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The 20 Best Reality Shows of All Time
To be frank, this country hasn’t had a handle on reality for some time. Reality television has the inexplicable quality to it that makes it utterly addicting to watch. To get technical, the genre kicked off back in the '70s, when PBS had the idea that the goings-on of every day people was worthy of its own show. Thus, An American Family was created in 1973, and the pull of voyeurism enamored 10 million viewers a week. Reality television didn't have its heyday until later though, when the genre was practically reinvented with the inception of The Real World in 1992. It, of course, touted messy sexual flings and hormone-driven altercations, but it also featured conversations about sexuality, race, and addiction that we'd never seen before.
Starting in the early 2000s, there was a massive reality television boom that flooded networks across the board. From there, the genre has become a massive televised circus of competition shows, celebrity-adjacent tomfoolery, and voyeurism that has consistently dominated ratings for nearly two decades. You want to fall in love? Go on TV. You want to marry Kanye West and become a billionaire? Go on TV. Want to gaslight America into believing you’re richer than you are, get your own catchphrase, leverage your fame to steal the presidency, and then potentially ruin democracy? Go off king! Go on TV!
The power of reality television is undeniable at this point, and the influence it has truly runs the gamut. American Idol alone has given us several Grammy winners, an Emmy winner, an Academy Awards winner, and that one guy who sang “She Bangs.” Shows like Survivor and Drag Race have driven conversations about feminism, queerness, and race that scripted television often shies away from. Flavor of Love is responsible for a whole language of memes online. America’s most chaotic and bizarre genre will ultimately be looked back on as a case study in how pop culture has evolved with humanity. To take a walk down memory lane, we revisited the best of the best (or worst, depending on how you feel about the genre).
These are the best reality shows of all time.
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1) The Real World (1992-present)
“This is the true story of seven strangers, picked to live in a loft and have their lives taped, to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.” At the time of its premiere in the summer of 1992, the surprising thing was that that’s all it was: just people living on tape. Talking, fighting, laughing, never knowing exactly where to look when it’s time for their confessional interview. (From today’s perspective, the shocking thing is the idea that anyone would have started being polite.) Go back to that first season, and you’ll swear you’re watching a high-minded documentary. Scenes go on for ages, relationships have time to develop, the seven strangers get into serious issues—racism, privilege, the closet— in an earnest and thoughtful way. Those first housemates may have been the last seven guileless people in America; from season two forward (and in every reality show since), participants show up knowing exactly what character they’re playing. This show set the tone, and it’s easy to forget that its heart was initially in the right place. Nowadays, cast members’ parents don’t know a world without The Real World, the show exists largely as a triple-a league for The Challenge, and if I’m not mistaken, housemates make their initial entrances through a hot tub drain. But for a minute there, it was real, and it was spectacular. -Dave Holmes
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2) NEXT (2005-08)
Of all the reality dating shows in the MTV universe, NEXT was…one of them. The show hinged on the belief that it’s really what’s on the outside that matters, allowing its chosen featured single to dismiss any of their handful of suitors at first glance. Said suitors hung out on the same kind of bus your grown-up-baby friend books to take to the club for their 34th birthday. Upon exiting the bus, contestants approached the featured single, and if they lived up to their aesthetic dreams, the date went forward. If at any point during the date, the featured single feels a red flag, they’re encouraged to yell NEXT!, and contestants are sent on an abrupt walk of shame back to the bus. If you’ve never seen the show, it’s worth watching one episode to get the feel. But if that’s not worth your time (it probably isn’t!), just be sure to watch this iconic clip in which a contestant proceeds to fall down the stairs, and become a victim of a savage freeze frame, only to be NEXT’d upon arrival. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay…..next!” -Ben Boskovich
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3) The Bachelor (2002-present)
