As Reality TV Reunions Go Virtual, What About the Fights?

As Reality TV Reunions Go Virtual, What About the Fights?

Much like some of your work meetings (if you’re lucky enough to have a job, let alone one that allows you to work from home), most spin classes and nearly all sex work, another great American institution is moving online because of the coronavirus.

Last Monday, the “Real Housewives” Svengali Andy Cohen — who recently recovered from a case of Covid-19 — announced on his Sirius/XM radio show that the upcoming season reunion of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” for Season 12, would be recorded virtually.

“The Real Housewives of Atlanta” reunion “is regarded by many as the Super Bowl of reunion shows,” Mr. Cohen said on his radio show. “And it is truly one of my favorite reunions to shoot. I look forward to it.”

“And the fact of the matter is,” he said, “it’s either we do it this way or there’s no Super Bowl this year.”

The Atlanta iteration of “Real Housewives” is the most popular of Bravo’s unsinkable reality franchise, but multiple-part reunion specials in general are usually the highest rated of each series, according to data from Nielsen. The first of the three-part Season 11 reunion was last season’s most watched episode, drawing in about 300,000 more viewers than the 1.9 million season average.

Netflix has also noticed the draw of reunions. It just aired a new special called “The Tiger King and I,” which is billed as an “Aftershow” to “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness,” a documentary about Joe Maldonado-Passage, a big-cat-park owner better known as Joe Exotic, and his murder-for-hire plot against a conservationist nemesis.

“The Tiger King and I,” hosted by Joel McHale, is an attempt to catch us up with the subjects of the documentary — minus the incarcerated Mr. Maldonado-Passage. It was filmed in the socially distant manner that has been replicated by talk shows across the TV spectrum.

This is Netflix’s third reunion-type episode, after those for “The Circle” and “Love Is Blind,” which are shows about living and loving in isolation, prescient subject matter for our time.

In a typical pre-pandemic reunion episode, reality show stars who haven’t been together for a while sit on two couches facing each other, slinging insults and recriminations about long-simmering tensions and things that others have said behind their backs. It’s like an actual, contentious family reunion, but it’s other people. And it’s absolutely gorgeous.

Reunions have become important, said Rob Mills, the senior vice president of alternative series, specials and late-night at ABC. “After the Final Rose,” which are the reunions and finales of the network’s “Bachelor” franchise, are the “highest rated parts of the seasons,” Mr. Mills said. “Those were born out of when the show first started, and it was like, how do we get more hours out of it? Now the seasons wouldn’t be the same without them. They might be worse.”

Like so much in the reality world, the phenomenon started with “The Real World,” the groundbreaking MTV show that aired its first reunion in 1995. In it, the strangers who had stopped being polite and started being real from the show’s first four seasons got together on one stage to talk about where their lives had gone.

During one contentious conversation, one “Real World” star got up and stormed off in the middle of taping. This action would become a staple of the genre: the walk off.

Just as “The Real World” started everything in unscripted television, “Survivor” popularized it. Nielsen measured a Bryant Gumbel-hosted reunion immediately after the show’s first finale at a torch-snuffing 38 million viewers. Plenty of shows, especially competition shows like “Flavor of Love,” on VH1, experimented with reunion specials in the early 2000s.

But no one hit it out of the park like “The Real Housewives.”

In 2006, “The Real Housewives of Orange County” filmed its first reunion, hosted by Mr. Cohen, then a Bravo executive, in the backyard of Vicki Gunvalson, one of the cast members. What started off as a quaint way to recap the season slowly morphed into something else, where the stars were held accountable both by each other and by the fans in heavily decorated sets.

Walk offs are common, and physical altercations — like those between Mr. Cohen and Teresa Giudice of “The Real Housewife of New Jersey,” or between the “Real Housewives of Atlanta” stars Porsha Williams and Kenya Moore — are not unheard-of.

That will be a lot more difficult now that each of the women of “Atlanta” will be isolated and Mr. Cohen will be kept safe in an undisclosed location (probably his home).

