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'Reality' podcasts draw on the appeal of reality TV — with mixed results

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. There's no denying that reality television is widely popular and culturally influential. And when it comes to podcasts, that influence is increasingly taking the form of imitation. Podcast critic Nick Quah looks at the trend of podcasts trying to import the appeal of reality TV. Here's Nick.

NICK QUAH, BYLINE: It's not radical to say that reality television sits at the heart of American culture these days. This doesn't bother me as much as some others. It is what it is. Personally, I'm a huge consumer of reality television, and on my loftier days, I'd even argue that Bravo's "Below Deck" constitutes high art. Of course, the word reality in reality television is a misnomer. Any realer and it would be documentary. Instead, what the genre supplies is reality as a manufactured theme park, people placed in situations designed to extract heightened emotions from everyone involved. You get conflict, drama and some semblance of a narrative arc, however contrived. And if you're really lucky, you also get the sublime, a funhouse window into the primordial human experience.

The podcast world is abundant with shows about reality television. Most take the form of episode recaps and industry news. My favorite is Juliet Litman's "Bachelor Party." Squint hard enough, though, and you'll also notice a mini trend of podcasts trying to capitalize on reality television's popularity more directly by emulating the genre's conceits, mechanics and style. Among them is a podcast from earlier this year called "This Is Dating," which tries to adapt the reality dating show. The series is created by Magnificent Noise, the studio behind the star psychotherapist Esther Perel's array of popular therapy session podcasts, which are themselves inspired by reality television. "This Is Dating," part social guide and part controlled experiment, is constructed around virtual blind dates that are arranged, produced and mediated by producers and a dating coach.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THIS IS DATING")

ERIC: Hey.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hello.

ERIC: Hey. How are you? How's it going?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It is going. Nice to meet you, Eric (ph).

ERIC: Nice to meet you, too.

UNIDENTIFIED PODCASTER: All right. If it's been a while since you've been on a first date, I'll let you in on something. A lot of them are just like this, really awkward. They're completely focused on the small talk. They're sitting in the shallow end of the conversational pool. There's questions like, what do you do? where do you live? How many siblings do you have? People never really get to know each other. They're just exchanging information. So to kind of push them a little deeper into the pool, we've decided to play fairy godmothers to their date.

QUAH: More recently, a new podcast called "BEING Trans" presents a more explicit relationship with its reality TV inspirations. This fly-on-the-wall series follows a group of trans individuals as they go about their lives in Los Angeles. Reality TV fans will recognize the use of genre tropes - confessionals, concocted social situations, bouncy background music. And many listeners will respond well to the show's ambitions of normalizing the trans experience. But being trans ultimately feels like a rough draft, even as it yields occasional moments of real human drama, like this one, where Sy Clarke-Chan, a nonbinary legal assistant, discovers on tape that their partner thinks of himself as straight.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "BEING TRANS")

JEFFREY JAY: First of all, how do you - like, how do you identify?

ROBERT: I'm straight.

JAY: Yeah. I'm so sorry.

SY CLARKE-CHAN: No, it's fine.

JAY: OK. OK.

CLARKE-CHAN: When Robert answered Jeff's question that he identifies as a straight guy, you know, honestly, it put me into a bit of a spin because fundamentally, regardless of how either of us identify, our relationship is a queer relationship. It was pretty awkward because it's not a conversation that Robert and I have really had.

QUAH: There's a curious gap between this emerging cohort of reality podcasts and the television phenomenon they're inspired by. When we talk about reality television, we're usually not referring to what it looks like but what it feels like, a show marked but contrivance and, more often than not, the insinuation of mess. We turn to reality not for reality but for a fantastical reality. That spirit isn't quite present in these podcasts, where the focus is still very much on realism.

As a result, it's hard not to come away with the feeling that these are sweet nature documentaries trying to pass themselves off as something sexier. This month will see the release of "Welcome To Provincetown," a podcast that follows Mitra Kaboli, a documentarian, as she shadows a group of individuals over a summer in Provincetown, the seaside haven for the queer community.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "WELCOME TO PROVINCETOWN")

MITRA KABOLI: Before I'd even arrived in P-town, I'd heard of Qya. People were saying that she was going to be the it girl of the summer. I remember thinking, what does it mean to be the it girl, one girl?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: She's gorgeous (laughter). She just puts a lot of effort in, and you can see it. People can see it. People like her. She has the charisma.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Well, Qya is a phenomenon that, you know, blasted into town a couple of years ago. And, you know, she appears at just the right moment.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Have you seen her perform on Tuesday nights at the club? I met when she first got here. She was good, but she's really perfected her craft and her voice.

KABOLI: After living and working in town for nearly a decade, this summer, she's getting her break.

QUAH: It's a naturalistic, contemplative work, one that has more in common with verite-style audio series like "Radio Diaries" than, say, MTV's "Real World." However, that doesn't stop "Welcome To Provincetown's" distributor from marketing the show as reality television-inspired. It's hard not to be a little frustrated at the tactic, clearly meant to attract fans of reality television who wouldn't ordinarily consider trying out a podcast. But these shows aren't likely served well by the mismatch in association. Let documentaries be documentaries. There's nothing wrong with that. And when the time finally comes for podcasting to actually get its own "Real Housewives," let the mess be mess.

DAVIES: Nick Quah is podcast critic for New York magazine and Vulture. He reviewed the podcasts "This Is Dating," "BEING Trans" and "Welcome To Provincetown." On tomorrow's show, a parable about partisanship. We talk with Mat Johnson. After writing several novels about race in America, he's written a satirical novel set in the future on a moon of Jupiter in an artificial ecosystem designed to replicate life on Earth. It's also copied some of the worst aspects of America's class system and politics. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOS PUA ABAJO'S "MANIJA")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. We had additional engineering help from Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Joel Wolfram and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOS PUA ABAJO'S "MANIJA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nick Quah