The Bachelor has been on television for 18 years. There are literal college freshmen likely named Trista, after Season One's popular contestant. Since the series' launch in 2002, scores of (almost exclusively white) women and chiseled men have descended on the Bachelor mansion, which looks a bit like the nicest Olive Garden you’ll ever go to. The series has spawned five successful marriages, eight steady couples, several babies, and a wine drinking problem for Americans who just want to believe in love on Monday nights. If there is a current example of a show that leads the charge when it comes to salvaging network programming, look to The Bachelor. During a regular calendar year of television, the series (or one of it's four spinoffs) is a mainstay on the weekly schedule, taking up as much as five hours of programming a week. Host Chris Harrison has been at the helm of the phenomenon since day one and as long as there are men and women ready to make out on television without any interest in making friends, then The Bachelor will have a future. -Justin Kirkland
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4) Love Island U.K. (2005-06, 2015-present)
Whatever you do, do not judge the Love Island franchise based on the recent US adaptation. It does not hold a candle to the original U.K. version, all five seasons of which are available on Hulu. Maybe it’s because it offers insight into another country's fun slang and accents and dating norms. Or perhaps it's because the early seasons in particular are raunchy as hell. Contestants spend most of their time chain smoking, engaging in insane PDA and talking shit about each other, in the most endearing way possible. I can’t pinpoint exactly what makes it so much better than any American dating show I’ve watched, but I’ve never gotten more invested in reality TV people and the emotional rollercoaster of a series as much as I have this one. It’s amazing and addicting and an all around perfect escape. Key tip for beginners: keep the subtitles on at all times so you don’t miss any cheeky chats. -Loren Cecil
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5) American Idol (2002-present)
In 2002, when a series of sparks shot over Kelly Clarkson's chunky highlights, Simon Cowell knew something major was on the horizon. American Idol hasn't been an effective launchpad for music stars in years, but in its heyday, this was the place to be to gain a fast national audience. With alumni including Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry, and Fantasia Barrino, Idol remains one of the most successful reality franchises in history. What made it so successful back in the day was the powerhouse combination of judges (were Simon and Paula actually hateful? sexually frustrated? we'll never know!), a charismatic up-comer named Ryan Seacrest, and a fierce debate about whether Clay or Ruben should have won Season Two. It's the voting drama we long for in 2020. Idol's best years existed in a time where it doubled as two shows: a reality singing competition and a televised mockery of people who believed they were talented. We'll never have that must-watch offensiveness again.- J.K.
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6) My Super Sweet Sixteen (2005-17)
As an adult with a driver’s license who doesn’t own a car, there’s something really special about watching a sixteen-year-old in a tiara have a meltdown in front of her 800 closest friends because the Range Rover she can’t legally drive is not the right color. That’s the magic of My Super Sweet Sixteen, MTV’s early 2000’s reality show that covered the arduous journey that is the Super Sweet Sixteen, all the way from the celebrity performer recruitment stage to the almost-always flashy but underwhelming, because no one in attendance is of legal drinking age, party. There is never a dull moment in all ten seasons of My Super Sweet Sixteen. First, the dramatic invitation drop, in which the birthday teen usually pulls up to school in an expensive vehicle with a megaphone and reads a list of invitees off. There are tears! Tantrums! Horse-drawn carriages! Making sure security kicks out the uninvited freshmen who always turn up because how could they miss the party of the CENTURY?! AND WHERE IS SURPRISE PERFORMER NICKI MINAJ? YOU SAID SHE WOULD BE HERE BY NOW! It’s your chance to shine / sweet sixteen / so much more to life / sweet sixteen. - Lauren Kranc
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7) RuPaul's Drag Race (2009-present)
Drag Queens host boozy brunches at Dave and Buster’s, read to kids in public libraries, and you can’t call yourself a pop star if you haven’t cast Shangela and Willam in your music video. A lot of that is due to RuPaul’s Drag Race, which made straight America fall in love with the art of drag. The show is a hilarious, shade-filled, and often moving celebration of an art form more than deserving a place in TV history. Lots of reality TV will leave you feeling as if you rolled around in a thin layer of slime, but Drag Race hits that perfect spot between shows that are all about messy verbal fisticuffs and those soothingly pastoral British series where people compete to see who can be the friendliest while crafting bespoke birds’ nests. Drag Race contestants are true artists: people who create feats of fashion, make up, and hairstyling beyond most imaginations. They also know their way around a withering put down, or an unforgettable reality TV face-off. It’s perfection. -Gabrielle Bruney
