The Truth, that claim is more fraught than is comfortable to acknowledge.

Pierce Smith

It’s easy to say reality TV created Trump in the same way it’s easy to blame social media for giving a voice to racist and bigoted rhetoric. Social media is a closed loop in that just continuously amplifies whatever you personally feed into it – how is reality tv shaped by its audience since there isn’t really an algorithm to blame?

Lucas Mann

Damn, this is a tough question. I do think the closed loop metaphor applies to reality in way, too—I may even use the phrase in the book. It’s a closed loop of a certain kind of personal emotion. I think it sets a tone that is so ratcheted up, that is constantly fed by personal intrigue and yelling, very specific types of story lines, that you get accustomed to the register. You expect that emotion, that intrigue, that narrative, just like you expect a certain unhinged tone on Twitter, to the point that you start looking for it, then feeding it. And now reality TV is an old enough form that no viewer or participant is entering into it without some frame of reference for how to emulate the tone that’s already existed.

Just to go back to Jax one more time, he told me that, when Vanderpump was starting to film, he and his cast mates sat around watching old episodes of The Hills. They were looking for a model for how they should behave on screen. I think everyone has that expectation now. Somehow the self-awareness doesn’t make anything less of a closed loop. You can know the tricks of reality, but still feel the need for that kind of entertainment. You can go on Twitter and (as I do) make some dumb joke about Twitter being toxic like once a week, while still leaping headfirst into the toxicity. I do think that plays out in peoples’ reactions to Trump. Even hating him, it’s hard not to be engaging with the news like a closed-loop howl, getting sucked in.

Pierce Smith

I could be asking all the wrong questions—what do you hope people will take away from your book?

Lucas Mann

This was great! Thanks so much. All I’d add is that I hope that, as much as the book is trying to look at reality TV and these questions of truth, voyeurism, performance, yadda yadda, its also an intimate portrayal of two people living their lives together, caring about one another, and yeah the TV is on a lot. I hope some quiet care comes through. Also, I hope some bits are funny, though if I have to say that, maybe not?


Captive Audience by Lucas Mann
Vintage Books Original
Published May 1, 2018

Lucas Mann is the author of Lord Fear and Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere. His essays have appeared in Guernica, BuzzFeed, Slate, and The Kenyon Review, among others. He teaches creative writing at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and lives in Providence, Rhode Island with his wife. More at


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