By definition, reality television is supposed to document the real-life events surrounding the actual humans being starring in the many shows representing the genre. On the contrary, anyone who's spent a single half hour watching one of these programs knows the idea that they're in any way similar to “real life” is outright laughable. If anything, most reality shows represent the worst elements of humanity, which may well accurately describe the brainless idiots living that existence. However, those seeking even the slightest bit of intellectual content in their lives turned off the channel the first time they laid eyes on this nonsense.
Despite a popular misconception that the medium is fairly new, the first reality TV show actually made its debut in 1973. Taking things a step further, certain documentary films that served essentially the same purpose had been around for decades before then. These films and early series were relative rarities, though, and the genre has indeed seriously exploded since the current millennium began. In all fairness, with the outrageous number of reality TV shows that currently populate the airwaves, a couple of them have somehow defied all expectation and provided genuine entertainment in one way or another.
Some reality shows get a pass because they’re technically game shows as well, where a prize is on the line, thus giving audiences a reason to cheer for or against the competitors. Others, believe it or not, might possess a little bit of educational value, teaching viewers about parts of the world they may otherwise never see. On top of that, there are even some reality shows that are simply hilarious, due to a funny premise or the personalities of the people involved. Of course, these are few and far between in a sea of outrageously horrible shows that almost make us want to throw away our TVs and read a book. Keep reading to learn about 8 completely pointless reality shows that killed TV and 7 that actually weren’t all bad.
15 KILLED TV: 16 and Pregnant
Seriously, what the hell is wrong with MTV? Six months before they made Jersey Shore, an arguably even worse, more exploitative, damaging program was created in 16 and Pregnant. Five days after Jersey Shore hit the air, MTV doubled down on the awful by creating an equally terrible spin-off of 16 and Pregnant, called Teen Mom, and another two sequel series would follow after that. If the titles alone somehow didn’t give it away, all of these programs focus on the problems associated with teenage pregnancy. There’s no denying that unplanned teenage pregnancy is almost always a huge burden on the young women who experience it, which only makes it that much worse when MTV glamorizes and glorifies the issue. Network executives have long argued the show was actually trying to do the opposite, making teens realize the importance of safe sex, yet studies have revealed the show had no notable impact on the subject. At least this means rates haven’t gone up.
14 NOT BAD: Big Brother
Quite frankly, it was hard putting Big Brother on the good half of this list given how the show tends to go. Sometimes, the wrong characters get glorified by fans for their outrageous actions, while good people get ignored because there’s nothing particularly interesting about them. However, once you’re able to get past this issue, Big Brother provides a unique sociological experiment where existing as a decent human being is the game itself. While the not-so-decent people receive too much attention as noted, the fact they’ll inevitably get booted out of the house for this behavior provides viewers with a simple life lesson in how not to be a jerk. The more audiences learn about the people playing the game, the more they’ll also start rooting for the nicest or most entertaining player to win the big prize, which feels earned and gives a sense that simply being a likable person can pay.
13 KILLED TV: Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County
Because the idea of bringing together people of different creeds, races, and backgrounds almost constituted as a plot, MTV threw all those pretenses and went even deeper into the well of vapidity in 2004 by debuting Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County. Focusing on the lives of students at Laguna Beach High School, the series went a long way at proving every single negative stereotype about the youth in America today as entirely accurate. The kids in the show were shallow, superficial, glorified violence and sex amongst teenagers, objectified women, and genuinely made the real Laguna Beach a worse place to live in by doing so. A 2010 study later revealed Laguna Beach legitimately increased crime in the area, when residents saw characters on the show get away with misdemeanors and then assumed it was okay. A follow-up series called The Hills wasn’t much better for nearby Beverly area.
12 KILLED TV: Jersey Shore
Responding to criticisms the characters on Laguna Beach and The Hills were the absolute bottom of American society, MTV created Jersey Shore to make it clear television had yet to hit rock bottom. Naturally, the network also did whatever they could to find that nadir, hiring a group of friends in New Jersey whom advertising repeatedly referred to as “Guidos,” thereby throwing a healthy dose of racism in the mix for good measure. As if the very idea of the show weren’t bad enough, what would happen across the next six seasons would repeatedly see television reach new lows, with constant fighting between the men and women being heralded by fans as the most memorable and entertaining moments. In the warped minds of Jersey Shore fans, the fact the cast members were all blackout drunk at the time only made it more fun to watch. Not only did Jersey Shore bring out the worst in television; it likewise brought out the basest qualities of everyone who watched it.
11 NOT BAD: Survivor
Alright, so, technically speaking, Survivor is just as bad as American Idol in terms of starting the reality TV trend, and having made its debut three years earlier, Survivor might even be more responsible. On the other hand, the stakes on Survivor were significantly higher than anything seen on Idol or most other reality shows that have come since. Of all the reality shows that are technically game shows, Survivor is easily the toughest actual challenge, forcing contestants to fend for themselves on a deserted island. They have to work together merely to live, and then, in the toughest test, decide who amongst them should get voted off, sometimes hurting the tribe in the process for a chance of winning the grand prize. If all reality shows were this intense, it wouldn’t be so simple for just anybody to succeed on them and become famous as a result.