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8) The Simple Life (2003-07)
The premise was simple (see what I did there?): send two entitled socialites who’ve never worked a day in their lives to perform grueling manual labor in the middle of nowhere. The execution, however, was anything but simple. In the first season of The Simple Life, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie were sent phone-less and credit card-less to rural Arkansas, where any hope that they would learn the value of a hard day’s work quickly vanished into a shit-storm of property damage and unceremonious firings. In subsequent seasons, the dynamic duo worked as hotel maids, sausage factory technicians, and funeral home interns, among a broken series of other jobs, leaving a burnt rubber trail of chaos and conflict wherever they went. The show was a ratings juggernaut, but it was always subject to the tabloid vicissitudes of Hilton and Richie’s friendship, which soured so bitterly as to see the show cancelled after four seasons. One made-for-television reconciliation later, a fifth and final season aired, but it just wasn’t the same. Turns out what they say is true: you really can’t go home again, nor can you say “that’s hot” and mean it. -Adrienne Westenfeld
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9) Keeping Up with the Kardashians (2007-present)
What Paris Hilton created, Kim Kardashian perfected—and did it under Paris’ thumb, no less. Paris’ erstwhile assistant elevated the “famous for being famous” trope to new heights when she scored a reality show off the back of her leaked sex tape, only to transform that franchise into a multibillion dollar media and retail empire. But we’re not here to assess the staggering impact the Kardashians have had on American culture. We’re here to assess their eponymous show, which, at eighteen seasons in, continues to surprise and delight with a blindingly myopic vapidity that we somehow just can’t quit. Whether you’re hate-watching for the sport of it or you really enjoy watching the sisters strut around Calabasas County, there’s entertainment for everyone here. Who can forget Kim snapping duck-face selfies while dropping Khloe off for a thirty-day stint in jail? Kourtney laughing while Kim ugly-cries? Scott’s timeless prank phone calls? These moments will enjoy an eternal life in the annals of reality television history; our grandchildren will study them when we’re dead and gone, trying to understand something that even we don’t understand about ourselves. Next time we send a Golden Record into space, I humbly suggest that we etch the “Kim, there's people that are dying” clip onto it. Comedy, tragedy, a pair of really spectacular earring: it’s all there, friends. It will tell our alien neighbors everything they need to know about us, the people who once walked this humble blue planet. -A.W.
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10) Top Chef (2006-present)
The thing I hate about Top Chef is that I absolutely can’t watch it if I don’t have a bottomless bag/bowl/plate of food in front of me. The thing I love is everything else. There’s drama, there’s artful food, and there’s Padma Lakshmi. What more could you want? For 17 seasons, the competition has brought chefs from all over the country together to compete in a series of culinary challenges for world-class chefs and judges, who nitpick it apart. The challenges are cutthroat and fun but also diverse and educational. Plus, now I say things like “needs more acid” aloud to myself when I’m tasting my own cooking, so all I’m saying is don’t be surprised when you see me on your screen in a few seasons from now. -L.K.
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11) What Would You Do? (2008-present)
If you’re not into high-concept reality shows or tawdry televised drama, then my friend, have I got a show for you. ABC’s What Would You Do? is the mashed potatoes of reality television—a comforting, semi-snoozy paean to the pleasures of basic cable. Narrated in the dulcet tones of John Quiñones, this long-running hidden camera series stages inappropriate or illegal situations performed by actors, then lies in wait to record bystander responses. Whether it’s racist discrimination in a hair salon, a uniformed veteran coming up short at the grocery store check-out, or college students spiking a young woman’s drink, the show tees up situations that beg for bystander invention, then revels in the reactions of people who can’t help but get involved...or those who can’t be bothered. You’ll be as disgusted by the moral bankruptcy of some bystanders as you are bowled over by the simple kindness of others. Don’t overthink this one. What Would You Do? is best watched with frozen pizza and wine on a rainy Friday night. Trust me. You won’t regret it. -A.W.
