Tube Talk: Redeeming reality TV shows

Reality television first hit our collective conscience when the first season of MTV’s The Real World debuted back in 1992. Now, the term “reality TV” has expanded to include everything from reality competition shows like Survivor and American Idol, to reality docu-dramas like Intervention, to supposed slice-of-life series like Gene Simmons: Family Jewels, to the shallow recesses of Dr. 90210 and beyond.

(When I saw a promo for an episode of Family Jewels where Gene and his longtime love get facelifts, I half expected that creepy, self-obsessed doc from Dr. 90210 would be the guest surgeon. Thankfully, the shows are on different channels or there might have been a crossover. A very scary crossover.)

OK, so I’m not into reality shows, but every now and then, I’ll give one a chance. Sometimes, they can actually open your eyes, like The Real World: San Francisco did when it introduced us to Pedro Zamora, who was living with AIDS and died of complications from the disease shortly after the last episode of that season aired.

Reality shows seldom make such an impact, but this season, a few are helping break stereotypes.

Just more than a year ago, TLC debuted Little People, Big World, which follows the lives of the Roloff family.

The parents, Matt and Amy, are both little people, as is one of their four children. Sure, some episodes deal with their daily issues, such as grocery shopping (I’m betting Amy would be a great rock climber) or renovating their home only to come up against standard safety codes that would actually pose a hazard to little people. But the heart of the show is the family itself: Matt’s an entrepreneur caught between his dreams and providing for his family, and Amy’s a no-nonsense mom who loves her kids enough to expect the best of them. They’re a normal, loving family.

Three of them just happen to be a little shorter than average.

Early this year, ABC began promoting the new season of Dancing With the Stars by saying one competitor would face the “ultimate challenge.” As soon as the celebrities were announced, we knew they were talking about Heather Mills and her prosthetic leg.

I’d completely lost interest in Dancing With the Stars during its last go-round, but I tuned in to the first few episodes of the new season—partly out of habit and partly to see how much of an obstacle Mills’ artificial leg would prove to be when it comes to ballroom dancing. If it weren’t for the fact she can’t point the toes on her artificial leg, I doubt many viewers would be able to tell which leg isn’t real. As Paul McCartney’s soon-to-be ex-wife, Mills’ biggest obstacle may well be millions of Beatles’ fans voting for her competitors. (Perhaps that’s what they really meant by “ultimate challenge.”)

Whether you like her or loathe her, Mills is showing the world that people with artificial limbs are capable of most anything, just as the Roloffs are proving that height needn’t be a limitation.

Programming Notes

Little People, Big World airs Mondays at 7 p.m., on TLC

Dancing With the Stars airs Mondays at 7 p.m. on ABC (results show airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m.)

Paula Hendrickson is a regular contributor to Emmy magazine, Rockford Life and Variety, and has been published in numerous national publications, including American Bungalow, SatelliteORBIT and TVGuide. Send in your suggestions to

from the May 2-8, 2007, issue

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