Back after the 2012 Olympics in London, Ryan Lochte was the great celebrated oaf of the year. So when E! decided to give him his own reality TV show, it seemed like a perfect match of subject to network, and thus What Would Ryan Lochte Do? was born. These days we know exactly what Ryan Lochte would do, which is vandalize a restroom, lie to the police, and then flee the country after creating an international incident. But back in 2013 there had to have been someone desperately wanting to hear Lochte opine about love and life.
What Would Ryan Lochte Do? is a terrible show. On every level it is a horribly misconceived disaster. Honestly the only reason to watch it is if you really want to see Lochte in a speedo, and for some reason can’t log onto google image search. This is something the show itself knows, as most episodes feature plenty of close up shots of Lochte’s bulge.
Lochte turned out to be an atrocious subject, and the production team had to utilize meta-construction in order to even create something usable. By “meta-construction” I mean that the show makes no attempt at pretending to be filming a documentary, or even a traditional reality show. Instead it is filled with animations and music cues to try to pull the struggling show along. In something that almost no other reality show would ever do, the producers regularly help Lochte through his talking head segments, utterly destroying the pretense that the subject is speaking extemporaneously, rather than being prompted by production.
Why What Would Ryan Lochte Do? is so terrible can’t be analyzed without understanding the role stupidity plays in reality television. reality TV is built around stupidity. The eternal conflict of reality TV is the conflict between someone’s assessment of their own intelligence and capabilities, and reality (as filtered through cameras and editing). Reality TV is even more obsessed with punishing hubris than Greek tragedies were. But there is one caveat to that, which is that the subjects can’t actually be that stupid.
Set aside all the controversy about IQ measurement, and the ethical treatment of people of lower intelligence by the media. Reality TV as a genre believes quite strongly in intelligence testing. Survivor is well known for refusing to cast anyone with too low of an IQ. The logic of that casting choice is that someone who is lacks the degree of intelligence enough can’t understand the game, and more importantly can’t play for the cameras. How intelligent or not so intelligent Jessica Simpson really is, is ultimately irrelevant to Newlyweds. What matters is that Jessica was able to play stupid in a very camera friendly way. Her version of being ignorant was funny and catchy and turned the show into a major hit. Asking if Chicken of the Sea was chicken or fish was ultimately incredibly witty and made for good TV, whether it was calculated or not.
Lochte comes off in his show as having quite a low level of intelligence. Not in the way that reality TV portrays stupidity, but just generally low degree of mental capacity. The single joke of the show is making fun of just how stupid Lochte is. Mocking his stuttering, slow speech style, his tendency to lose his train of thought, his very limited vocabulary and malapropisms. And Lochte genuinely does not seem to be in on that joke, rather he seems to believe the show is just documenting his awesome life.
All that meta-construction exists to prop Lochte up, because he is just not capable of giving the cameras what they need to craft even a basic reality show. A show that can’t rely upon its own subject is one that is going to fail, and the production company very transparently has to step in to try to create some semblance of a TV show. Most episodes don’t have anything resembling a narrative, and Lochte can’t actually provide the kind of storytelling that good reality show subjects are capable of. On shows like The Apprentice and Survivor the contestants who get the most screen time and do the best are the ones who basically create the episode’s narrative, in their talking head interviews they explain what is happening, oftentimes creating shifts in the dynamics of the contest out of nothing. The exact same thing happens even in non-contest based shows like The Real Housewives franchise. A reality show centered around someone who can’t tell a good narrative is a reality show that is completely unmoored.
But the show had problems beyond simply Lochte’s lack of ability to adequately play to the cameras. As I said, reality TV is built on hubris. But the comeuppance of What Would Ryan Lochte Do? never actually materializes. It honestly works best as the first act of a horror movie. Something to show athletes starting out in their careers as a warning. Lochte is possibly the most pampered and over-privileged subject in reality show history. Over the course of the eight episodes no one tells him “no” and everyone defers to him. A typical Lochte moment is when his brother is cleaning his dog off in the shower, Lochte brings in his own dog and then makes his brother clean both dogs. Lochte is surrounded by people whom he either employs directly or indirectly through paying for whatever they want. This is someone who, when his sponsorships dry up (as they just have), will rapidly be going broke.
The through line of the entire show is how much Lochte wants to get married. This comes off as rather disingenuous as almost every episode is centered around his having sex with a different woman. And most episodes feature quite a lot of heavily implied sex going on in between scenes. Again, it feels like he is regularly being prompted by the producers to seemingly care about the “Ryan is looking for love” plotline. When the woman who is more or less set up to be “The One” (as in literally called that) breaks up with him, he’s sad for a period of seconds before becoming distracted. At the end of the season, when a producer asks him directly about the various women featured on the show, he doesn’t even recognize some of their names.
The only thing that actually did work in the show was the technical stuff about training. It was actually interesting to follow his work out regimen, and pool training. How to become a gold medal Olympian is always going to be interesting. It is genuinely impressive and features a degree of dedication that almost makes Lochte sympathetic. Sadly that comprises about five minutes of the total series’s runtime.
What Would Ryan Lochte Do? is just a show that was stunning in its failure. No one seemingly realized just how difficult it would be to craft episodes around Lochte, and production tried way, way, way too hard to keep everything afloat. It was an unmitigated disaster from beginning to end.