Reality TV. Whether you love it or hate it (let’s be honest, you know you love it), there’s no denying that this genre has cemented itself as a staple of pop culture over the past two decades. The content under this label is pretty wide-ranging, including competitions, makeovers, and cameras following the famous (or semi-famous) around in their daily lives.
Our staff will be the first to admit that we love “trash” TV (have you read our Bachelor columns??), so choosing our favorite reality shows of all time was no easy task.
Our list has it all: the trashy, the serious, the early-’90s insanity of MTV, and more. Enjoy, queens.
Marissa DiBartolo: American Ninja Warrior (2009 — Present)
I don’t watch a TON of reality TV because it would really cut into my time spent rewatching Gilmore Girls and Parks and Recreation, but any time I catch American Ninja Warrior on NBC, I just can’t look away. I could spend hours sinking into my couch, gorging on popcorn and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, watching fit people try to run up walls and swing across ropes. I can’t think of anything more American than that.
The show has evolved over the years, but the theatrics thrill me (and millions of other Americans). I love the blue and red lights, the commentators, and the hairstyles. Sometimes I feel like this show is less a feat of strength and more a creative challenge to see who has the craziest hair or will wear the most ridiculous thing (Why are you in jeans? You can’t conquer the salmon ladder in jeans. Don’t be weird.)
There are so many fierce men and women on this show, and so many inspiring stories that make you cheer so hard for these people to hit the buzzer on the top of that platform. The obstacles just keep getting more insane, and one of my favorite activities is screaming at the TV when one of the challenges is physically impossible for short people to complete (You were robbed, Kacy Catanzaro!!).
Will I ever be as fit as these folks? Probably not. My arms get tired trying to change my Duvet cover. But still, a girl can dream.
Ali Mierzejewski: RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009 — Present)
Because I am what?! Sickening. If you scroll through my Instagram feed, I would say it’s 50-50 Bachelor contestants/RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants. I’m truly obsessed with these fierce queens. I love this show because it sticks to the same basic format — mini challenge, maxi challenge, take it to the runway (runway), judges’ critiques, bottom two lip sync for their life, elimination — but once in awhile Ru will throw in a cute twist, such as a panel of eliminated contestants. (Unless you count the shake-up format of All Stars, but who has time for that in one Staff Pick article!?) Drag is a true art form, and one that I think is the purest expression of self, and DANG do these ladies slay. It’s truly life inspo. Plus, this season in particular, I feel like RuPaul really stepped up her hosting game, especially in the Werk Room segments. Using your reality show as an audition for the talk show you’re pitching? I SEE YOU, QUEEN. Remember: If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love anybody else? Now let the music play!
Maddie Michalik: Survivor (2000 — Present)
It’s 2019 and I still stan Survivor so much. Not only is the show entertaining all by itself, but the whole point of the game is to navigate this psychological minefield to get to the million dollars at the end. Say it with me: The people who you vote out throughout the season are the same people who VOTE TO GIVE YOU A MILLION DOLLARS. ::head explodes:: “Hey, I voted you out, but now can you please vote for me so I cash in a millie? Cool!” It’s amazing. You have to be a master manipulator while not burning any bridges and hope you form the right alliances and make the right decisions. You have to use social skills and smarts to really excel at the game, not to mention literally surviving on an island with a handful of rice a day, no luxuries, and a shelter that you have to build with your tribe. There are so many layers here. Jeff Probst is also the best TV host of all time, please @ me so we can discuss this in length.
James Zahn: Project Greenlight (2001 — 2005, 2015)
The first season of Project Greenlight arrived at the perfect time to reel me in. A then-innovative approach to competition-based reality TV, the online engagement and community-building that HBO, LivePlanet, and Miramax created was ahead of its time. Coming out of the ’90s, we were in an era when it seemed that anyone who wanted to make a film would soon be able to — and I was one of those would-be filmmakers.
With a screenplay competition open to all, it would be fellow Chicagoland resident Pete Jones who would score the opportunity to direct his first feature — Stolen Summer — to be produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, with production chronicled in a weekly documentary series to be aired on HBO.
Due to my own activity in the Project Greenlight community, my wife and I were able to attend our first-ever World Premiere event — a green carpet — alongside the filmmakers, cast, and crew. In many ways, Project Greenlight inspired me to quit my corporate job (with no safety net), and enter film school in the fall of 2001. I’d later wind up a directorial contestant in season two, but didn’t make it past the first round with my own short, Stranded at The Terrace.
Following three initial seasons and a return for a fourth after a 13-year break, Project Greenlight was canceled in 2016.
