Ask anyone who watches reality television why they enjoy it and I’ll bet plenty of responses will contain the word “anthropology”. It is fascinating, we say, trying to justify our “guilty pleasure”, from an anthropological perspective: watching the relationship dynamics, the power shifts, the deceits, the betrayals, and the love interests play out.
Now, into this world of very important human studies has entered a new reality competition from the makers of The Traitors. Channel 4’s Rise and Fall, presented by Greg James, sounds as though it will have many of the components that made the hit BBC show so good: hubris, treachery, Machiavellian levels of manipulation, and, with any luck, an excellent cast of characters to analyse.
The concept is this: 16 ordinary people begin as equals, but through a series of challenges either rise to be a Ruler (and live in the “opulent penthouse”) or fall to be a Grafter (and survive in basic conditions in the basement). It sounds rather like the games once played on Big Brother, which actively encouraged a hierarchy, with some contestants rewarded with special luxuries – except it is on a macro scale, affecting the entire show rather than time-limited tasks. At the end of this game of snakes and ladders, one of the Rulers will walk away with the prize money of up to £100,000.
Even just the synopsis should get us anthropologists feeling giddy. And what a time to be alive: Rise and Fall is just the latest piece of evidence to suggest that the social experiment branch of reality television is having a moment. Most notable is The Traitors, last year’s Claudia Winkleman-presented phenomenon in which 22 spectacularly good personalities decamped to the Scottish Highlands to convince one another they were “100 per cent” faithful (when in fact some of them were saboteurs lying through their teeth at every turn).
Just a month before The Traitors, Netflix resurrected The Mole, a competition with a very similar format, which first aired in the early Noughties (and is equally silly and addictive). We’ve also had Channel 4’s The Bridge (can strangers work together to build a bridge?) and The Simpler Life (can digital obsessives spend a summer cut off in a remote farm?) – and let’s not forget ITV’s forthcoming reboot of Big Brother, where it all began.
There is also a whole subsection in the dating world: from Netflix’s Love is Blind asking what dating could look like without physical attraction to The Ultimatum, which explores whether couples will finally tie the knot when presented with… yes, an ultimatum. This was described as “a new social experiment that pushes relationships to the next level”, though it often ended in tears.
By contrast, scripted reality shows – The Only Way is Essex, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Made in Chelsea, Geordie Shore, The Real Housewives – are experiencing all-time lows in viewing figures and struggle to maintain relevance. Evidently, these once-dominant programmes are no longer in their prime.
So why have our tastes changed? I’d hazard a guess that it’s because we are in the age of self-analysis, though it may also be a hangover from the pandemic: there is something appealing about observing people being pushed to extremes in weird circumstances after we’ve all been in weird circumstances, pushed to our own extremes.
Those behind Rise and Fall are determined for the show to feel modern and pertinent. Channel 4’s chief content officer, Ian Katz, has described Rise and Fall as “timely”, because “the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ has never felt wider”. I think this is undoubtedly true – and watching people wield power recklessly could feel painfully familiar. Yet I also can’t help but feel that a reality programme is hardly the most appropriate place to explore inequality. Pretending it is anything more worthy than entertainment is unnecessary.
The thing is, we shouldn’t need to justify everything – not least our interest in reality TV. Yes, it is great for anthropology. But also, let’s be honest, it is mostly just as excellent for our amusement.
Rise and Fall begins at 9pm on Sunday on Channel 4