THERE’S a dreadful hypocritical middle-class snobbishness when it comes to reality TV. Last night, millions tuned into The Apprentice, just as millions have tuned in for weeks to watch The Great British Bake-Off. Every Wednesday until Christmas, folk will settle down in their armchairs with a lovely glass of wine from Waitrose. They’ll post their thoughts about the show on social media, they’ll search online for gossip about contestants. It’s destination viewing, after all … except it’s not, it’s just reality TV for the middle classes.

That’s what The Apprentice and Bake-Off are, they’re just reality shows – but they’re disguised as something else. One is dressed up in the clothes of a business executive, the other wears chef’s whites. Money and cooking – the twin gods of the bourgeoisie. But the DNA of both shows is no different to Big Brother or Love Island: real people are on screen for our entertainment. That’s it.

Neither The Apprentice nor Bake-Off do anything very interesting or new. The Apprentice gives us a bunch of grasping idiots who’d sell their granny for an internship with an arms company – along the way they’ll shamelessly mouth moronic, narcissistic, corporate slogans, like an accountant on crystal meth, and one will eventually win after happily allowing sadistic Sugar to trample over the shrivelled remains of their desperate soul.

The Bake-Off. It’s what would happen if John Lewis’ home furnishings department was allowed to make TV. It’s death by cosiness. Here, a bunch of sweet, lovely and awfully diverse souls make rotten cakes for weeks on end. We endure the sight and sound of Paul Hollywood, and then the person who most sums up this year’s version of ‘modern British values’ wins and gets to write a cookbook that doesn’t need printed.

Both shows trade on an idea of quintessential Britishness. If so, then Britain is the most boring, greedy, complacent, repetitive, mimsy little gingham and pinstripe corner of the world imaginable. You learn zilch about life and the people living it if you watch these shows.

But this isn’t a diatribe against reality TV. I have come to praise the genre, not bury it. I’ve long championed reality TV. I just don’t rate The Apprentice or Bake-Off as great representatives of the genre. The best reality TV gives viewers a glimpse of what’s shifting about in the tectonic plates of our world, how humans feel right here and right now, how society is changing, how people’s lives and attitudes are being shaped.

Reality TV is the very heart of popular, mainstream entertainment. I don’t think you can fully get to grips with the world unless you embrace reality TV and use it to navigate not just pop culture, but wider culture. If you think I’m mad, let me call TS Eliot in defence. Eliot, probably the 20th century’s greatest poet, was a huge admirer of the Music Hall – which was seen, a century ago, as the home of trash entertainment. Culturally, Music Hall was the Edwardian equivalent of reality TV. Eliot, though, believed Music Hall – with its variety acts, smut and sentimentality – was the truest representation of the society within which he lived. He felt that the Music Hall singer and comedian Marie Lloyd “represented and expressed” something significant about the spirit of the nation. Roll forward 100 years and Eliot could have been speaking about Big Brother’s Jade Goody.

George Orwell was also a fan of Music Hall. Many like him saw it as having a “redeeming social function” as it held a mirror directly up to ordinary life.

Big Brother had more social significance in a single episode than every series of The Apprentice and the Bake-Off put together. From the get-go it showed society changing when it came to sexuality and gender. It revealed chasms of racism in Britain, which were not being discussed. It showed up our culture’s cruelty, pettiness, narcissism, stupidity and greed. Yes, of course, it was manipulative, gaudy, and loud – but so was the Music Hall. You have to accept the bits you don’t like to get to the juice within.

I find it an endless source of irony that the people who binge-eat The Apprentice and the Bake-Off sneer like Jacob Rees-Mogg confronted with a Greggs sausage roll when mention is made of shows like Big Brother.

For the best of Reality TV, don’t bother watching The Apprentice tonight. Watch The Circle on Channel 4. It’s as noisy and day-glo as Big Brother, but it’s also the most compelling dissection of the effects of social media on human beings that I’ve ever seen.

The show sees a group of strangers placed in isolation and only able to communicate via social media. On social media, they can be whoever they want to be. The last series was won by a man pretending to be a woman. Contestants are allowed to post fake pictures of themselves, or lie and manipulate. This series sees one man pretending to be a single mother, and a middle aged woman posing as a laddish bricklayer.

As in the online world, people immediately place all emphasis on appearance – the selfie rules – but no-one knows what’s fake, what’s true. Contestants are addicted to clicks and likes. They lose touch with the real world and real human beings. They become needy, nervous, depressed, obsessed. They fall foul of group-think. They fear rejection – they crave the love of the online world they inhabit.

On The Circle the mere act of posting a good or bad picture can change how everyone thinks of you. It’s about curating your life so others see only your best side, not the real you. People share personal information in a way they’d never do in real life. Acts of kindness are phoney and virtue-signalled. Everything comes with a hashtag and an emoji. Everything is manipulated. And when reality finally breaks in and the contestants meet each other in real life they’re nothing like their digital selves. We see the real them – honest, shy, decent … normal.

This is reality TV which explores the new reality in which we live: a phoney, empty, dumbed-down world that’s a bit like an episode of The Apprentice or Bake-Off.

Neil Mackay is Scotland’s Columnist of the Year