Jackie Cucco: Locked Up Abroad (2007 — Present)
This show is a wild ride. It’s like a true crime, prison show, travel series mash-up, with real-life people sharing their stories of getting locked up abroad. Some of them were obviously framed or targeted — sometimes even kidnapped — while others totally deserved it with stories of trying to smuggle drugs or doing something blatantly illegal. The stories are insane, especially the ones about people escaping their kidnappers or surviving the world’s most dangerous prisons. It’ll make you think twice the next time you call your three-hour flight delay a travel nightmare.
Joe Ibraham: The Challenge (1998 — Present)
The Challenge is a reality game show unlike any other. A spin-off from the much more tame Real World, The Challenge is a showcase of people’s strength and skill, both physically and mentally. The televised challenges are so insane, I often wonder where the rest of MTV’s production budget goes. While I do consider this MTV series to be my guilty pleasure, I’m not ashamed to say that the drama it creates entertains me to no end. In the real, real world, I steer clear of that sort of thing. Each and every season of The Challenge gets bigger, badder, and more intense than the last, and it will continue to be a staple of my Wednesday nights for as long as the network can gather people crazy enough to compete in it.
Madeleine Buckley (that’s me!): Queer Eye (2018 — Present)
When I was younger, I was obsessed with SO many of the mid-aughts reality shows. Give me anything on TLC and I’d be happy, and I lived for Extreme Makeover Home Edition on Sunday nights. These days, though, the only reality show you’ll find me geeking out over is Queer Eye. I was a little bit late to the Queer Eye train, because I heard almost too many good things about it and convinced myself it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. (Spoiler alert: it does!)
Not only are the Fab 5 #squadgoals, but every single episode is full of so much love and positive energy. The new Queer Eye takes all the things I loved about shows like What Not to Wear and Extreme Makeover Home Edition — the big reveal, family members’ surprise, etc. — and makes it decidedly less trashy, negative, and/or unrealistic. Unlike the reality shows of my childhood, Queer Eye doesn’t tear down the people getting made over, or exploit their hardships. You come away from the show feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, even if you’re also super snotty from all your happy tears.
WATCH IT NOW: Stream on Netflix
Miranda Siwak: Love Island (2015 — Present)
As an Anglophile and a self-proclaimed connoisseur of all things trash TV, I know both of those elements perfectly mesh together for my latest reality TV obsession: the UK’s runaway global hit Love Island. It combines Bachelor in Paradise’s shack-up-or-get-out attitude with Big Brother-esque competitions, a snarky comic narrator who says exactly what we’re all thinking, and so much drama to create a BAFTA-winning reality program. While dating shows (like my all-time trash fave The Bachelor franchise) are clearly scripted, there’s something about British programming and Love Island’s live aspect that make it more realistic without sacrificing an ounce of the dramatics that keep us entertained. A U.S. version is headed to CBS this summer, bringing that survival of the fittest attitude abroad. You know I’ll be watching, like the dutiful trash TV audience member I am.
WATCH IT NOW: Stream on Hulu
Victoria Rosenthal: Next (2005 — 2008)
Next is the pinnacle of MTV trash reality dating shows. As a middle schooler, watching 20-somethings go on the weirdest, scripted dates made my summer. It’s perfect if you’re looking for a mind-numbing show, and the concept of having a group of people waiting on a bus to go on a date made sense in the ‘00s MTV world. But, what made the show so perfect were the contestants’ introductions. “Jenna, 22: Hates greasy pizza, lit her house on fire at age 6, and prefers to poop in a trash can.” Jenna is also most likely only wearing a bikini (with no pool or beach trip planned for this date). When MTV went downhill, it fell hard, and I was laughing the whole time.
WATCH IT NOW: This isn’t officially available anywhere, but there are tons of old clips on YouTube.
Sierra McCleary-Harris: Keeping Up With the Kardashians (2007 — Present)
Have we not already established that I am a Grade-A, whole ass trash person? Duh.
Jackie Breyer: MTV’s The Real World (1992 — Present)
What happens when people stop being polite, and start getting real? The world found out for the first time in 1992, when impressionable teenagers everywhere were exposed to young adult strangers from different backgrounds living together in a loft in New York City. This was a groundbreaking concept, and we were glued to MTV (as though we weren’t already watching literally the only channel on daytime TV with content for teens in 1992) to see what drama would occur in the loft that day. Would they fight, fall in love, find a lost puppy? And then watch that episode 50 more times because there was no SVOD or internet THIS WAS ALL WE HAD. And it was awesome.