It's no secret that one of my guilty pleasures is reality television. I was an early convert to this genre of entertainment, having come of age around the same time that MTV's groundbreaking series The Real World was in its prime. (The first season of that show was broadcast in my freshman year of college.) By the time the "vote-in contest" became the dominant form of reality tv, I was already hooked... and although I have only actually phoned-in to vote for someone a couple of times, I still regularly enjoy watching these little experiments in direct democracy. I know all of the criticims of reality tv, and I won't bother with a defense of my affection for it here. Instead, here's a list of the best reality shows on television, in my (expert) opinion:
(These are in no particular order.)
1. The Amazing Race (broadcast on CBS): Real contest show: no voting, no judges. Pairs of contestants race around the world, competing in physical and intellectual challenges and searching for clues to their next destination. As anyone who has ever taken a long trip with friends or family knows, the deadly combination of fatigue and disorientation that often accompanies long trips can be a real strain on relationships between fellow-travellers. So, imagine how much more strain is put on those relationships when there's no itinerary for the trip AND when there's a million dollars at stake. This is definitely one of my favorite reality shows, and I can honestly say that I've thought to myself, more than once, when measuring the strength of a friendship: "Could I go on The Amazing Race with this person?" If you can answer "yes" to that question, you've got a real friend, in my book.
2. Deadliest Catch (broadcast on Discovery Channel): Character-and-event-driven documentary show: no contests. Deadliest Catch follows several boat-crews fishing for king crab and Opilio crab in the Bering Sea. Before seeing this show for the first time, I had heard that crab-fishing is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. After seeing the show, I know why. Miserable conditions, backbreaking labor, long hours, close quarters, more-than-a-little-odd co-workers, and the real threat of serious injury or death make crab-fishing seem like a truly Herculean task. So, why do they do it? Because crabs are the gold of the sea. If the crewmembers can survive the trip, they can make more money in a few weeks than most of us make in a year.
3. American Idol (broadcast on FOX): Contest show with judges and call-in voting, but America decides the winner. Over the years, I've lost a considerable amount of affection for this show as it's gotten more vanilla and the contestants have gotten more contrived, but back in the day, this was one of the best reality shows. The first few weeks of every season, when the judges are peeling through the hundreds of thousands of would-be singers trying out, is really the best part of the show. (Seriously, one of the most hilarious and wickedly enjoyable things to watch is a completely tone-deaf person who is entirely convinced that s/he can sing. That's also why I love karaoke, btw.) American Idol holds the distinction of setting the model for the "judges panel," with the brilliant-cum-ridiculous combination of Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul serving as the unrepeatable ideal. Though this isn't really the case anymore, the early seasons of American Idol were like watching a serialized version of the achievement of the American Dream. Young nobodys were plucked from obscurity on the basis of their God-given talent alone and delivered, all sparkly and shiny and new, to the world of fame and fortune.
4. So You Think You Can Dance (broadcast on FOX): Contest show with judges and call-in voting, but America decides the winner. Before watching this show, I couldn't have said anything intelligent about dance as an art form, but one of the greatest accomplishments of SYTYCD is its introduction of the complex and beautiful world of dance to the masses. Like American Idol, this show is really about "talent," and like Project Runway or Top Chef, it focuses on a talent that many of us enjoy but know very little about. The things that those dancers can do with their bodies! SYTYCD has the very best panel of judges on television, I think, and it's still new enough to have avoided compromising to its own image of itself just yet. Cocktail-Party-Conversation Bonus: I can now reference by name my favorite choreographers.
5. Top Chef (broadcast on Bravo): Contest show, final winner determined by panel of judges. Having spent many years of my own life in the restaurant industry (but always on the "service" side), I've certainly met my fair share of crazy chefs. I mean, seriously, cooks are C-R-A-Z-Y. The kitchen is like a whole alternate universe, and chefs are the brilliant, creative, tempermental, profane soveriegns of that world. Top Chef is another one of those shows that features a real human "talent" and instructs us in the minutiae of what distinguishes great chefs from good ones. Each episode features a "quickfire" challenge that should embarrass all of us who like to excuse the fact that we don't eat well by claiming there are restrictions on our budgets or supplies. Cooking shows are a real oddity, I think, since (obviously) the viewers are never able to actually taste the products by which contestants are being judged. But the food on this show is so freakin' pretty that it makes your mouth water...
