The reality genre blew up this past decade and with the explosion of unscripted entertainment, blossomed more than a few must-watch TV shows. Whether you consider them guilty-pleasures to satiate your voyeuristic tendencies or educational series, there seems to be something for everyone in this genre and we had no problems coming up with a list of our favorite reality/unscripted TV series.
So You Think You Can Dance (Fox)
The reality genre is overflowing with some of the most horrific television ever seen. And while Dancing with the Stars got the audience, it was So You Think You Can Dance that got the talent. Fox’s dance competition, from the American Idol creative team, brought to viewers what we used to expect from reality shows. Getting to watch people who are amazing at what they do showcase their talents for the world to see. Gimmicks would be kept to a minimum, usually only permeating the traditionally bloated results episodes. Instead we watched a community of artists that had been pushed to the side in entertainment show up on national television and prove that dance is still exciting, moving and fun. SYTYCD’s mission is to promote dance by making it entertainment for the masses once again, and that’s exactly what the show has been doing.
Big Brother (CBS)
Big Brother documents a group of houseguests locked in a compound as they attempt to win competitions and out-strategize one another in an attempt to be the last person standing and win a half a million dollars. The U.S. version has never hit the crazed popularity that some other countries’ versions of the show have, but that doesn’t make it any less a guilty pleasure for those of us who tune in each summer. What sets the series apart from other reality shows are the live feeds, which allow fans continuous video access to the compound. So no matter what the producers do to cut, edit and mold their own version of the story, die-hard fans know what’s really going on. While some tune in for the fighting, humerous moments, showmances and other BB shenanigans, the real appeal of the show is the strategy. With competitions to win or throw and wishy-washy floaters to win over, a true BB player has to know when to lay low and when to make the bold moves. It’s also pretty entertaining to see strategies backfire in people’s faces and watch the cabin-fever set in as the remaining houseguests start to go stir-crazy after the first few weeks.
The Amazing Race (CBS)
There’s a reason The Amazing Race wins the Emmy for Best Reality Competition Series every year. Every year it manages to be some of the most exciting and dramatic reality television on the air. The premise is so simple: a race around the world. But in that, things can get so complicated and with a million dollars on the line, stakes get very high. Often teams are minutes, if not seconds, apart, which creates a tension in your gut the likes of which you don’t see on shows like Survivor or American Idol. On TAR your fate is entirely in your own hands. Get it done fast and get there first. This element keeps much of the dirtier elements of competition out of it, as there’s only so much you can do underhanded within the confines of the Race rules. It also helps that through watching their journey, we get to partake in our own trek around the globe, seeing the scenery, cultures and peoples from places most of us will likely never get to visit. Whether it’s goofy challenges or death-defying stunts, the antics in any particular episode, make The Amazing Race one of the fastest hours of television, and one of the best series of the decade.
If you want to point the finger at who's to blame for reality shows becoming as big as they are now, point the finger at Mark Burnett's Survivor. There were other successful ones, mostly shown on MTV like The Real World and Road Rules, but Survivor, now heading into its twentieth season, has put the spotlight on human nature in the pursuit of one million dollars and the title of Sole Survivor. The game has become even more complicated as contestants who have studied the game for years as fans have come on to compete. They all seem to think they have the game figured out, but in the end, only one is left standing. Is Survivor the best reality show to come out of this decade? The tribe has spoken.
American Idol (Fox)
Without a doubt, American Idol is the top show of the decade. It took fourth place network FOX and made them a late season powerhouse, pushing them to season ratings victories year after year. Now, with its help, they’ve strengthened enough to be number one this year even before AI hits the stage. The series made household names out of Ryan Seacrest, Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell and got America involved in the proceedings with live performance shows, followed by a toll-free voting system. For the first time in years, here was a show that we could really get involved in, and where we had control over what happened. Ratings kept going up and up, until Sanjaya-gate. Even still, though, it is far and away the top-rated show on television, and one of the few common denominators left on an increasingly fractured television landscape. It has made genuine stars out of many past winners and contestants, proving that a television talent search could find the next generation of musical superstars. It remains to be seen if American Idol can retain its dominance without Abdul this year, and possibly without Cowell next year, who may leave to bring The X-Factor stateside. But there’s no doubt of its dominance in the 00s.
