by Stephen Jay Schwartz

First of all, let me apologize for not being around this past week. A bizarre apartment malfunction sent me and my family running to the hotel we’ve been living in for the past six days, with only our dog and the shirts on our backs. All this, with very little sleep and the pressure of delivering the first draft of my screenwriting assignment today. It’s been an adventure, and the thing that’s kept me sane through it all is reality television.

Really, Stephen? Reality television?

I’m not talking about your parent’s reality television, like The Real World or Big Brother, where the point is to voyeuristically observe the train wrecks of troubled lives colliding.

I’m talking about a new generation of family-friendly phenoms that teach more about human emotion and the sanctity of life than the world of literature herself. Yeah, I know, big statement. But I’m talking about inspiration here, not the deep, dark ruminating of Tolstoy, Hemmingway or Emily Dickenson. These are shows that reveal the human spirit in action, the American work ethic working, and the indisputable value of family and friends.

The Unpoppables

Description: “The twists, turns — and ties — are many for the staff at New Balloon Art. Each episode of this series follows Addi, Katie and Brian as they meet with a client and then begin creating a large-scale balloon installation for a special event or occasion. An average of 15,000 balloons are needed to complete the intricate projects, and the team usually has no more than 72 hours to get the job done.”

This charming show is my favorite. It proves that you really can do whatever you want in life. Do you remember your parents’ reaction when you told them you were going to be a novelist? Can you imagine if you’d told them you were going to be a balloon artist instead? Well, that’s what these guys do, and it’s as much an art as anything you’ve ever seen. I am astounded by the amount of creativity involved. I never knew how many different shapes and sizes and styles and colors defined the universe of balloons. These guys have to build their projects within a 72-hour window or else the balloons will shrivel and wilt (I know the feeling). If they can imagine it, they can do it. And this is the message I want to convey to my kids. This is why The Unpoppables scores at the top of my list.

The Cake Boss

Description: “Buddy Valastro’s family-owned business, Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken, N.J., is booming, and it’s bound to get even busier after viewers get an inside look at how Buddy and his staff, including his mom, four sisters and three brothers-in-law, produce thousands of wedding cakes, specialty cakes (as in Britney Spears’ circus-theme 27th birthday cake) and pastries every week.”

Did I ever think I’d be glued to a reality TV show about a bakery? Never in a thousand years. So, why is this show so damn compelling? It’s Buddy. He’s an incredible hero. His story is the American Dream, realized from the boot-straps on up. The great message of this show is that integrity, loyalty, hard-work and commitment to family prove to be the ingredients needed to live a happy life. Buddy is a tough-guy Italian at first glance, but reveals himself to be such a loving romantic that I feel like a slug when compared to him, and any guy who watches the show with his wife is going to be compared to him. Interestingly, this is another show that proves art is a component of every vocation. I’m enthralled by the way science and aesthetics combine to create such functional beauty.

The Next Great Baker

Description: Join Buddy Valastro as he puts 10 talented pastry chefs through the wringer to earn the title of “Next Great Baker.” At stake in the competition: a $50,000 cash prize and the chance to work side-by-side with Buddy at Carlo’s Bakery.”

It was this show that introduced me to Buddy Valastro. He comes off as the boss-from-hell in this show, as he puts a group of talented, young bakers to the test. I was blown away by how much suspense can be squeezed out of baking cakes. All the dramatic beats of Greek tragedy exist here.

Pit Bulls and Parolees

Description: “Follow the turbulent drama and bittersweet moments of Tia Torres, her family and her crew of ex-convicts as they come together to rescue and rehabilitate abused and abandoned pit bulls.”

What’s not to like in that log-line? What marketing genius thought to combine Pit Bulls and parolees? If I banged my head against a wall for a thousand years I would not have come up with that combination. Reality wins again. This is a show about second chances. Everyone deserves one. These ex-cons learn to see themselves in the abandoned and abused dogs they manage, experiencing the kind of rehabilitation that could never exist in prison. And the fact that a tough, no-nonsense woman runs the place, keeping everyone’s attention focused on the plight of the animals, says more for Women’s Lib than a hundred pamphlets distributed in the parking lot of the Miss America Pageant.

This show also provides another great message for my children – there is good in all of us. If you fuck up, you can learn from it, you can make things right. Another common message in the above three shows – failure is part of the process. It’s the first ten steps of success.

Outrageous Kid Parties

Description: “Whether it’s a birthday party, a graduation, or any milestone celebration, each week Outrageous Kid Parties documents parents as they go beyond their means to give their child a huge eye popping, jaw dropping fete. With high expectations, they force other family members, friends and party planners to go to extreme measures to ensure that their fabulous party goes down in history as an event never to be forgotten.”

Okay, this is my guilty pleasure. This is the train wreck we watch from the sidelines. The best thing I can say about this show is that it serves as a cautionary tale for the handful of disturbed housewives who want to live their unrealized dreams through their children by spending $30,000 on a six year-old’s birthday party. And the women are perfectly matched with clueless husbands who enable them and always seem surprised when they arrive home to find a thousand people in their front yard holding tickets for a ride in the elephant parade. Then there’s the poor siblings of the Chosen Child who are told through a million un-spoken cues that they are not the favorite child, that they are undeserving of the $30,000 party, that the only thing they’re good for is getting on the bus to serve the favored one. These siblings might as well study balloon art and prepare for the worst.

19 Kids and Counting

Description: “The Duggars aren’t your average family. In fact, they’re over 5 times the size of an average family. And while raising 19 kids can be a challenge, for the Duggars, it comes with more than its share of rewards.”

