Tell Me a Story and Make It True: Applied Narrative in Reality Television

Curator's Note

When I watch Restaurant Impossible, I know what to expect: an hour of entertainment fueled by the tough-talking chef, Robert Irvine, as he attempts to “rescue” a failing restaurant through tough love and remodeling.

It’s schlocky, formulaic, and I absolutely love every minute of it.

But as I’ve shown in the companion video to this post, Restaurant Impossible can be boiled down to a structured set of elements or scenes:

  • The Setup
  • The Sad Story
  • Irvine finding and locating problems
  • The initial conflict with the restaurant owners
  • Further Problems and Realities Exposed
  • A breakthrough moment (with tears or without)
  • The Remodel/Reveal Scene
  • The Conclusion: Renewal, Resurrection, and Success

Restaurant Impossible rarely strays from this formula, and I actually think that’s what brings viewers back week after week. As an audience we like hearing the same stories told over and over again; being soothed by a blanket of narrative security. In this way, Restaurant Impossible can be viewed through a structural lens. As Vladimir Propp formalized the functions that make up a folk tale, we can also decipher the “elements” that are integral to a show like Restaurant Impossible.

And it is here that I find a clear division between documentary film and reality television: the manner in which narrative is applied. The role of a documentarian is often journalistic in function. If a dramatic narrative happens to appear naturally, that’s great. Reality television, on the hand, is principally meant to entertain. There’s a veneer of truth, but the creators and producers of reality television often author and incite their dramatic moments at many levels of production.

That’s not to say that documentarians don’t try to tell engaging stories or cast a particular light on an event. For example, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters documents the highly engaging story of an intense duel between competitors over the highest score in Donkey Kong.

King of Kong has many of the trappings that one might expect from good fiction—a hero, a villain, confrontation, etc—but we’re led to believe that what we’re watching is fundamentally true and that the documentarian just happened to be there to record it.

Restaurant Impossible, on the other hand, is here principally to entertain. Free from any journalistic function, the show’s creators can develop a narrative and apply it from the outset.


I can definitely concur that reality television often divorces itself from most journalistic functions as in the case of Restaurant Impossible, but wonder exactly which elements of journalistic style shows like these manage to retain and why/how the makers of reality shows purposely capitalize upon them. Does the quasi-objectivity create the sense of "reality" in the obviously contrived framework of a makeover show? Or is the sense of reality formed from the cast of "regular joes" or a combination of elements?

You're asking great questions. I've always wondered about how much "reality" does an audience truly want from reality television, and what does the term "reality" even mean to them? The regular joes/janes who are on these television shows are often actors/actresses, and even if they're not, they're still fully involved in the production process. They know they're on television, so it's not like the footage is candid. What is truly "real" about that? Is it because the facade of a script and writers is slightly obscured? In a way, I think reality television is simply becoming another genre with its own set of expectations and complications.

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