What Is the Difference Between “Reality Series” and “Documentary Series”?

I Am Cait

The question of distinction between “reality” TV series and “documentary” TV series (or “docu-series”) has been asked for many years. At least since early 2008, when a member of the DBSTalk forum perfectly summed it up as: “Survivor makes you want to get another beer. Planet Earth makes you want to recycle the can.” The former being the reality program and the latter the documentary, of course. But the question returned to my mind this week as E! debuted I Am Cait as a “new documentary series” and I wondered again about that classification’s qualifications.

Firstly, I’m all for films and TV programs simply being categorized as they see fit. It’s appropriate, I guess, to accept I Am Cait as what it self-identifies as. But that’s also an unfair analogy. And I wish to dig deeper. As far as I can tell, E! debuted Keeping Up With the Kardashians (from which I Am Cait is basically spun-off) as a “reality series” and has continued to label it as such — though mostly now it’s merely referred to as a “series” with no categorization. It’s a popular, widely enjoyed program, but it’s not taken serious. I Am Cait is meant to be, so that’s one reason it might be given the more serious-sounding label.

A few years ago, when the “docu-series” term was being thrown around in press releases about new shows, it was said to be in response to the negative connotations of “reality TV.” In particular, celebrities launching new series were going for the different-if-not-necessarily-better-sounding classification. And maybe because of this, I’ve also since seen the distinction made that reality is for non-celebrities (at least before becoming reality stars) and docu-series is for the already famous. That’s a weird line to make, but it’s all a matter of reality’s link to exploitation, and many celebs don’t go for the idea of being exploited, even if self-consciously.

“My understanding of reality TV is that it’s not indeed reality,” Wynonna Judd told Fox 411 in 2011 ahead of the debut of The Judds on OWN. “It is often scripted,” Wynonna said. “They’re following us around and they get what they get and then edit it. When I hear the word ‘reality’ I think of a train wreck, not that we haven’t had our own at certain times during the tour. So when the reality show word comes up with people you can see their wheels turning like ‘this is going to be a train wreck’ and it’s like, ‘No it’s not, it’s going to be a celebration.”

The rest of that Fox 411 article is interesting in its address of the distinction, especially at the end when producer Mikey Glazer (who started out with Bunim/Murray, the company behind I Am Cait) predicting the “docu-series” label would quickly go away. It did seem a pretentious trend for those celebrity programs, but there has also now been a rise in genuinely different kinds of docu-series, including the well-hyped miniseries Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, as well as high-profile, mostly investigative offerings from notable nonfiction filmmakers like Morgan Spurlock, Alex Gibney and Joe Berlinger.

So, to go back to that 2008 forum entry — and the inspiration for this discussion — the ongoing idea of a documentary series distinct from reality series is that it informs, educates and/or calls to action. The notion there is that this is what documentary films do. I Am Cait is deemed documentary because it is not exploitative and is both respectable and respectful regarding not just Caitlyn Jenner’s transition but also the transgender community and topic overall.* It does educate and sort of calls its viewers to an action of tolerance and support and awareness, especially as related to the issue of transgender suicides and murders.

The criticism that the premiere episode of I Am Cait is boring, that nothing much happens, seems a problem for anyone comparing this docu-series to reality series with their manufactured or prodded or overblown drama. I Am Cait does seem to try to create some nonexistent drama between Jenner and her mother, though, and it just doesn’t really happen. Many scenes so far in the series also feel pre-planned, as if the producers arranged for or at least helped schedule the family encounters that are meant to come off as just actual arrangements in the progression of Jenner’s coming out.

Either way, I think the lack of drama — i.e., conflict — could be a point for the program, as a way of showing us that Caitlyn Jenner and other transgender persons are just normal — i.e., boring — people and should be accepted as such. Of course, Jenner’s life isn’t as humdrum as most people’s, and so when not being shown doing basic everyday things is also followed in her campaign to promote that acceptance. We’ll see where it goes from here as the rest of the eight-episode series continues.

The fact that is only eight episodes, by the way, is another factor in its being categorized as a documentary series, though maybe not accurately. For me, series I’d qualify as truly documentary tend to be miniseries, like Cosmos and The Jinx and The Staircase. But this is because my usual definition for what separates reality and documentary is the completeness of the program. To me, reality series are ongoing, and episodes can be aired without the ending yet known, whereas documentary series are those where all the material has been shot and then edited with a full narrative in consideration, broken up into episodic format.

Reality is focused more on the individual episode’s arc, even if it’s part of a continued story (as lives tend to continue in a forward manner). Documentary is focused more on the full product. And that product could be an eight-episode season of a series that may be picked up for more episodes/seasons later. After one episode, I can’t be sure that I Am Cait counts as that. The series still feels like something being cobbled together as it goes and made into episodes before it’s all done, as many reality series are.

On a final note, I have to address how odd it is that “reality” and “documentary” are considered so contrary to what their words mean to me. That reality television is viewed as more artificial and documentary is a term brought in to imply a more genuine series with more truth and integrity and, well, reality, is baffling to me. Reality should mean reality, while documentary has always been about the construction of reality, whether that construction is to authentically inform and present truth or to entertain.

But I also think documentaries should have a point of some sort, and I don’t think most reality series have that, meaning they shouldn’t be the ones labeled documentary series. So, I’m still unsure what should be what.

Postscript note:

* E! is also categorizing its other new series, Stewarts & Hamiltons, as a “documentary series,” and that doesn’t look to be going for any kind of comparative substance. So, I’m still curious what the cable network’s definition and distinction is.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.