Before the shift to filming remotely, reunions in general were getting more and more intense, which may account for the ratings bonanzas.

A year before Cardi B threw a shoe at Nicki Minaj at a fashion week party in 2018, she practiced the move at the Season 7 reunion for VH1’s “Love and Hip-hop: New York,” flinging her footwear across the set at Asia Davies, a castmate. The YouTube clip of this foundational event has more than 38 million views.

For the “Love and Hip-hop” franchise, which follows interconnected women trying to make it in the rap business, all reunions — at least up until now — also featured a live studio audience who react to what those onstage have to say. They applaud what they like or boo when they disagree. It’s not dissimilar to an emperor giving the thumbs up or the thumbs down at a coliseum.

“Let’s be for real. The audience makes everything better,” said Yung Joc, a fixture on “Love and Hip-hop: Atlanta.” “Imagine how good your sex would be if you had an audience sitting there saying, ‘Oooh, ahh, yeah, that’s it.’ Do you imagine how good you’d be? It’s the same concept.” (Well, it may not be, but we get his voyeuristic metaphor.).

For the cast filming them, the reunions are a long day, often running more than 12 hours, not including hair and makeup. They must face every bad action and stray remark they’ve made over the past run of the season.

“I think it’s like a heavyweight fight,” said LeeAnne Locken, one of the stars of the first four seasons of “The Real Housewives of Dallas.” “If you don’t train, don’t go.”

Karlie Redd, who has been with “Love and Hip-hop: Atlanta” since it started in 2012, said she spends all year thinking about the reunion, which she called a “major deal.” “You’re making sure you look good from head to toe,” she said. “That wig, baby, that wig, it has to be on and it has to be fresh and looking nice.”

“I take notes. I have notes in my phone of who I’m going to address, which cast members I want to say things to, and my reads,” she said, referring to sharp and witty rejoinders she will use to verbally spar with her enemies. “At the reunion you better have them reads. ’Cause the reads are what is going to go a long way. They get you the memes.”

There are some technical worries.

Luckily for “90 Day Fiancé,” a show on TLC, the producers already have some experience dealing with teleconferencing, which isn’t uncommon during the “Tell Alls,” as the network calls the reunion episodes.

The show follows a rotating cast of international couples in which one of the partners has just entered the United States on a 90-day visa after the pair got engaged. At the reunion, the friends and family members of the foreign partner aren’t available in studio but appear on video chat.

“They literally sit there all day long waiting for their turn to be interviewed,” said Shaun Robinson, who hosts the “Tell Alls.” “Sometimes I feel so bad for them — they might get on the Skype at midnight their time and don’t finish until noon the next day.”

While the cast may no longer be allowed to be in the same space for filming, fans will still be able to submit their questions. Thanks to those submissions and to networks patrolling fans’ real-time reactions to the show episodes on Twitter and Instagram, Ms. Robinson and other hosts know what viewers at home want to know once the season wraps.

“When we started, the fans didn’t have a way to so quickly ask the questions and comment on it,” said Lily Neumeyer, the executive vice president and head of development for MTV group, about the importance of social media in preparation for her networks’ reunions. “These reunions are a come-to-Jesus with the audience.”

Imitating fans, Ms. Neumeyer said: “‘You said ‘blah blah blah,’ but we saw you do x y z. Which is it?’”

Many people cast on these shows have turned that exposure into being an influencer on social media. If a network doesn’t show us what the former contestants are up to now, fans are going to see it all on Instagram.

But social media, much like reality television, is very mitigated. The reunions, at least, feel raw, and the essential question from most fans — how real is it? — is tested in a supposedly more live setting.

But will that still hold true with a virtual reunion? (An e-union, if you will.) In early March, Ms. Redd, who will be at the reunion for the current season of “Love and Hip-hop: Atlanta” said, “Oooh, this next reunion is going to be a doozy.” (The show started airing just as cities were starting to shelter residents in place.)

She had no idea how right she was, but for a completely different reason.


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