I’m still not quite sure how this happened, but ultimately, I’m glad that it did.
It’s like one day I just looked up and I was alone, in my apartment, eating a meal after work, watching Cardi B on VH1’s “Love & Hip Hop (New York)” declare that if she was going to have beef with a girl, they were going to beef “foreva.”
I’d been watching for a few years at that point, even going back to watch the earlier Chrissy- and Jim Jones-focused seasons I’d missed. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I was so into the semi-manufactured drama, especially since I’d been too much of a “snob” to watch “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” when it debuted in 2008 (I would eventually give in, though, once the fifth season kicked off with Kenya Moore and Porsha Williams joining the cast). Yet, there I was scarfing down takeout to the screeches of Cardi pre-“Got a bag to fix my teeth / Hope you hoes know it ain’t cheap” fame.
Usually, when I would try to talk to my friends and colleagues about these shows, I would be welcomed with eye rolls and scoffs. “It’s so fake!” they’d bemoan. “It’s scripted! It’s ruining everything!” Even friends who espoused the pointlessness of respectability politics placed on Black people and Black culture would clutch their pearls when they learned I, unironically, enjoyed “Basketball Wives.” But I was smart! And accomplished! Surely something was terribly, terribly wrong here, they’d imply.
But there wasn’t. There was nothing wrong at all.
I have to blame and thank my best friend Jada for introducing me to the pure escapism of watching women argue over wine and nonsense, an incredible reality TV gift that has kept giving while giving me life. He watched these shows because his mom watched and soon thereafter became invested in the ridiculousness (and oft sexy-meets-possibly-insane glamour) the likes of Evelyn Lozada and Malaysia Pargo offered. He traveled far down the rabbit hole, obsessively consuming everything from the short-lived but entertaining “Hollywood Exes” on VH1 to the embarrassingly long-lived “Bad Girls Club” on Oxygen.
Even though I had been an early adopter of this reality TV world as a teen, watching the first three seasons of MTV’s “The Real World” (and a few other seasons after skipping “The Real World: London”), I wrote the genre off as a young adult, preferring to consume huge swaths of scripted network television and sometimes, my Granny’s favorite “stories,” (aka soap opera), “The Young and the Restless.” Since I did not have cable in my 20s, the early years of Shondaland’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” the pointless drama that was “Lost,” and various iterations of Dick Wolf’s “Law & Order” were my jam. But then I met Jada around 2009, we became roommates a few years later, and the rest is history.
For him, my nadir was me watching a show I openly told anyone was “child abuse theater,” aka the Abby Lee Miller-starring, hate-watch “Dance Moms” on Lifetime. He absolutely despised it, but I loved it for all the same reasons I hate-watched the “glamour” of “Basketball Wives LA” — it featured women around my age, often in interesting-to-terrible-to-amazing outfits, arguing about foolishness. It had all the drama, wealth-porn, and intensity of “Y&R” but none of the ridiculous stakes or ludicrous storylines. Even though he was mostly in this for the booty model aesthetics of the early seasons of “Love & Hip Hop Atlanta,” I went beyond the occasional WWE-quality throwdown and actually got invested in the interior lives of the guileless. It was as though the student had become the master, and I’d graduated from a casual observer to all-in for trashy programming.
It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy “prestige” TV. In fact, I love it. I was just as into “Lovecraft Country,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos” as I was into, ahem, the “Power Universe” on Starz. (Let’s be honest: The highly digestible, quotable and over-the-top “Power” stuck the landing way better than “Game of Thrones” and they were essentially the same show, only one was about sitting on an uncomfortable-looking chair and the other was about being the biggest drug dealer in New York. Let’s fight!) The reality is, if I’m completely honest, my tastes have always been broad and random, which actually has worked in my favor professionally. I always knew what people liked to read and talk about because, I am, in fact, “people.” Even though my old DVD collection boasted art-house fare like “Marat-Sade,” it also included Oscar-winners like “Brokeback Mountain” and the Criterion Collection edition of the original Paul Verhoeven flick, “Robocop.” Why so random? I just like drama. It can come in the form of the depressing “Magnolia” that I used to watch on repeat in the mid-2000s, in the absurdity that is Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” or in crowd-pleasers like “The Dark Knight.” To paraphrase Russell Crowe in “Gladiator,” was I not entertained? That’s all I cared about. Drown me in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or every Scorcese film ever made. I am down to watch.
But something strange happened as I started leading newsrooms and consuming more and more tragic images of Black people being abused, harassed, violated or killed by the police. The news, something I’d been ingesting daily since I was around 11, had become an unbearably painful slog I couldn’t avoid, as it was what I’d dedicated my life to professionally.
The lowest point for me was immediately after the 2016 election when I realized that, under the new Trump administration, there would no longer be any real federal investigations or interventions when Black people were targeted by state-sponsored violence. I literally cried on the phone to my father, who, at the time, told me not to worry because he’d been through “worse.” He’s almost 80 and survived the turbulent 1960s and Jim Crow. Still, a few short years later, after the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and the killing of George Floyd, plus the subsequent protests and uprisings and riots that followed all the way to the insurrection on Jan. 6, he admitted that maybe I had been right to be so upset.
