Reality shows tend to get a bad reputation. They’re called repetitive, vapid, self-indulgent, and inauthentic; shallow popularity contests for the simple-minded.
While that may be true of some or many of the reality shows that have come and gone, there is the occasional outlier: a show that turns the genre on its head, or avoids the clichés, or just has a fascinating premise.
Sadly, these shows are often short-lived, so here is a list of five reality shows that desperately deserve a comeback.
1. The Joe Schmo Show (2003–2013)
A fake reality show wherein all the contestants but one are actors playing clichéd reality show archetypes.
As much a social experiment as reality show, it was initially planned to focus on mocking the one ‘real’ contestant. However, the showrunners quickly realized that the audience would feel sympathy for the contestant because he was a genuinely nice person, and the plan for the show was altered in his favour.
This show is the rare breed of reality show that knowingly deconstructs and mocks the idea of reality shows, drawing attention to the artifice and the repetitiveness of the genre.
2. True Beauty (2009–2010)
A fashion/modelling reality show which (secretly) focused on inner beauty rather than physical beauty.
Each episode the contestants were made to participate in a largely irrelevant modelling challenge while also unintentionally participating in a challenge that judged their kindness, generosity, and so on.
The show was far from perfect. It still put a lot of focus on traditional beauty, and the contestants were as cut-throat and backbiting as those on any other beauty reality show.
But the acknowledgment of the hostile attitude seen in both reality television and the modelling industry — and the attempt to work against that trend — was refreshing.
3. Kid Nation (2007)
Forty children, ages eight to 15, were set up in an abandoned ghost town in the deserts of New Mexico, to work and live there for 40 days and create a functional society.
The children were given jobs around the town while also participating in team challenges to win either a fun or useful prize to be added to the town. One successful challenge had them deciding between television sets and additional outhouses, for example.
This show was notable in part because of the controversial premise — which prompted a number of legal investigations — but primarily because of the optimistic idea of gathering children from around the United States of various ages and of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds to work together and support each other as a community.
4. The Colony (2009–2010)
Ten strangers with various skills are forced to live together in a warehouse while experiencing the struggle to survive in a (simulated) apocalypse.
Participants needed to provide for themselves in a lot of basic ways that most take for granted in contemporary Western society: collecting clean water and generating power, sourcing and rationing food, personal hygiene, and security.
The depiction of using practical skills to solve potential problems was compelling. It was also fascinating to see how invested in the scenario the participants became, with every member of the group literally and honestly devastated when one participant mysteriously vanished during a supply run.
5. The Mole (2001–2008)
In The Mole, contestants competed in challenges to add money into a prize pot, if completed successfully.
One was the Mole and secretly working against the team, sabotaging the challenges. At the end of each episode, the contestants were asked questions about the Mole’s identity to test their deductive and observational skills. The player with the lowest score was removed from the game.
The audience also did not know the identity of the Mole, allowing those at home to play along. Each episode would give clues which, if correctly interpreted, would hint towards the true Mole. Some of the clues were bullshit.