Bustle Book Club

Reality TV Gets The Prestige Treatment In Emily Nussbaum's New Book

Cue the Sun! explores the cultural impact of the much-maligned genre.

The cover of Emily Nussbaum's book, 'Cue the Sun!'
Bustle Book Club

Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise had already been on the air for more than a decade when New Yorker staff writer Emily Nussbaum decided to dive in. But with far too many seasons — and cities! — of divorces and drunken meltdowns to get through, she decided to sneak in through what she calls the “servant’s entrance”: spin-off series Vanderpump Rules.

While Bravo shows were still very much considered “guilty pleasures” at the time, Nussbaum was eager to meet TV fans where they were. “I just thought to myself, ‘I really need to write about this [because] this franchise is very meaningful to people,’” she says of her first time covering reality television.

That was 2016. In the years since, the reach and influence of Housewives, Vanderpump, and its ilk have only grown. (See: When Vanderpump’s Scandoval made waves in 2023, it was name-checked everywhere from CNN to the White House Correspondents’ dinner.) But even if reality TV has nearly become a national pastime, Nussbaum — whose new book, Cue the Sun!, charts the rise and evolution of the genre — believes it’s still underestimated.

“A big shift is that there’s now an audience that grew up with reality television and regards it as central to their entertainment. But in larger societal terms, I still think people are very condescending toward reality television,” she argues, having looked back at the reception of early shows like the 1970s An American Family as well as the ongoing impact of The Apprentice. “There’s always been this sense of discomfort, disapproval, and disgust with the idea of nonfamous people stepping out in a public way and talking about things that should be private.”

Which is a shame because, like it or not, the genre has left an indelible mark. “It’s essentially part of the way we view the world,” Nussbaum says. “It shapes how people have relationships, how they think of their own identities.” Or in other words: how people see reality.

On the very meta book she devoured:

I just read a very fun novel about reality TV called Big in Sweden. It’s by Sally Franson, and she was on [The Great Swedish Adventure], so it’s somewhat based on her own experience as a woman who wins a big Swedish reality show. It’s delightful.

On the music that pumps her up:

I have a Spotify playlist called “Sleepy Grooves Writing Music,” and it has Kacey Musgraves’ “Slow Burn,” the Weepies, Portishead, and some Steely Dan. It also has that one Taylor Swift album, Evermore.

On how much TV she really watches:

One thing about the book that is easily misunderstood is that [people think] I watch a tremendous amount of reality television. But I basically just re-watched the first season of the many shows I covered, like The Real World and Survivor. I didn’t do anything particularly special while doing that other than open my notepad, take notes on what I saw, then sometimes revisit it when I was [working on] the book.

On her favorite public writing locale:

I sometimes go to a bar in the afternoon if I’m really stuck, and I’ll usually have a Diet Coke and write there in a booth. Then, once I finish after five or six hours, I’ll have a beer at the end and hang out at the bar.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.