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12) The Great British Baking Show (2010-present)
The Great British Baking Show is proof positive that reality shows don’t need knock-down, drag-out interpersonal conflict to succeed. There’s no throwing wine in the faces of fellow contestants here--just the cozy pleasure of a pastoral baking competition where every contestant is out to top their personal best. That spirit of loving camaraderie creates a space where no one is out to vanquish anyone else—in fact, we often see the contestants lend one another a hand at the eleventh hour. If you know nothing about baking, don’t write GBBO off. In just two episodes flat, your palms will be sweating when someone’s cake doesn’t rise, and you’ll be criticizing the dull quality of the shine on someone’s mirror glaze. Just be sure you bring dessert when you start watching the show—maybe a cupcake, a slice of pie, or a sleeve of Oreos if that’s all you’ve got. You’re going to need it. - A.W.
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13) Flavor of Love (2006-08)
You already know how every season of The Bachelor is going to go: the wackiest, messiest, and generally most reality TV-worth contestants will be swiftly booted, and in the end, Brad/Chad/Thad will choose to spend the next 7.5 months of his life with one of the dullest humans on the planet. Now, imagine The Bachelor, but with a cast composed almost entirely of contestants too bonkers to make it past the first rose ceremony. Imagine if the bachelor were Flavor Flav. Imagine if The Bachelor introduced the world to the queen of reality TV herself, Tiffany “New York” Pollard.” Flavor of Love spawned an entire universe of fantastically trashy dating shows, and nearly 15 years after its debut, its legacy lives on in countless memes that are still being tossed around social media.-G.B.
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14) Survivor (2000-present)
In 2000, CBS decided it would release 16 strangers onto an island, tell them to survive on their wits while voting each other out, and then film the whole thing. It turned into a television mega-success. At the end of the seasons, millions had started to catch wind of Survivor: a series that scratched the itch for competition, survivalism, and a touch of voyeurism. That first season paved the way for how so many other competition reality shows would take shape. The notion of alliances, voting blocks, grandiose finale speeches, and (insert whatever word best describes Richard Hatch here) became competition reality TV norm. And at the time, the one million dollar prize was one of the most unfathomably lucrative prizes you could win. All it takes it being stranded on an island for a little over a month while you stay smart and likable enough to justify the big prize. Twenty years and 40 seasons later, the franchise is still thriving, having reinvented itself time and time again. One truth remains though: there's no thrill quite like hearing the words "the tribe has spoken." - J.K.
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15) America's Next Top Model (2003-18)
America's Next Top Model is one of the campiest, most self-serving series in the canon of great reality television. Hosted and produced by Tyra Banks, what started out as a crude look into the world of modeling never seemed to transcend its host's penchant for the dramatic. Created when the reality TV show bubble really started to explode, what helped ANTM stand out was its frank, sometimes harsh, conversations about body image and race. Later, when the show was arguably outdone by edgier series, Model became an absolute shit show. It leaned on irrelevant challenges and absurd catchphrases that somehow still felt “on brand” for the series. The best series find ways to reinvent themselves, and though Tyra's reinventions always seemed to spell an increasingly messy nosedive for the series, it was a blast to watch from beginning to end. - J.K.
