Good Luck Finding The Reality in Black Reality TV

The only thing missing from black family reality television is the reality.

NBAE/Getty Images
NBAE/Getty Images

The latest entry in the celebrity-driven, black family, reality TV phenomenon is Deion & Pilar: Prime Time Love, which debuted last week, oddly enough, on Oxygen, a channel better-known for Bad Girls Club. For those who don’t follow professional sports the celebrity in this series is Deion Sanders, who was a bona fide superstar in both the NFL and Major League Baseball, and was nicknamed “Primetime” because of his penchant for the spotlight. Pilar, his second wife, is a former model/actress.

But if Deion & Pilar seems an odd choice for the Oxygen network, especially after its Tori Spelling reality series, you’re unaware of the growing fascination with black-family reality TV. For me they are a guilty pleasure—the more outrageous the better. But at least I know they aren’t real. I suspect that may not be true for a lot of viewers, particularly if they don’t really know any black people.

The simple formula—high-profile black celebrity and family live a scripted and sometimes not-so-scripted life in front of the camera—has proven to be a ratings winner. This combination of pseudo-reality and celebrity—for which TV audiences seem to clamor, follows a pattern in which mainstream viewers seem extraordinarily willing to buy into a patently false lifestyle portrayals (The Hills, The Kardashians) in which the fantasy of effortlessly acquired wealth and material excess yields a loyal following on TV, turning nobodies into red carpet somebodies, while reviving sagging celebrity careers.

Add black folks to the mix of reality/celebrity/fantasy shows, and you’ve got the perfect antidote to HBO’s The Wire, arguably just as much a reality show as anything else on TV.

Deion & Pilar follows the success, if not buzz, of Snoop Dogg’s Father Hood on E!, in which the rapper tries to instill discipline in his brood, against the backdrop of his own history of decadence.

In one episode, Snoop’s wife tries to introduce a healthier diet by banning him from fried chicken. In another episode, Snoop takes a yoga lesson, and in a third, soccer star David Beckham gives Snoop’s kid’s soccer lessons. Ah, the life of a gangsta-rapper-turned-doting-dad.

Gotti’s Way, another popular reality series on VH1 follows newly acquitted hip-hop mogul Irv Gotti as he tries to revive his record label while in the midst of a messy divorce and the difficulty it has caused in his relationship with his children. MTV has Run’s House, a reality series based on the blended family of Run DMC rapper Joseph Simmons. After he and his wife had tried to have another child, the season ends with the arrival of an adopted newborn.

In both Gotti’s Way and Run’s House, at least one episode included a scene that caused the stars to angrily demand that the cameras stop rolling to avoid revealing very raw, emotional and presumably unscripted moments. There is a subtle sense that this is yet another manipulation meant to suggests the real pathology of black family life.

Even the black cable networks have taken a stab at their own family reality series: Last year, TV One’s reality series I Married a Baller, featured former NFL running back Eddie George and his wife, Tamara Johnson-George, a former R&B singer with SWV. The show was similar to Deion & Pilar, but without the 40,000 square foot mansion and 112-acre ranch that the Sanderses own.