On August 23rd, 2000 – a Wednesday in the doldrums of summer – over 51 million people tuned into the season finale of Survivor: Borneo, the reality series’ first American season. That is a larger audience than Carson had when he signed off for the last time on The Tonight Show. That’s nearly as large as audience as the Friends series finale. Modern shows are at a disadvantage, due to audience splintering, DVR, streaming services, etc. – but just to illustrate the monstrosity of Survivor’s ratings, that finale episode was watched by ten times as many people as the Breaking Bad series finale. Five times as many as The Sopranos series finale. Given the juggernaut that Survivor became, it was only natural that the show would spin off a brand of programming that fits TV’s most pejorative nickname – the idiot box – more than any other.
After the success of Survivor, viewers were barraged with reality programming, shows that distinctly became more and more unreal. The premise of The Real World was petering in the early 2000s – we learned that what happened when people “started getting real” was generally no more exciting than drunken hot tub fights and shower sex (at least until The Jersey Shore, which injected that premise with a mixture of Red Bull, HGH, and Hair Gel). Take those same people, though, and drop them in a strange location, pit them against each other, and hire a low-level celebrity host, and you might just create the next cultural phenomenon.
The years immediately following Survivor’s finale brought with them a preponderance of ridiculous reality TV shows, each premise more contrived and unreal than the next. Reality contests, “Celebrity” reality shows, reality dating shows, the format was nearly limitless until the sheer mass of the genre caused it to collapse in on itself (somewhat). So, we thought it would be a fun exercise to dig through the sordid history of reality television in the 21st century and bring you 15 of the most ridiculous shows you probably forgot.
15 Temptation Island (2001-2003)
If the idea of reality television is in some part to deconstruct human morality or to eliminate the ethical constructs of society and see what people are “really” like, Temptation Island may be the height of the form. This show, hosted by Mark Walberg (this one, not this one), took the sexual tension that existed in other reality competitions and made it the contest itself.
Couples are sent to a resort where they are broken up and isolated based on gender. Four girlfriends on this side, living with 12 male models. Four boyfriends on this side, living with 12 female models. Audiences then tuned in to watch relationships dissolve, as contestants struggled to resist the titular temptations that surrounded them.
It’s worth noting that this televised train wreck at least knew where to draw the lines, ejecting one couple from its first season when it was discovered they were parents to two children. Nice.
14 The Mole (2001 – 2008)
Before Anderson Cooper became the steely eyed anchor of his eponymous CNN show and perhaps the news network's most recognizable personality, he hosted a reality show on ABC called The Mole. Like most reality shows from that era, the idea was simple with one catchy gimmick. Contestants compete for a group of money, that’s the idea. The gimmick was “the mole”, a person show producers hand-picked to sabotage the efforts of the other contestants.
The Mole lost steam early, switching hosts from Cooper to Ahmad Rashad, and later to Jon Kelley. It jumped networks, moving from ABC to Fox Reality (that was a real network from 2005-2010). Eventually, despite employing that classic reality tactic of enlisting a bunch of C-list celebrity contestants, the show died for good, years removed from its brief moment of relevance.
13 The Benefactor (2004)
Billionaires do fail. Even though he may never run for president, after watching Donald Trump be derisively referred to as “reality star” for the last two years, Mark Cuban might just be happy that his Apprentice rip-off failed so miserably.
Months after the debut of The Apprentice, Cuban debuted his own show, called The Benefactor. The show's competition was simple – Mark Cuban decides on a series of qualities he deems worthy, then administers a series of tasks and challenges that necessitate those qualities. The contestants that are most successful win a million dollars from Cuban. Maybe his star wasn’t as large as it is now. Maybe audiences were already starting to be wary of reality programming. For whatever reason, Cuban’s show was a catastrophic failure. It was the weakest on its network, and was unable to draw eyeballs no matter the time slot.
12 I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! (U.S.) (2003)
The height of the reality craze was something like an arms race, as networks packed more and more gimmicks and hooks in programming in an effort to attract audiences. Strange ideas were one-upped by even stranger ideas, with a premium placed on extremity. As networks struggled to program more and more new, wild shows, a new method revealed itself – just use celebrities.
In 2003, ABC premiered I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, a show that tested the mettle of low-level – truly low-level – celebrities by putting them in a harsh environment devoid of amenities. I’m a Celebrity stretched the definition of the word by enlisting people like Cris Judd, Alana Stewart, and John Melendez to compete. The show does have one footnote that is still (extremely) relevant today: the fourth place finisher on the show was Bruce Jenner, a full four years before Kim Kardashian’s home video and the birth of the Kardashian empire. The show was revived by NBC for one season in 2009, but was similarly ineffectual.
11 Unan1mous (2006)
If you’ve ever played a board game that ended up being no more than a convoluted series of rules and wrinkles – games where you spend more time reading the rule book than playing the game – you’ll understand why Unan1mous didn’t make it more than eight episodes.