6. Project Runway (broadcast on Bravo): Contest show, final winner determined by a panel of judges. Pretty much everything I said about Top Chef is true of Project Runway. I don't know anything about "fashion," and have been endlessly fascinated by the skill and imagination of the designers. Project Runway also has a great panel of judges, headed up by the drop-dead gorgeous Heidi Klum and her signature "auf Wiedersehen." Another one of the things that I kind of like about this show is that sometimes I am absolutely baffled by the designers that judges favor. (Remember Santino?) It was also Project Runway that first made me aware of the non-academic use of the word "deconstructed"-- which, as far as I can tell, pretty much just means "shredded and messy" in the fashion world. Of course, Project Runway greatest triumph is its introduction of the dapper dandy Tim Gunn, aka, the very Form of the gay uncle you wish you had.
7. Survivor (broadcast on CBS): Contest show, contestants vote each other off the show down to the final two, then a "jury" of voted-off contestants determines the winner. Like all reality shows, there are better and worse years of Survivor (which is now in its 20th season), but in its better years, I think Survivor is one of the best reality shows there is. The concept is this: strand 20 strangers in some remote location, strip them of all of their modern comforts, fuel the fires of their suspicion and self-interest, and see who can "outwit, outplay, outlast" the others. The show is like a combination of Lord of the Flies, the "state of nature," and junior high school. Like the Amazing Race, Survivor is probably one of the hardest shows on which to actually be a contestant, requiring tremendous physical, psychological and social strength. And Jeff Probst is easily the best host on television.
8. Real World/Road Rules Challenge (broadcast on MTV): Contest show, all contestants are former contestants or characters on either MTV's The Real World or Road Rules, winners are determined by actually winning. RW/RR-Challenge is, obviously, a "spin-off" show, and so all of the contestants on this show are veterans of reality television. They're young, they're beautiful, they're very often drunk or horny (or both), and they've got a LOT of unresolved history with one another. Although all of the shows in this list are guilty pleasures, this one is the one about which I feel the most guilt for my utter, unrestrained enjoyment of it. I suppose if I were forced to give a semi-legitimate defense of why someone should watch RW/RR-Challenge, it would be that-- despite all the other drama-- the contests and challenges in this show are really at the extreme of what human beings can accomplish phsyically and psychologically. So, there's that. But for anyone who was ever a fan of Real World or Road Rules and wondered what those people could have possibly done with themselves after having the most vulnerable young-adult months of their lives laid open and broadcast, well, here's what they do: they embed themselves in an utterly dysfunctional family of their kind and just try to hold on while the fame that only attaches itself to youth and beauty slowly, slowly slips away.
Runners-up to this list: Airline (Originally broadcast on A&E, but only ran for 3 seasons, ending in 2006. Documentary-style show following airport employees through a typical work day. Great tag line for the show: "We all have our baggage."), Punk'd (Originally broadcast on MTV. Ashton Kutcher does Candid Camera and coins American neologism.), Solitary (Broadcast on FOX. Contestants are kept in solitary confinement and presented with series of challenges. Person who doesn't go crazy wins.), America's Best Dance Crew (Broadcast on MTV. It's like SYTYCD, only contest is between "crews" of dancers instead of individual dancers.), The Joe Schmo Show (Broadcast on Spike-TV. Reality television goes "meta" on this spoof of a dating show in which an ordinary guy is convinced that he is participating on a "real" reality show... only he's "really" not. All the other people on the show are actors. Whoa, dude.), Laguna Beach /The Hills/The City (Broadcast on MTV. Trio of reality shows following obscenely wealthy and tragically beautiful young people in what they consider the "real world." Responsible for introducing the world to Heidi and Spencer Pratt, a violation for which I am sure someone will someday be prosecuted.) Wife Swap (Broadcast on ABC. One of ABC's few attempts at reality television, in which they undermine BOTH the institution of marraige AND family values, all in the name of reinforcing the same.)