Is ‘Go Back To Where You Came From’ Essential Viewing, Or Exploitative Reality TV?

Reality television, complete in all of its bitchy glory. But considering how little our national stance on refugees has changed since the first season, the series still makes for essential viewing.

“They’re humans. Before this, to me, they weren’t. And I know that sounds wrong but you didn’t think of them, in a sense, you didn’t personalise them.”

Before getting stuck into the finale of Go Back To Where You Came From’s third season, we all have to make a concession: this is reality television. Everything is bitchy exchanges, super dramatic musical cues, and emotions. So many emotions. It even encourages you to have fun in trying to figure out if Kim is simply ignorant or completely sociopathic.

But still: there aren’t many other reality shows that can get results like that above quote. Just imagine hearing anything as remotely impactful on Pawn Stars or Dog The Bounty Hunter. Go Back To Where You Came From is reality television, with a bone to pick. The boffins behind the show know just how effective the form can be in delivering relatable human beings. No matter what side of the debate you fall on, you should be watching this show.

The show’s first season premiered in 2011, sparking not just a fierce local debate, but an international conversation about Australia’s handling of asylum seekers and refugees. It was SBS’ highest-rated show that year, drawing some 600,000 viewers, and a slew of awards. It may be safe to say the show’s confronting display of our national debate was a commercial success, but it’s harder to gauge what kind of impact it may have had on its viewers. Though the number of refugees around the world is now higher than it’s been in recorded history (a shocking 19.5 million, according to the UNHCR in 2014), there’s still that old familiar ignorance, racism and apathy in the Australian conversation about the whole thing.

So, if you’re infuriated and depressed about the state of Australia’s refugee policies, Go Back To Where You Came From is the kind of project you really hope succeeds in reversing at least some of those persistent ignorant opinions. You hope that the show is so effective that it essentially carves itself a country in which its intentions are completely redundant. Think of it like going to the dentist: it’s painful and we know it needs to happen now, we just hope we never need to go back ever again.

The show returned on Tuesday night with its third season, and fans of the original will recognise many of the same arguments and ignorant opinions flaring up again. This year, the six participants run the whole spectrum of opinions on boat people. Lets start with Davy, who fled communist Vietnam by boat as an eight year old boy and yet sees current boat people as “queue jumpers.”

There’s Andrew, a teacher from Melbourne, who strongly supports Operation Sovereign Borders as an effective deterrent.

There’s Jodie, whose mentality is perfectly summed up in her own words: “I don’t want my hard-earned money going towards paying for the education and living costs and health costs for people that aren’t even Australian.”

Then there’s Kim. How the hell can we sum up Kim? Before the first episode even finished, Kim was on the receiving end of a barrage of outrage on social media. By the next morning, she’d already made herself an effigy of ignorant opinion in the news. She’s your cut-and-dry nationalist, Islamophobic, xenophobic nightmare, who also happens to co-run the Facebook page, “Stop the boat people,” (don’t click through, save yourself the anguish).

That’s not to say the show is a torturous slog of pure ignorance. The producers have also graciously included Jodie’s sister, Renee: a refugee support worker who’s “ashamed by our government” and its refugee policies.

And there’s Nicole, who worked at both the Nauru and Manus Island processing centres and gave evidence at the Senate inquiry into the 2014 riots. It’s genuinely relieving that these two are actively working against inhumane refugee policies. They cement the reality of the issue instead of miring it in mere good will, like some participants did on the similarly framed, though far less effective SBS series Living With The Enemy.

Yes, this is reality television, complete in all of its bitchy glory — but you can be assured that the producers of Go Back To Where You Came From treat it like an educational program. When you boil down the show and its intent, the whole idea feels a bit like Inception. On the surface, it looks like schlocky (if controversial) entertainment but, really, the idea is to plant empathy in viewers’ minds. That is, to make Kim, Jodie, Davy or Andrew look as stupid as they sound. In doing so, it really showcases the effectiveness of reality TV in forcing opinionated participants to grapple with their own unfounded ideas in the face of overwhelming evidence, all while dragging viewers through the whole messy experience with them. There is nothing as shocking as the sheer insanity of hearing Kim (the outspoken xenophobe/possible sociopath) shout, “I, for one, don’t want any humanitarian awards!” at a crying Palestinian man.

And yes, the idea is simplistic and overwrought — but hey, it works! Before the first episode even wrapped Andrew had already softened his views, which is where that shocking quote from the top fits in. When reality TV involves socialites, crocodile hunters or thrift store owners, you’re (mostly) unlikely to cross any controversial ground, so centering an entire show on one politically- and emotionally-charged debate feels more than a little exploitative. Luckily, the gamble pays off: ignorant opinion can be swayed with a little enforced empathy.

Considering how little our national stance on refugees has changed since the show’s first season, Go Back To Where You Came From is still essential viewing. SBS knows it too. The show’s official page is awash in articles and statistics about the reality of the issue, even going so far as to include educational resources for schools. The show makes it very clear that getting caught up in a debate about Operation Sovereign Borders only serves to distance you from the humans on those boats. Our conversation is shaped by the media that we choose to engage with. If you relied solely on the national news or A Current Affair you’d hardly be exposed to the human side of the situation, and you definitely wouldn’t get that essential slice of enforced empathy. Let’s hope Go Back To Where You Came From isn’t just preaching to the “bleeding hearts,” as Kim would call them.

Tune in for the season three’s finale tonight at 8.30pm on SBS. Or hate-watch your way through the whole thing on SBS On Demand.

Sean Sebastian is a freelance writer based in Melbourne who has been published in FilmInk and Beat magazines. He tweets from @ssebast90