This is the premise of the show – there is prize money, and nine contestants who are locked in a bunker and can’t leave until they unanimously decide who should receive the prize money. Over time, the prize money dwindles, increasing pressure on contestants to make a decision. Each time contestants take a vote, if it isn’t unanimous, there is a punishment levied against the entire group. Each time a punishment is levied, the prize pool dwindles more and some new wrinkle is added to the game. Despite having the potential to be a clever investigation of human nature, Unan1mous became just another forgettable, gimmicky reality show.
10 The Surreal Life (2003 – 2006)
Maybe you didn’t forget about The Surreal Life. It’s probable that you didn’t, in fact. But we need to make sure everyone is reminded of the insane cultural footprint that this celebrity train wreck ended up having. The Surreal Life gave way to a cottage industry within reality TV, a never ending tree of other shows it spawned.
Here is the list of shows that are either spinoffs of The Surreal Life or spinoffs of Surreal Life spinoffs; if this show were an NFL Head Coach, it would have an unbeatable coaching tree: Strange Love; My Fair Brady; The Surreal Life: Fame Games; The Salt-n-Pepa Show; Let’s Talk About Pep; Flavor of Love; I love New York; Real Chance of Love; Frank the Entertainer… In a Basement Affair; Rock of Love; Rock of Love Bus; Charm School; For The Love of Ray J; Daisy of Love; Megan Wants a Millionaire; I Love Money; New York Goes to Hollywood; New York Goes to Work; and Real and Chance: The Legend Hunters.
Sorry, that was a lot. Twenty shows to be exact. But the only way we could highlight how ridiculous it was that a network packed its airways with that much… talent from one show was to bludgeon you over the head with all twenty names. Again, our apologies. Look at it this way, you got one entry for twenty-one ridiculous reality shows you probably forgot.
9 The 5th Wheel (2000-2004)
The 5th Wheel is notable for two things. First, Aisha Tyler – currently a voice actress on Archer, the host of Whose Line is it Anyway?, and an overall well known TV personality – hosted the show’s first season. Second, The 5th Wheel had one of the most hardcore scummy premises of any show on this list.
On The 5th Wheel, two romantic pairs begin a double date together. After a period of time, an interloper joins them (the titular wheel) to mix things up. Partners are switched, and eventually a referendum is held regarding who would like to go out with whom. Not scummy enough for you? Here is the show’s tagline. We promise this was real – “…Where Strangers Become Lovers, and Lovers Become Bitter, Suicidal Exes, All On the Same Show.” Bitter, Suicidal Exes! Hard. Core.
8 Joe Millionaire (2003)
To fully understand how insane, the reality became, look no further than Joe Millionaire. This show is historical testament to both the vapidity and the earning potential of the genre.
Joe Millionaire was a six episode dating show, where women competed for the affection of an millionaire bachelor. It was kind of like the bachelor, except with a millionaire. Of course, there was a twist – the bachelor in question was not a millionaire, but in fact a regular old construction worker. The main motivation for watching the show, then, was to see one of the women on the show receive a rude surprise; the show pretty much framed it as a comeuppance. Up to 42 million people tuned in to watch exactly that. If you’ve made it this far, you already read a somewhat tedious outline of reality ratings in the intro, so suffice it to say that 42 million people is a monstrous audience.
According to Neilsen’s list of the top television broadcasts from last year, Joe Millionaire’s finale would have ranked 5th overall in 2015, abutted by playoff NFL games and the Oscars. It drew ten million more people than the average of the highest rated primetime TV program of 2015, NBC’s Sunday Night Football. Again, there are other factors at play here. But 42 million people is a ridiculous number no matter how you look at it.
7 Pirate Master (2007)
We will go ahead and link to the opening credits of Pirate Master (replete with people swinging on ropes, treasure chests, and catchy chyrons that read “HIGH SEAS, HIGH STAKES”) just so you believe it was a real show that aired on America’s most watched network in the year 2007.
Pirate Master is vaguely Survivor-esque, in that teams of competitors compete for prizes (pirate treasure, as it were), as a voting mechanism eliminates different contestants each week. The only difference is, Pirate Master took the vaguely piratey aspects of Survivor – the exotic locales, cutthroat competition, bad hygein – and made it overtly piratey, adding trite elements of pirate lore like treasure chests and the aforementioned rope swinging.
Pirate Master asked you the simple question – If you like those other shows, wouldn’t you love a show that’s similar except the contestants succeed or fail based on their abilities that overlap with those of a pirate? For most people, that answer was “no.” After half a season, the remainder of the competition was broadcast exclusively online.
