Best TV of the '00s: Reality Series
by Kona Gallagher, posted Dec 31st 2009 2:02PM
More of our best of the decade coverage, which started on Tuesday. You can read the other posts at the link above. Here, we talk about a major category that came of age in the aughts: Reality shows.
While I would never call myself a reality TV junkie, it really bugs me when people make blanket statements like, "I hate reality TV," or, "Reality TV is the bane of my existence." The genre has grown so much in the past decade that it has become just like scripted television, in that there's good and there's bad. Even though we're splitting this up into two lists, "Reality," and "Trashy Reality," you won't see a single show that starts with, "Who Wants to Marry" on either list.
This list is dedicated not to the guilty pleasures, but to the shows that you wouldn't be embarrassed for your neighbors to know you watch: the classy reality, if you will. So without further ado, here is TV Squad's list of the best reality shows of the decade.
The Amazing Race
Allison says: There's a damn good reason The Amazing Race continues to win the Emmy every year as Outstanding Reality Competition Series. It's the best show of its kind. The globetrotting alone is epic. It literally takes competitors around the world, and the producers race right along with the players. Nothing is studio safe or easily achieved; it's a major production. And it's done in top-notch fashion. Watching AR is like taking a wild ride without tossing your lunch. It's identifiable and amazing entertainment.
Isabelle says: Even if Survivor hasn't won the Emmy for Outstanding Reality Competition Series these past years, the series continues to be one of the most watched reality show on TV. After 19 seasons, the series still find ways to surprise us and entertain us even if they do little change to the show's formula. The locations the show picks, the fantastic shooting of sceneries it adds into each episode, along with some good casting all help make this show a success.
Of course, the series wouldn't be as entertaining without host Jeff Probst, who has gotten more and more involved with the players these past years. The fact he is not afraid to ask the though questions during Tribal Councils -- for sure he picks a few questions based on what happened at camp in the days before -- and put people on the spot, helps keep us and the participants on the edge of our seats. I have not missed one episode of the show as I am entertained by the politics of the game, how the tribes work as a group (or not), how the underdogs will come back on top or crash and burn, how people will vote off one another (strategy or just "I hate you" type of vote), etc. Even if the show started two decades a go, Survivor is still worthy of a spot in the best of the last decade reality shows list.
Jonathan says: Even though this past season was the first I've watched in over four years, you can't deny it -- the original is still the best. Regardless of how you feel about the way Survivor changed the TV landscape, most of us will likely never forget being glued to our La-Z-Boys as we watched Richard Hatch, Rudy Boesch, Sue Hawk, and yes, Jeff "I'll tally the votes" Probst, for the first time back in the summer of 2000. It may not be as good as its concept any longer, but Survivor is still the cream of the reality crop.
Ice Road Truckers
John says: Though it owes its existence to a preceding "tough guys at work show" (Deadliest Catch), Ice Road Truckers offered the most compelling and realistic look at something we don't see on TV often these days -- real men working. Amidst countless hours of TV male's whining about the women who don't love them, contemplating their place in the universe, and generally peering into their own navels, Ice Road Truckers pointed its cameras at men who don't waste time asking why. They drive. They eat. They sleep. They make money. They feed their families. There's more simple nobility in that hard-nosed commitment than you'll find in 100 episodes of Grey's Anatomy.
Mike says: American High was a rare reality show with no room for gimmickry or sensationalism. Acclaimed documentary filmmaker R.J. Cutler set his sights on an Illinois high school for this great but short-lived Fox series. Thankfully, Cutler didn't attempt to create artificial conflict between his young subjects. Instead, he handed out cameras to fourteen earnest high school students and edited the raw footage together. The result was an intimate and engaging look at the students' lives. Sadly, viewers weren't interested. The show won an Emmy, but Fox canceled it in 2000 due to poor ratings. PBS later picked it up and aired all 14 episodes.
Michael P. says: The Mole was one of the most intelligent reality shows attempted. Watching the mole sabotage the other contestants was amazing. I was hooked figuring out people's intentions and putting clues together. There's even justification to the first celebrity addition watching the quick-witted Kathy Griffin put all the clues together. I was happy to see them attempt another season in 2008 and I still have hope that it shows up randomly one summer.
