Cue the Sun!

By Emily Nussbaum
Emily Nussbaum’s illuminating Cue the Sun! tells the sometimes sordid, sometimes exuberant story of reality TV “through the voices of the people who built it.”
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If you believe that reality television began with a naked Richard Hatch strolling on a beach in Borneo in the first season of Survivor in 2000, longtime New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum’s Cue the Sun!: The Invention of Reality TV will provide a necessary corrective. While giving Mark Burnett’s “breakthrough for the reality genre” its due, Nussbaum traces that genre back to its roots in shows like Queen for a Day, which made the leap from radio to TV in 1956, and Candid Camera, which did the same in 1948. Her lively survey of the now ubiquitous and endlessly controversial televised product is thoroughly researched and comprehensive, and for aficionados of television and pop culture in general, simply plain fun. 

Though she recognizes it’s ripe for highbrow skewering, Nussbaum approaches her subject with an admirable degree of objectivity. She’s intent on providing a balanced assessment, acknowledging reality television’s often exploitative aspects, while arguing that there is “a lot of glory and beauty” in the way it has tackled formerly taboo topics and brought previously underrepresented groups into the spotlight. Above all, she’s succeeded in her goal of telling this sometimes sordid, sometimes exuberant story “through the voices of the people who built it,” including both its key creators and its participants.

Beginning in 1947, and concluding with her account of The Apprentice, Nussbaum proceeds in chronological fashion, methodically assessing reality-based shows that differed widely in their content, sophistication and quality. She goes behind the scenes of what the television industry euphemistically calls “unscripted programming” in an effort to explain the variety of subject matter within the genre and analyze with an experienced eye what makes these shows succeed or fail. One of her most interesting explorations is an extended retrospective on An American Family, the groundbreaking 1973 cinema verité show that brought audiences into the home of the aptly named Loud family. But she’s equally curious and illuminating about more contemporary fare, like the longest-running reality show ever, Cops.

Readers who have come to rely upon Emily Nussbaum for smart and well-written television criticism will devour Cue the Sun! Reality television is here to stay, and anyone who wants to understand what makes it so appealing, and at times so problematic, will find this book an excellent starting point.

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Cue the Sun!

Cue the Sun!

By Emily Nussbaum
Random House
ISBN 9780525508991

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