How the mechanisms of reality TV taught us to trust no one

That tension helps explain Survivor’s Machiavellian tilt—and its decades-long appeal. One of P. T. Barnum’s insights into the success of his various hoaxes was that people, on some deep level, love being fooled. They enjoy it so much, in fact, that they will happily pay for the privilege of being lied to—because the lie itself becomes a puzzle to be solved. Survivor, a show created by a man who operates in the Barnumian tradition, leverages a similar recognition. The allure of reality TV is not merely voyeurism, but also the cathartic thrill of suspicion. As Nancy L. Rosenblum and Russell Muirhead argue in their 2019 book, A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy, disorientation—the cognitive chaos of “conspiracy without the theory”—is an element of the latest form of American conspiracism. So is knowingness: the electric rush of feeling savvy to the workings of the world in a way most people are not.

The shows that Survivor helped inspire typically argue the same. Every contestant on The Bachelor who whispers that her competition isn’t “there for the right reasons,” every person who is edited to be a hero or a villain, every real-estate agent who flips a house, every diva who flips a table—each dares viewers to consider what’s real, what’s fake, and what’s the difference. So do the tabloids, the places where the casts of the shows go to tell their “true stories” in more detail. So do satires like UnREAL—a darkly fictionalized treatment of the behind-the-scenes workings of a Bachelor-like dating show. For the audience, part of the satisfaction of it all is in the sleuthing: fan fiction, in reverse. The X-Files, its premise inspired by extremely nonfictional failures of the American government, employed this imperative as one of its taglines: “Trust no one.” This, however, was another of the show’s mottos: “The truth is out there.”