From the Real Housewives to Love Is Blind: how reunions took over reality TV
After two very long months, Love Island 2021 finally ended this week with a reunion that embodied the spirit (or rather lack of) of the season. In keeping with what had already been a low-stakes year, very little happened. Jake Cornish, the villain of the villa, was absent, meaning viewers missed out on one of the only potentially interesting interviews. Fan favourites and fourth-place finalists Kaz and Tyler were the only couple to not have their own dedicated sofa interview segment. As the only black couple to make the final in the show’s history, eyebrows were rightly raised.
Very little new ground was covered, with the show’s “confrontations” (Millie v Lillie, Hugo v almost every woman in the villa) falling flat, having already been addressed in prior episodes. With the 2021 series boasting the smallest launch since 2017, the awkward and anticlimactic conclusion was far from surprising, but still disappointing. Many had hoped, however, that, after a subpar year, things might be salvaged by an explosive finale – it is, after all, often the best episode of a series. When reunions aren’t done well they feel like the stuff of amnesia as opposed to escapism, with rolling clips and rehashed conversations. But, at their best, they’re a televisual event that can boost even the most boring of series.
In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of reunions for sitcoms such as Friends, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Parks and Recreation among others. While these are usually framed as old friends reminiscing with one another about their TV halcyon days, with reality shows the USP lies in watching cast members put on prom-worthy outfits to verbally (and sometimes, physically) spar. After investing weeks and sometimes months in a series, viewers are just as desperate as the cast to ask questions, seek vengeance and hold wily characters to account. It is not surprising that on shows such as Drag Race and Real Housewives – where “reading” (a colloquialism derived from black and LGBTQ communties that means to insult someone) is a focal point – reunions remain central. In an interview with the New York Times, Love and Hip Hop castmate Karlie Redd explained that she noted down insults before filming. “At the reunion, you better have them reads,” she said. “’Cos the reads are what is going to go a long way. They get you the memes.”
So integral have reunions become to these shows that when the pandemic hit, franchises turned to Zoom – like every other workplace in the world – so that grievances could be aired virtually. Despite Tiger King being a documentary as opposed to a traditional reality show, Netflix aired a follow-up special called The Tiger King and I. After Love Is Blind’s reunion episode, another After the Altar special aired one year later, while E! broadcast For Real: The Story of Reality TV, reuniting the cast of MTV’s very first season of The Real World after 20 years.
But how did this American import – a staple of shows such as Married at First Sight US, 90 Day Fiancé, Jersey Shore and Basketball Wives – become so ubiquitous? They were first seen in the reality primordial soup of MTV’s The Real World, which aired its first reunion in 1995. Soon after, programmes such as Survivor, The Bachelor and Flavor of Love began doing the same thing, but it was the Real Housewives franchise – whose multipart reunion episodes are usually the highest rated of the season – which perfected the art. Over 15 years, the franchise’s reunions evolved from semi-civil gatherings that took place in a cast member’s garden to full-on events. They’re where cast members showcase their best stunts, one-liners and even props – in one infamous episode, Real Housewives of Atlanta star Kenya Moore brought a megaphone with her, leading to a fight with Porsha Williams. Phaedra Parks and Moore came to blows on the same show, with Parks’ withering put down being heralded as “the read of the decade” by viewers.
Aside from artful insults and fisticuffs, the keys to a good reunion are revelations and bombshells. As the lines between reality TV and social media continue to blur, we have become accustomed to watching the lives of cast members unfold long after the cameras stop rolling on Instagram, so the entire point of a reunion is to tell us what we don’t already know. They are there primarily to provide a sense of closure or comeuppance – or a preview of plotlines to come off the back of the drama they themselves create. Some may see them as an unnecessary attempt to squeeze the last drops of relevance from a show, but – when done well – reunions tend to be the high point of a series. Cardi B is best known by many for WAP, but Love and Hip Hop fans know her first and foremost for shouting: “What was the reason, bitch!” at an adversary during the show’s New York reunion (a clip of this altercation has had 53m views on YouTube). Drag Race contestant Tammie Brown’s bizarre takedown of RuPaul with the quip: “I don’t see you out there walking children in nature,” (apparently a reference to Brown’s own charity work) remains legendary.
As their popularity continues to increase, we will probably end up more focused on what happens after our favourite reality shows than what happens on them. But, perhaps, we will also finally get the Selling Sunset special we deserve, in which case all the delayed gratification will be worth it.