The Osbournes (MTV)
If they weren’t the first celebrities to open their doors for the cameras, they were the first family to do so that we all fell in love with. The one-time “Prince of Darkness” pulled back the curtain to reveal a funny, fragile man when MTV premiered The Osbournes, and made stars out of his wife and two of his children. It was such a jarring divergence from his menacing stage persona, but he and his family were so real and relatable that we were mesmerized and charmed by every little thing that they did. In a time when the airwaves weren’t filled with every C-, D- and E-list celebrity being followed around by cameras, the Osbournes were a novel delight. And unlike most celebreality shows today, they had no agenda and put on virtually no airs. They weren’t trying to promote Kelly’s new perfume or anything like that when the show premiered. It was a novel concept to go inside the life of a public figure, and that’s all we got. Unfortunately, its success begat the plethora of crap on TV now, but we can still cherish it for what it was in its time.
To call Mythbusters a reality show is placing it under a harshly viewed light, and this should not be the case. Debuting on the Discovery Channel right around the time Discovery cut back on informational programming and got into producing its own shows, Mythbusters teamed up special effects whiz kids Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage to hold experiments for pop culture myths, wives' tales, and general urban legends, conceived in-house and accepted via fan submissions. Even their lamest episodes are theoretically more interesting than a hundred other things on TV playing at the same time. They debunk a lot of things that some people swear by (though nothing religious or paranormal, like Penn and Teller). A lot is to be learned the entire way, from simple physics to complex engineering and robotics, and the presentation and tone stay almost nauseatingly light and airy. The show's importance can be felt anytime you watch a movie where a shot victim flies backwards (nope), when you want to escape a prison cell with salsa (could be), and when you want to know exactly how strong your duct tape is (really fucking strong). Also, it had a large hand in inspiring the ginormous number of shows testing, destroying, informing about, and debunking things. It's a pretty popular sub-genre that has gotten more entertaining in presentation than informative television had in decades past, and Mythbusters, and the similar British import Brainiac (2003-2008), have a lot to do with it. This is reality television at its proper meaning.
Intervention, Obsessed and Hoarders (A&E)
A&E has cornered the market a bit on quality examination of difficult situations. Intervention has been on the air the longest, looking at that key moment in an addicts life when they face the crossroads of their future. More recently, the network has started examining OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). First, there was Obsessed which looked at the condition in general, showcasing a wide variety of symptoms. An often misunderstood condition, and even more often hidden by those suffering from it, Obsessed does a great job of bringing it out into the light and showing us its many forms, and that there is a way to live a normal life. It may not be an easy life. Perhaps even more misunderstood, but even more fascinating is the condition of hoarding. So much so that it earned its own series: Hoarders. A much more difficult OCD to combat, and even more misunderstood as sufferers often just look like lazy slobs to the rest of us, the show has struggled to expose the problem and again find ways for these people to reclaim their lives and adjust their ways of thinking. Somewhat controversial in methodology, and with their success rate to be determined, I think these are nevertheless positive examples of how reality television can educate and help people.
Top Chef (Bravo)
The food television explosion has nearly gotten out of hand in this last decade. More people watch cooking shows on TV than actually cook. Instead of being another hokey cooking instructional show Bravo’s Top Chef became a respected culinary challenge for not the average cooks found on Hell’s Kitchen, or celebrity chefs that have set up multimedia empires, but the line cooks, chefs and sous chefs working in the top restaurants around the country. Their skills are put to the test with sponsor laden challenges, but even though we don’t have the ability to smell or taste the food put forth each week we can appreciate the technique and ability it takes. Even the simplest of challenges, brunoise of apple, quickly divides the chefs from the wannabes. That’s what makes Top Chef so great, the judges and contestants are adamant that the term “top chef” doesn’t mean a guy who can cook a burger. You have to know food, understand how to put it together, and be capable of composing plates that will impress true top chefs from around the world including Thomas Keller and Anthony Bourdain. If you can’t impress them, then it’s time to pack your knives and leave.
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