the story behind the book

Why reality shows draw us in

david wilson for the boston globe

“We are so tired at night from our lives,” Lucas Mann writes, “and we put the TV on and settle in together to watch lives.” In Mann’s third book, “Captive Audience: On Love and Reality TV,” the essayist and cultural critic ponders the appeal of programs about the Kardashians, Honey Boo Boo, and the “housewives” of various cities: the so-called reality shows he and his wife love to watch.

“I don’t think that you need to be a reality TV fan to read it,” Mann said about the book. “I don’t necessarily think it’s a defense of reality TV, but it’s hopefully just trying to think about it as something that takes up space in my life and other people’s lives — that it has a language to it, there’s some kind of pathos behind it, that maybe there’s a reason why people care about it.”

Is reality TV a guilty pleasure? “This seems to be a cultural moment where we are granting highbrow status to everything — pop music, commercials, all the rest of TV — reality TV is the only form that hasn’t happened for,” Mann said. But maybe, he added, “that shame is part of the appeal of watching these shows.”


Mann grew up watching “The Real World,” and he’s seen the evolution of different kinds of reality TV shows. After the 2016 election of our first president to have starred in one, Mann said, “people seem to be really into progressive and positive reality shows, as this weird panacea,” citing “The Great British Bake Off” and the rebooted “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” as examples. “It does feel like the popularity of these shows is in a way moving in to provide a positive sensation where it’s needed,” he said. “There’s always that shifting along with where we are as a society.”

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Mann will read 7 p.m. Thursday at Newtonville Books.

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Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at