The best thing about this show is that it directly follows Outrageous Kid Parties and thus provides an alternative to slitting our wrists. The show reminds us that all families are not dysfunctional. It is all about family and love and respect. Like The Cake Boss, the message is clear – you work hard, you’re there for your friends and family, you treat others as you want to be treated, and the goodness of life will be yours.

It’s interesting to note that I didn’t choose any of these reality shows. There were, in fact, forced upon me. I watched them because my kids wanted me to, and then I got hooked. What’s cool is that my kids saw their value first. They showed me the way. And I’m there for them, letting them know that their opinion counts. Reminds me of the special moments my father and I shared, watching episodes of the original Star Trek or Night Gallery together. It was our time to hang out, to be friends.

In addition to the reality shows, my kids have aged enough to appreciate the wry humor, sarcasm and sexual innuendo that permeates some of my favorite shows – The Office, Saturday Night Live (especially classic episodes), and Whose Line is it Anyway? This is a great relief to me, since just a few months ago it was Zack and Cody and Hannah Montana. Please, gag me with a spoon. I’m glad they’re growing up in a family without dysfunction. Oh, wait, is that the Girls Next Door they’re watching? I better go join them. (It’s called “adult supervision,” folks.)


  1. Alafair Burke

    I have forced myself to avoid most reality TV because I know I could quickly become addicted to, say, the entire Real Housewives cabal, but the Outrageous Kid Party thing sounds like my cup of tea. There used to be a show called Sweet Sixteen. The network ran a marathon of it shortly after I heard Anderson Cooper say something delicious about it. My fate was sealed. I lost an entire day and a meaningful number of IQ points.

    Sorry you got displaced! Hope it's all back to normal soon.

  2. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Thanks, Alafair! I think the worst thing that can happen is that the network runs a marathon of these shows for us. We might as well cancel our word-count for the day when that happens.

  3. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Stephen

    I hope things settle down for you on the housing front soon!

    These shows sound fascinating … but remind me why we don't have TV ;-]

  4. Jake Nantz

    Prayers to all of our 'Rati on the West Coast. Supposedly the waves headed your way will have dissipated enough not to be an issue, but I'm still worried about you guys (especially you on Hawaii, RGB). Take care guys.

  5. Chuck

    Good luck with the housing situation SJS! And thanks for that last picture. I really enjoyed it. 🙂

  6. Eika

    I cringe as I watch most reality shows, but I love some (which I have to follow on Hulu because I'm never available when they're on). My favorite is Home Makeover. A group of people building new homes for good people? I can get behind that.

  7. Debbie

    Stephen, I too am worried about the displacement…that of IQ in soaking up fathomless hours in this uh, viewing. That said, it's wonderful that it is a connecting point with your children. I'll bet you've influenced them in more ways than you know! 🙂

  8. JD Rhoades

    My wife has become a fan of what I call "property porn": shows on HGTV like 'House Hunters", "International House Hunters" and especially "Selling New York" , which is like 'Insanely Rich House Hunters in Manhattan." I actually like "International House Hunters' now that they've gotten away from every episode being rich white people buying vacation homes in Mexico or Costa Rica and gone back to people looking for housing in cool European cities.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sorry, but I'm going to go all union on you. Reality TV has largely refused to let workers unionize – studios use kids right out of college and pay them the lowest wages they can get away with and zero benefits and force unpaid overtime, all the while claiming the shows are unscripted (my ass.)

    It's a blight on the industry and hurts not just the shows' employees, but all writers.

  10. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Zoe – fortunately I only catch a show here and there, usually when I'm settling in for bed.

    Jake – there's a Tsunami watch going on in my little beach town as we speak. They closed down the pier, which is about two hundred yards from where I sit.

    Chuck – yeah, that last picture kind of sticks with ya, don't it?

    Eika – yes, there's good value in that show. Although I'm pretty much done with shows about houses, after losing mine in the big bursting bubble.

    Debbie – thanks. I'm actually surprised by how much we learn about human nature from these shows, and the positive images projected throughout.

    JD – it's hard enough watching rich folks spend tens of thousands of dollars on their kids' birthday parties, I can't stomach watching them buy properties around the world. Not when I'm living in a hotel.

    Louise – sorry, but I'll have to say no to the dress. Aren't pastries enough?

    Alex – you got me there. I agree — it's bullshit.

  11. JT Ellison

    I have to admit, I'm not a fan of reality TV. I'm over drama. Even dealing with Facebook sometimes makes me feel like I'm back in elementary school. But more power to ya! Or to each his own. Which works best here???

  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    JT – that's kind of the point of my blog – that these shows are different from what most of us consider "Reality TV." They're inspirational instead of venomous. Except the outrageous kid parties, which is too horrible not to watch. But all provide a fascinating window into human psychology.

  13. JT Ellison

    I don't know, kiddo – Cake Boss can get pretty outrageous sometimes… ; )

    I must admit, I am addicted to one "reality" show – House Hunters International. Perfect to watch right before bed – so the only nightmares are about tables and chairs….

  14. KDJames

    Oy, Stephen. I'm glad you're able to find enjoyment in these shows, but I'm just as glad you did such a good job describing them so I don't ever have to watch for myself. I have very little tolerance for TV in general and only watch a few shows regularly.

    Sorry about the apartment malfunction. You've certainly had more than your share of displacement lately. Hope you all get settled back in soon.

    And I might not be remembering correctly, but isn't at least one of your commenters over here living in Japan? Hoping whoever it is will check in soon and set our minds at ease re health and well being.

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