Buzzsaw | Matthew Gilbert

Conceding reality TV’s soft-core promise

Tina and Chris in TLC’s “Buying Naked.”
Tina and Chris in TLC’s “Buying Naked.”

Fans of TV, along with fans of all things that aren’t gross, have learned to block the image out of their minds. CBS certainly blocked it out back in the summer of 2000, with the help of a perfectly placed dab of pixelization. I’m referring to the infamous nudity of “Survivor” contestant Richard Hatch, who felt that competing in the raw, wearing nothing but his snide grin, would somehow give him an edge over his competitors.

And indeed, he streaked to victory.

Turns out, that icon-ick Hatch blur was the shape of things to come. Now naked-centric reality TV shows have proliferated, from TLC’s “Buying Naked” and VH1’s “Naked Dating” to “Naked and Afraid” on the Discovery Channel (below), last fall’s “Naked Vegas” on Syfy, and the upcoming “Skin Wars” on GSN. Other “Survivor” players have shed their clothes over the years, as have many bachelors and bachelorettes who’ve been within reach of champagne and a hot tub after sundown, but now the nudity is the marquee attraction.


Some 15 years into reality TV, the reality producing powers have pretty much lost their imaginations when it comes to juicing the genre with gimmicks. Nudity makes those all-star editions, fake-out twists, and superstar judges look like the height of ingenuity. Producers saw that “Naked and Afraid,” about naked couples surviving in the wild, was a hit last summer, and now nude is the new tack. The dating shows have gotten boring? Then have the models — I mean contestants — do stripteases.

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There has always been something porny about reality TV, which essentially throws a bunch of extroverts together so we can watch them strut, clash, and maybe bonk. But this new development is an open acknowledgment of that soft-core promise of skin and sex. When the couples meet on “Naked Dating” and “Naked and Afraid,” they often try not to look down, but viewers are looking down big-time. We tune in to get turned on.

One interesting tension about watching these shows is that we really aren’t seeing full nudity, even while the people are nude. We’re seeing Barbie and Ken. We’re playing eye games with the pixels, constantly trying to see through the blurring, wondering if the editor might have missed a little something around the edges. On “Buying Naked,” which follows nudist home buyers in Florida, the producers also take a page from the “Austin Powers” movies and rely heavily — even comically — on the careful positioning of props, including candles, leaves, and plates of food. On GSN’s body-painting competition “Skin Wars,” which starts Aug. 6, the flesh is covered in colors, just as it was on “Naked Vegas.”

Unlike online porn, the naked reality shows toy with titillation, coyly making us look and then look more in a pointless game of erotic hide and seek — the full-ish Monty.

Just so you know, I did try to find a positive side to reality nudity, before I accepted it as ratings-grabbing, bottom-feeding stupidity. For one thing, we have a huge body-image issue in this country, and TV shows that might reveal differently shaped real people who are comfortable out of their clothes could be a cultural plus. We’re inundated with unrealistically thin bodies; perhaps these shows could counter that impossible standard. Perhaps they could help undo body shame. Alas, all of the bodies are tight, except perhaps on “Buying Naked,” where a few of the nudists do display belly jiggle. “Reality” and “reality TV” stopped talking to each other a long time ago, and generally speaking the bodies on the naked reality shows are no more warts-and-all than on the bathing-suited reality shows.


I also thought that, perhaps, nudity would alter the dynamics between the adventure seekers on “Naked and Afraid,” the singles on “Naked Dating,” and maybe even the negotiators on “Buying Naked.” As “Naked Dating” host Amy Paffrath says to the daters on the show’s premiere, nudity should “allow you to date in the most honest way possible.” Or as Joe, the show’s first bachelor, puts it, “There’s no secrets — you see me, I see you, boom.” Does not wearing clothes make us more vulnerable? Or, as Richard Hatch argued, does it make us more intimidating? By removing that last layer of fabric, does it somehow make us different people?

The answer is probably yes to all three questions — but not on reality TV. It has become abundantly clear that the idea of reality shows as social experiments has grown silly and false, if it ever contained any truth. Reality players have become too self-conscious, too aware of playing a TV character, to be natural on screen and let an experiment play out. And reality producers and editors are too intent on creating story lines to give us honest explorations of human dynamics. The early promise by “The Real World” that we would “find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real” is now quite absurd.

Nudity changes nothing when it comes to going on TV in order to get attention and, maybe, a People magazine photo. With or without clothes, Adam and Eve are still waiting for their close-up.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.