Annie says: The show hasn't been doing that great in its last few seasons, but its original voice was pure and just. As an artist, I'm well aware that aesthetics are dangerous grounds for broad audiences because it's all highly subjective, but Project Runway managed to make it really fun and exciting for television. Personalities like Christian Siriano and Santino Rice were fascinating to watch as their artistic visions matured and evolved through the course of a season, and we were also introduced to the wonderfulness that is Tim Gunn (and Rice's Gunn impression). I'll always have a soft spot in my heart -- my doctor says it's fine -- for the show, so I'll have my fingers crossed that things will look up in the next season. Project Runway has proved that it can be an exciting show with a lot of creative energy, and it's unexpected success has certainly earned a spot on this list.
Kona says: Despite having watched and been a fan of Project Runway from the beginning, I had always avoided Top Chef. The appeal with Project Runway is that the audience could become mini fashion critics, but with Top Chef, how do you judge food that you can't smell or touch? However, this season I agreed to help review Top Chef, and was completely amazed at how engrossing it could be. Unlike PR, the appeal wasn't in being a home judge, it was strictly in the competition and how the players interacted with each other. What struck me more than anything else was the pure professionalism of the contestants. There wasn't a single backstabber in the group: they managed to be competitive yet professional throughout the competition, which is something that you just don't see on reality shows, and is what really sets it apart from its brethren.
Jason says: It says something about this decade that a reality show has been the number one show in this country for more than half of it. Truly, the genre came into its own, and never moreso than when America got to participate in the literal making of several superstars. I'm primarily talking about Simon Cowell and Ryan Seacrest, but the track record of true music superstars is pretty impressive for a reality show as well. A show where you can take someone who is literally nobody, like Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood, and transform them into multi-platinum recording artists is a powerful thing. That American Idol could do it while making compelling, interactive television on a scale our phone systems weren't even ready for, was truly groundbreaking. It doesn't work out for everyone (sorry Taylor Hicks), but if it can make a household name out of Sanjaya, it can do anything.
Danny says: It's hard to fit this show in any specific category because it's so rare to see anything smart and slightly educational without slapping a reality slant on it. Top Gear, however, can be classified as a comedy, a drama, a news program and even a talk show, all of it surrounding the cult and culture of gear-nuts and petrol-heads.
This British import first found footing on the BBC as a straightforward car review show featuring the larger-than-life persona of Jeremy Clarkson and his youthful exuberance for all things fast. The show eventually found an audience and moved more into an eclectic mix of car reviews, news, rants and debates from the daily car news to the infamous "Cool Wall."
It's best known for pitting the show's three hosts, Clarkson, James "Captain Slow" May and Richard "The Hamster" Hammond, into used car showdowns on epic scales from testing the manufacturing quality of an old British Leyland by filling it to the roof with water and driving around a track until it drains to a quarter-mile tractor "drag" race.
It entertains by using the passion and fire of car-lovers' never-ending quest for perfection as its fuel and the host's personality as its flame decal. Combine that with the exhaustive knowledge everyone on the show has for cars and car-dom and you have a reality experience that entertains as well as it enlightens. If Top Gear were a woman, it would most definitely be Keira Knightley.
So You Think You Can Dance
Nick says: I've written before that So You Think You Can Dance is one of the few reality shows I can stand to watch without wanting to punch something. But looking back on the decade and the different reality shows networks have tossed out there -- a colony of kids trying to survive on their own, clueless celebrities trying to find love, clueless non-celebrities trying to find love -- it's wonderful that a show like So You Think You Can Dance has become a bit. The judges make no claim that the winner is the best dancer, just America's favorite dancer, which already makes it a more honest show. Plus, almost every week, the viewing public has an opportunity to learn about modern dance, jazz, or even Bollywood and Russian dancing on occasion.
The participants are undeniably talented, the judges are fair and thoughtful (even if they get off track in an amusing manner every so often), and the subject matter is something I never expected to enjoy. And I watch every week.