After 2016, when I came home from work, the last thing I wanted to watch was cable news, even though I had been a steady viewer of CNN and MSNBC since my teens. In fact, I used to wake up to Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski and fall asleep to Don Lemon. The seminal “60 Minutes” was in heavy rotation, as were the Sunday shows. But now I was done. It wasn’t “fun” anymore. The news refused to stay in the newsroom, seeping into everything in my life, and I couldn’t take it anymore. All the pain, all the despair ― it was too much to carry.
I liken this to my first “awakening” in my mid-20s when I realized the history my mother had taught me from an early age wasn’t just “information” anymore. As a child, I could read about wars and atrocities and process these events as mere “facts” and “stories from the past.” I didn’t really understand what any of it meant until, as an adult, I finally grasped the consequences of human action, or inaction, in our society. “Roots” was no longer just a really good miniseries about the past, but, instead, the telling of a horrendous international crime imposed on fellow human beings, ruining generations under the guise of capitalism. I couldn’t watch the Civil War flick “Glory” without becoming completely inconsolable from the combination of sadness and rage it caused. I sat through John Singleton’s “Rosewood” once and vowed I would never see it again because it made me so upset.
It’s actually amazing I stuck with TV news for so long. I almost quit after Hurricane Katrina, when I was a crying mess for weeks because I was bombarded with images of people who looked like my cousins, uncles and grandparents, all in peril. I am, at my core, a pretty sensitive soul who is deeply affected by images. I don’t just watch movies or read books, I teleport to a whole other world where I’m completely immersed in whatever emotion is happening on the screen or page. It’s why I can’t play video games — I get too into it, lose the ability to separate from reality and fiction, and get alarmingly addicted to the otherworldliness of it.
I needed a distraction. I needed relief from the brutality and hopelessness that plagued me and so many others consuming the 24-hour news cycle. Then I realized my salvation had been in front of me all along in the form of Porsha Williams dragging Kenya Moore by her hair to Andy Cohen’s onlooking horror. Yes, reality TV would be my savior.
The stakes of watching people fight over various forms of “disrespect” on “Black Ink Crew” (original version and “Chicago”), are much lower than, say, watching “Underground,” WGN’s canceled-too-soon series about slavery. The emotion on these largely disposable shows is much less emotional. The humor is high. The fashions are “a mood.” You can fall asleep or walk away to do dishes and miss absolutely nothing. It requires no brain power, no real investment, and usually, the plot lines (or what little plot exists there) are mostly inoculated from the tragedy of our world. It’s literally the bold and the beautiful, the young and the reckless. Pretty people fighting about petty things in a frothy mix of sugary camp with tragedy largely out of sight. Or, if tragedy does materialize, it doesn’t take the same toll on my psyche as say, HBO’s “Watchmen.” It’s honestly the same reason I enjoy a good Marvel movie or the food at Olive Garden. It’s safe. It’s predictable. It’s of middling to very good quality and I sleep like a baby after consuming it.
Do you know what I don’t sleep like a baby after watching? The news. Or a really intense and/or violent drama. Or a movie, play, or book about slavery. (Ask me about Jeremy O. Harris’ 2019 Broadway production “Slave Play” one day if you have a few hours to kill. Hell, ask me about his other play, “Daddy!” I have OPINIONS considering I couldn’t stop being enraged by the former and ranted about it for three days straight, and the latter was slightly less scarring, but still ... thoughts! I have them!)
Suddenly, watching reality TV was more than a fun way to spend a Sunday night. It became a panacea for the true realities of the world that I dealt with all day long in and out of the news mines. It allowed me to escape — to turn off my brain for a few hours. At night, instead of waking up every hour with thoughts and dreams about Black people being murdered, it allowed me to sleep soundly. I don’t have to go to bed with fresh images from the tragedy at Astroworld in my head. Or Afghanistan. Or worry that thoughts of the sexual assault of Indigenous women will creep into my unconsciousness for a solid eight to 10 hours. I can spend my waking and working hours consuming the news and all the nightmares it brings, but at night? My nights are now dedicated to letting “The Real Housewives of Potomac” wash away my pain.
As unreal as it may sound, absorbing the slate of programming Bravo and VH1 offers has made me a much saner and reasonable person. Contrary to what the pearl-clutchers warned, it has not, in fact, rotted my brain ... instead, it has restored it! “The Real Housewives,” whether they be from Atlanta, Beverly Hills, New Jersey, Potomac, or Salt Lake City, have all saved my life multiple times. Karen Huger ensures that no matter how the news may come for me, it cannot find me, for I am long gone. No matter how bleak the report, no matter how dark the day, so much can be rejuvenated by the messiness of Ashley Darby, which makes me better prepared to tackle whatever true horror show awaits me in the morning.
I need reality TV and I love reality TV because in it I found a way to protect parts of my psyche. And because I have found a way to prioritize my mental health and cope, I can be better at my job. Because I’ve found a way to safeguard parts of my soul, I can be better in my relationships. Because I can combat some of the despair with a dollop of frivolity, I can be better to myself. So I accept the judgment and stares. I accept the eye rolls and guffaws. But it doesn’t sting because I am “people,” Bravo Nation is legion and reality TV is the gift I never knew I wanted that gives and gives and gives.
Danielle Belton is the editor-in-chief of HuffPost.