Reality shows have amassed themselves into a major force on network and cable television. From competition shows to behind-the-scenes programs looking into unique aspects of American life, 2012 had a lot going for it, including more angry dance moms, Honey Boo Boo, bearded wonders with a duck call empire, Mario Lopez’s snark, Survivor’s completion of Season 25, the guidos and guidettes giving their last go at the shore, and the Storage Wars guys claiming his own show was faked. The year was a crazy, wild time for reality TV, and we hope you were along for the ride.

After arguing, nitpicking and throwing out several well-versed reasonings, those of us at TV Blend whittled down the list of programming to 5 shows we feel best express quality in this year’s TV. From competitions to moneymaking endeavors, 2012 had some real winners and the top 5 are available, below, listed in no particular order.

Amazing Race
More than twenty seasons in, you wouldn’t think The Amazing Race would still be one of the better reality shows on television, but thanks to constantly refining its rules and carefully planning every single leg, it’s just as riveting today as it was during season one. The editing is top notch. The balance between luck and skill allows for the better teams to usually win, and more often than not, the personalities are genuinely interesting. Season 21, the second cycle to air this year, was enjoyable and fun, but its predecessor that aired from February to May was flat-out incredible.

Season 20 featured quite possibly the greatest back-and-forth between two teams we’ve ever seen with Rachel and Dave, a combat pilot and his wife, and Art and JJ, two border patrol agents, combining to win every single leg but one. Their rivalry was fascinating to watch, as was the vicious hatred spewed between former Big Brother contestants Brendon and Rachel and dating divorcees Vanessa and Ralph, who arguably despised each other more than any other teams in the history of Amazing Race. The premise might be well-established at this point, but as this year proved, the drama and intrigue certainly are not.

The X Factor
The X Factor wasn’t the ratings juggernaut that Fox expected it to be during Season 1. Simon Cowell put his money where his mouth was, but it didn’t seem to matter. So, when The X Factor announced it was returning for Season 2, many fans expected the network to adjust for the ratings and create a slightly lower caliber endeavor. Instead, The X Factor came back bigger, bolder, and better in 2012.

Adding Demi Lovato and Britney Spears as star power in the judges category certainly helped, and giving the reins to host Mario Lopez made the live show that much smoother (give or take Khloe Kardashian’s bumpy maneuvering). In Season 2, however, The X Factor has brought two things to the table that competition series’ have never shown before. The first is the backstage cattiness between the contestants before they even hit the stage for the first time. The second is the announcement of the rankings of the competitors, that lets viewers know how much they need to vote to keep their group or solo artist in the competition. Though similar in format, The X Factor isn’t like other singing competition shows. Give it a shot and you might be surprised.

American Pickers
History Channel reality shows have a tendency to spend too much time focusing on personal life drama. Cajun Pawn Stars is practically unwatchable because of how little time they actually spend buying things, but American Pickers actually employs the right balance with ninety to ninety-five percent Frank and Mike buying things and five to ten percent Danielle managing the shop. Consequently, the hour-long episodes get in dozens of fascinating items and great pieces of history, and the best part is that not all of them are huge purchases.

That’s one of the reasons why Mike and Frank are such a great combination to watch. Mike is typically more interested in buying big items with a potentially large profit margin and Frank is obsessed with bundling little items like toys and oil cans together. That back-and-forth, along with the factoids the show provides in graphics, offer a wide range of items viewers can learn about, and since everyone they visit has different kinds of items, the show never feels old or redundant. The 2012 episodes were just as good as anything the program has given us, and with any luck, that momentum will continue.

Shark Tank
A strong case could be made that Mark Cuban is not the best shark on Shark Tank, but his addition to the panel has taken the entire show to another level. The Dallas Mavericks owner appeared in three episodes during Season Two. Starting with the January 2012 premiere of Season Three, he’s been on board for every single one, and his presence has finally brought the perfect balance to the show. He always seems genuinely interested and invested in the various companies the contestants are pitching, and this more comfortable ear is a great counterpoint to Kevin O’Leary’s cold-hearted, no compromises aggression.

The great thing about Shark Tank is that it doesn’t talk down to viewers or those who appear on the show looking for money. The panelists use math, years of business experience and common sense to properly evaluate people’s companies. Sometimes that involves investing and sometimes that involves explaining to them why they’re destined to fail. Either way, there’s something strangely honest about the way everyone communicates. With thousands upon thousands of new applicants every year, I can’t wait to see all the wacky ideas the sharks are presented with next.

America’s Got Talent
For years, America’s Got Talent has been a wild, colorful competition on stage with a mixed bag of judges on the floor. This year was the first time the judges’ table showed the right level of empathy and disdain, and a lot of it had to do with the energy Howard Stern brought to the table. AGT brought the show to New York to accommodate Stern, and despite what the PTC might tell you, it was a splendid idea.

Stern’s enthusiasm and the newness of the whole endeavor for the radio personality kept Sharon Osbourne and Howie Mandel on their toes. Mandel, for the first time, squabbled as if his life depended on it, and the overarching dynamics were fun to watch. It’s unfortunate that Osbourne is trying to leave the show, as she is the secret sauce, keeping the scale balanced and offering her own wisdom. This dynamic helped a non-singer to be crowned in 2012, and if NBC can somehow maintain its lineup, we expect great things in the future.

Honorable Mentions: Top Chef/ Last Chance Kitchen, Duck Dynasty, The Voice
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