See more of the story

In the spring of 1992, I had brunch with a friend, a documentary filmmaker whose boyfriend had just wrapped a stint as a cameraman on the inaugural season of "The Real World," MTV's groundbreaking series. She claimed that what had happened off-screen was juicier than any on-screen flirtation or racially-charged argument.

Pulitzer Prize laureate Emily Nussbaum delivers the skinny on "The Real World" and other precedent-shattering programs in her quick-witted, brilliantly written "Cue the Sun!," chronicling reality television's roots in the welter of postwar culture, its boom-and-bust cycles and its deification with the monster (and monster ratings) at the heart of "The Apprentice."

Nussbaum offers a treasure trove of anecdotes that seizes our attention like an action sequence, while asking incisive questions about a world increasingly scripted for consumption. She views the genre as "cinema verité filmmaking that has been cut with commercial contaminants, like a street drug, in order to slash the price and intensify the effect" — a mongrel form as American as us all.

Reality shows were originally set on radio, then inched into the new medium: "Queen for a Day" — a housewife won an array of appliances in exchange for her sob story — followed by "Candid Camera," brainchild of irascible Allen Funt, which evolved from edgy humiliations to a cherished touchstone. Enter Chuck Barris, "a Hollywood deal-maker with a gift for humbug," who created cringey programs such as "The Dating Game" and "The Newlywed Game" before hosting "The Gong Show," a parade of amateurs willing to sing and juggle for the chance at a payday.

Ronald Reagan's election and the rise of the Moral Majority altered the calculus: "If the '70s had given off the funk of a stained shag carpet after a basement orgy, the '80s were more like a plastic slip-covered sofa in the living room, ready for company." Television became a weathervane, tugged by the contradictory ways the nation perceived itself. Hence the squeaky-clean image of "America's Funniest Home Videos," hosted by sitcom dad Bob Saget, and grittier "Cops."

Nussbaum excavates the business narratives behind the stars, roving from executive suites to affluent zip codes to exotic locales. Her chapter on "An American Family," which aired on PBS in 1973 and featured the fraying Loud family of Santa Barbara, California, limns larger social shifts, from queer liberation to feminist rage.

The '90s saw a need for quirkier storytelling, soap-opera drama packaged for Gen X-hipsters, and then a fresh category of gladiatorial contest: "If 'The Real World' had modernized the genre, 'Survivor' supersized it." "Survivor" transformed television's economies of scale, and networks cashed in with hits like "The Bachelor" and "Project Runway."

Cue the Sun!
Cue the Sun!

Nussbaum's deft reportage serves her well. She flavors cultural commentary with puns and slang.

"Reality production had solidified into its own distinct profession, with its own craft, traditions, mentors, and university classes," she notes. "If you made your living as a field producer or editor for a reality series, you might get the stink eye at some Hollywood party, but there were other parties to dance at." "Cue the Sun!" is both vital history and entertainment bonanza, an ode to that most American of maxims: The show must go on.

Hamilton Cain, who also reviews for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post, lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Cue the Sun!: The Invention of Reality TV

By: Emily Nussbaum.

Publisher: Random House, 464 pages, $30.