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16) Vanderpump Rules (2013-present)
For nearly a decade, Vanderpump Rules has been one of the best shows on television. Full stop. When it began, in 2013, Bravo’s primary focus was on an actual group of co-workers—Jax, Stassi, Tom, Kristen, the other (better) Tom, and Katie—who were all in actual (seriously fucked up) relationships and friendships. The young twenty-somethings hungered for little besides fame and pinot grigio and it didn’t take long before it was bottoms up on both. The first handful of seasons gave us “relations in Vegas,” novels’ worth of rage texts, Laura Leigh, and nearly as many break-ups as there were episodes. At one point, Brittany Cartwright played audio of her now-husband Jax Taylor cheating on her, to the gaping stares of an entire house party. At another, Kristen did an about-face after months spent in staunch denial and admits to cheating on Tom with none other than his best friend, Jax. There were physical altercations, battles with substance abuse, and shameful bouts of shoplifting. None of this has aged particularly well, and the series seems mid-reckoning as it offloads past problematic cast members while welcoming a dizzying amount of newcomers, but that’s why we have On Demand people. Dig in. -Madison Vain
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17) Wife Swap (2004-10) / Trading Spouses (2004-07)
Unfortunately, these two series get double billing because they happened to be nearly identical shows running at the same time on two different networks. That is, in part, because watching two diametrically opposed families swap out cultures and live in total disarray for approximately two weeks is just hilarious television. Like most series, both started out as a conversation on humanity and how two different sides of the spectrum can learn from one another. As the series went on, it turned into a real disaster of a premise, with only the most absurd of the absurd switching out with one another. The series also gave birth to an incredible meme that lives on though both shows are canceled at this point. Though the original iterations may be dead in the water, there will always be God Warrior. -J.K.
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18) Extreme Makeover (2002-07)
Imagine if a show existed in the year 2020 where everyday women were taken in, given plastic surgery and extreme exercise rituals, had their hair and makeup completely redone, and then were reintroduced to the public as brand! new! women! Now imagine that show not being canceled for four seasons. That’s exactly what happened in 2003. Before the series was a launching pad for much more palatable spin offs including the ever-popular Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, ABC had a show where it took women and completely made them over to the point of surgically altering their appearance. And it was all in the name of self-love. Except, a lawsuit connected to the series alleged that producers would try to get family members to say terrible things about their loved ones' appearances. When one contestant overheard her family, only to have her episode canceled, one of the loved ones committed suicide via intentional drug overdose. So Extreme Makeover wasn’t the good-hearted evolution show it was painted to be. - JK
*not available to stream, which isn't surprising
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19) Jackass (2000-02)
Imagine trying to explain Jackass to someone who had never heard the concept before. Large, adult men doing stupid shit for the sake of simply doing it. Take for instance the above clip where Johnny Knoxville roller skates while a slew of buffalo are released to essentially maul him. It's stupid and pointless, and yet, the series ran on MTV for three seasons and managed to snag six different film iterations. It is equal parts reality, stunt television, and sheer idiocy. It also captures the strange ethos of the turn of the century. -J.K.
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20) Jersey Shore (2009-12)
Jersey Shore is a phenomenon all its own. Focused on eight housemates living in New Jersey, it's kind of like if you took The Real World and siphoned every bit of legitimate believability out of it, only to replace it with a caricature of New Jersey. And yeah, it's easy to make fun of, but it's impact is immeasurable.
Someday, when coronavirus is all over, you’ll go to a club. You see your reflection in the cab mirror—fresh to death, there’s no doubting that, even if you’re not sure what that means. At the club, you order bottle service; after all, the world nearly ended. You haven’t smushed in two years. Your best friend, The Circumstance (has he always called himself this?) compliments your Jesus chain (have I always believed in Jesus?), and you utter a primal AYYY, realizing your Smirnoff buzz has rendered you unable to speak in complete sentences.
Slowly, but with the confidence of someone who’s been doing this since 2009, you begin to fist bump. Inching up, and up, and up still, like a reverse squat, you figure, the wubs faster now. When the beat hits you, you fight back. The drop comes, as you always knew it would. The life you knew, back for the first time since you were shuttered inside your rental on the shore. You scream, “YEAHHHHH BUDDY!!!” as if it’s your last. This is your legacy. This is the legacy of Jersey Shore. -Brady Langmann
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