"Can I play armchair psychiatrist for a second?" Chris Harrison asked the current Bachelorette, Ali Fedotowsky, on an episode of the ABC show last month.
Please do, Chris.
He's been doing a quietly fantastic job at just that for years now, slowly evolving his role from the show's majordomo to its emotional calibrator. Once, he grinned awkwardly in cheapish suits and made sure the roses found homes. Now he's the show's conscience, its authority figure, and with his steady mien, one of the most consistently trustworthy presences on television in the last decade.
And he's not the only one: With little fanfare, the reality show host has become modern television's central figure. Often overlooked in favor of the shows' participants, and just as often maligned for performing what can appear to be an empty task, the host is actually a surefooted guide to the genre.
The rise of reality has become the medium's dominant narrative, but the genre remains unloved, the poorer cousin of scripted programming. As a result, it's still pleasantly enigmatic, its charms only sometimes appreciated by outsiders.
Great hosts are an entryway and a bridge. Over the last decade, four in particular have grown into compelling figures in their own right — Harrison since 2002 on "The Bachelor" (and later, of course, "The Bachelorette"); Jeff Probst since 2000 on "Survivor"; Ryan Seacrest since 2002 on "American Idol"; and Cat Deeley since 2005 on "So You Think You Can Dance."
Each has been key to the success of his or her show, largely by shaking the role of the host free of its game-show heritage. They're not passive question-askers and plastic grinners, but increasingly the dungeon masters controlling the action. Furthermore, they've become advocates, not necessarily in supporting specific contestants — the appearance of impartiality still matters — but in nudging participants closer to speaking the truth.
Probst, especially, has this gift. Twenty seasons in on "Survivor," and he's only gotten tougher. His tribal council interrogations are devastating without being leading, and his disdain for lazy competitors is barely masked. Even the way he lowers his hand to signal the start of a challenge has become loaded with meaning, its casualness not an indictment of the process so much as an acknowledgment that the beginning of a competition is really the least relevant moment on the show. The conversations, the strategy: that's where he shines.
In recent years, that's become Harrison's strength as well, particularly as "The Bachelor" has grown into a meta-reality phenomenon, operating on many levels simultaneously: on screen, in real life, in the tabloids. When these modes overlap — such as when a producer was found to have gotten intimate with a contestant last season — Harrison has been firm about rebuilding the walls.
Probst and Harrison have taken to writing long, searching, insidery blog posts after each episode, helping them establish a moral authority above and beyond their shows. Thanks to them, the episode that airs on television is no longer the final word: they've taken it back for themselves.
With narratives as complex as those on "Survivor" and "The Bachelor," some sort of human filter can be helpful, but on more conventional competition shows, it would seem superfluous. Still, the development of Seacrest from a harmless nub of an announcer to the linchpin of "American Idol" has proven instructive. Over the last three seasons especially, he's emerged as one of the feistiest voices on television, possibly in anticipation of the day, now arrived, when Simon Cowell would depart the show and Seacrest would be left as its most famous personality.
He's chatty and tart, and sometimes outright dismissive, adding much needed seasoning to "Idol," which has been suffering under the weight of its importance of late. Seacrest, alone among this group, also has numerous other high-profile business ventures. That's nice, but none of those things would be possible without the confidence he's earned over nine years of "Idol," and, as a result, Seacrest will stay relevant long after "The X Factor" swallows "Idol" whole.
In 2008, the Emmys introduced the category Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality Competition Program, then promptly fumbled it by having the five nominees — Probst, Seacrest, Tom Bergeron of " Dancing With the Stars," Howie Mandel of "Deal or No Deal" and Heidi Klum of "Project Runway" — co-host the show, with miserable results.
Probst has won the Emmy both times it's been handed out — fair enough. (Certainly more fair than the inexplicable seven-year stranglehold "The Amazing Race" has on the Outstanding Reality Competition Program.) But any of these four could rightly snatch the title from him.