6 Beauty and The Geek (2005 – 2008)
This might be an unfair logic jump, but it is hard to imagine Beauty and the Geek receiving a green light in 2016. The past few years have foisted a conversation about identity construction upon the public; convenient labeling is thoroughly out of vogue. As such, it’s hard to picture a successful show that pairs “beauties” and “geeks” together to compete as couples for a cash prize.
Those competitions usually depended on the (airheaded, duh) beauties having to overcome intellectual hurdles, while the (completely out of touch, obviously) geeks needed to mine their nonexistent social knowledge. Since we live in an age where people – at least some – have seemingly realized that it is insulting to categorize folks at all, let alone as just one thing, Beauty and the Geek seems pretty ham-handed. It’s probably more a victim of rapid cultural tectonic shifts – the show was still on The CW as recently as 2008.
5 Splash (2013)
Splash stretches the construct that defines this list, the idea that these shows are forgotten relics from a distant era when Reality TV shows roamed the airwaves like Dinosaurs. Splash may not be from a long distant era, but we are wagering that you did indeed forget it.
This show continued a time honored tradition of signing a crazy variety of celebrities to participate in some strange competition. Splash at least enlisted some legit celebrity talent to take part. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a top ten NBA player of all time was there. Ndamukong Suh, the much reviled and incredibly talented NFL lineman was there. Brandi Chastain too.
As for the competition, well, it was a diving contest. Rory Bushfield, an extreme skier, won. If you are – rightly – laughing while imagining a board room pitch about hurling a strange collection of famous people off a high dive, you’ll be disappointed. Like so many other reality shows from the 2000s, Splash was adapted from another property – in this case, a similar Dutch show.
4 Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire (2000)
Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire was a one episode event. It featured fifty women, one from each state, competing for the affection of a millionaire behind a curtain. That’s it. It was like an old-timey dating show, except the person behind the curtain had a lot of money in their bank account. In 2002, TV Guide ranked this show as number twenty-five on its 50 Worst Shows of All Time list.
Despite the banality of its premise, Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire stayed in the news cycle for longer than the 120 minutes it was on the air. The winner of the show – Darva Conger – was proposed to on the spot, and of course said yes. Three months later she shockingly filed for an annulment, claiming that Rick Rockwell, the millionaire in question, had misrepresented itself. Which makes you wonder to what extent he represented himself at all since, you know, it was a TV show. The annulment went through.
3 Armed and Famous (2007)
Here’s a good one. On Armed and Famous, very low level celebrities competed to be reserve police officers in Muncie, Indiana police department. Those celebrities were Erik Estrada, La Toya Jackson, Jack Osborne, Trish Stratus, and Wee Man.
Something happened with this show; exactly what is pretty much unkown (who’s asking?) – CBS aired the first part of the series, eventually pulling it from their schedule in January of 2007. Days later, VH1 announced that they would be picking up the series and airing a four-episode marathon on their network, with an additional unseen fifth episode to follow. That fifth episode, and whatever ostensibly came after it, were never seen by the viewing public. So consider this a formal plea to any network willing to resurrect Armed and Famous. The public deserves to see it. This writer’s 12-year-old self would like to add to that plea that Trish Stratus has to come, or else don’t bother.
2 The Ashlee Simpson Show (2004)
The point of this isn’t to be nasty to anyone or pick on a family. If just existing is enough to draw eyeballs, then who can say a person or persons are without value. Having said that, Ashlee Simpson had her own show in 2004, one that ran for two seasons and drew a substantial audience.
The Ashlee Simpson Show has been largely forgotten. It followed her in the quasi-documentary style of may reality shows that still air, as she both lived her daily life and drove toward success in the music industry. The show is notable not because of its premise, which was completely unoriginal even in 2004, but because the Simpson’s may have been the early 2000’s analog to the Kardashians, who would eventually supplant every other family on the planet in terms of fame for fame’s sake. Before Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney, America was all in on Jessica and Ashley. They never achieved a Kardashian level of fame – Jessica’s show was more notable for her confusing chicken with tuna than for sex tapes and marrying huge stars, sorry Nick Lachey – but the Simpson’s were the closest comparisons to the Kardashians as far as being famous for being famous goes. And that should be remembered.
1 The Contender (2005-2008)
It’s safe to say that The Contender left almost zero cultural footprint, especially considering the talent involved with the show. Sly Stallone, the non-boxer probably most associated with boxing (there is a statue of Sylvester Stallone in boxing garb in Philadelphia. Sure, its Rocky. But it’s Sly Stallone in Boxing Garb) co-hosted the show. He was joined by Sugar Ray Leonard, one of Boxing’s most recognizable and charismatic figures. The show even had a pedigreed soundtrack, with Hans Zimmer providing the music.
That didn’t stop it from fading fast, and eventually living out its days on Versus, which might show up on a list of 15 Networks You Forgot existed. Of all the shows on this list, it is probably most shocking that The Contender didn’t make a real mark.