10 KILLED TV: Keeping Up With The Kardashians
And so, it’s come to this. The more popular reality shows have become, the more often people have pointed to the criticism they glorify the basest elements of society for no reason. Reality TV stars are no longer celebrities or contestants on game shows; they're quite literally famous just for being famous, and no family better represents this maxim than the Kardashians. Quite possibly the most intellectually devoid family in America, each member of the Kardashian dynasty simply wants cameras pointed at their faces 24/7, despite never once doing or saying anything that actually deserves mainstream attention. With all due respect to the work Caitlyn Jenner has since done for transgender rights, her transition was only a small portion of the show’s nearly 200-episode run, and it had nothing to do with the thus far seven spinoff series about the rest of her extended family. All that’s left is Kim, Khloé, Kourtney, Kendall, and Kylie running around shopping malls and talking about absolutely nothing but still somehow bringing in millions of fans.
9 KILLED TV: COPS
Technically speaking, the 1971 mini-series An American Family is where reality television began, but make no mistake about it: COPS was the first time reality TV was a media sensation. Debuting in 1989, COPS is still on the air today, asking the bad boys what they’re gonna do when the cops come for them. From the very beginning, the show has documented actual police officers on the job in various cities throughout America. Most of the time, the cops will apprehend a suspect with no shirt and few teeth, who will then horrifically embarrass himself or herself on national television. It’s schadenfreude, taking pleasure in the misfortune of others, taken to its most literal sense. This is also the basis of 90% of reality television today, with most of the humans starring in them dregs of society whom the rest of the world simply want to laugh at -- unless the audience isn’t that smart either, in which case they simply relate to them, and that’s even worse. Thanks for starting the trend, COPS.
8 KILLED TV: The Real World
Leave it to MTV to create a reality show even more pointless than COPS. Only two years after the show that started it all debuted, The Real World came along and removed all pretext that the lowest common denominators on television needed any semblance of a story for people to watch them. Allegedly opening discussions on what it’s like to bring people of all different backgrounds together, the show is really just about angry jerks yelling at one another for no good reason. Some of them have sex with one another as well because why the hell wouldn’t they? The Real World’s catchphrase suggested that the show documented when “people stopped getting polite and started getting real,” and unfortunately, it only ever lived up to half that promise. Granted, it’s better than all the shows that came next, which wouldn’t even give viewers the courtesy of a warning that most people on it would be horrible.
7 NOT BAD: Intervention
On the one hand, the people documented on A&E’s Intervention are unwittingly filmed at the absolute lowest parts of their lives, and the network is in no uncertain terms exploiting the hell out of them by broadcasting their lives. However, what separates Intervention from a show like COPS is the underlying message, which is that addiction is a serious problem that can be almost impossible to beat. COPS ignores the after-effects of a suspect's arrest, and whatever came beforehand is almost completely irrelevant. Intervention gives a fuller view, which gives viewers an understanding of risks, consequences, and how they can get better if they fall into the same problems as the subjects. When done properly, an intervention also requires genuine affection from family members, many of whom probably had their hearts in the right place when trying to get their story broadcast on TV. A&E also deserves credit for offering to pay for participants' rehab in exchange for broadcasting their stories, though not all participants take them up on it.
6 NOT BAD: Pawn Stars
If it seems incongruous that the History channel would be airing a reality TV show about the lives of currently living people, chances are, you’ve never seen a full episode of Pawn Stars. While the show is technically about the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop owned by Rick Harrison and his family, it also doubles as a class on pretty much every last piece of world history one could ever imagine. To own a pawn shop, a person needs wide knowledge of, well, everything, because they never know what someone might try to sell them. When Harrison and his staff can’t figure something out, they call upon historians and experts from museums or local antique shops to fill them in on the important details. Viewers, too, will learn an incredible amount every episode, be it about pop culture, world history, politics, or whatever else people try to sell.
5 NOT BAD: Insomniac With Dave Attell
There’s a good chance some fans of Insomniac With Dave Attell are reading this list and shaking their heads, decrying the fact it could ever get called a reality show. Although we do understand, face facts, folks—it was a show about a comedian walking around town and talking to people. Dave did occasionally venture to specific locations, but they rarely were of social or political importance and were just places he could go make jokes, preventing the show from gaining status as a true travelogue or documentary. Insomniac was a reality show through and through, and not only that—it was one of the best that was ever made. Debuting in 2001, the show actually beat the flood that would soon dominate network television, only earning modest ratings for Comedy Central. However, fans and critics were quick to respond with serious love, and the fact Dave’s life was barely the focus gave the show an almost timeless quality, so long as one can appreciate his sense of humor.
4 NOT BAD: Last Comic Standing
Considering the best thing viewers can hope for with most reality shows is that the cast members will be funny, Last Comic Standing had a huge leg up on the competition from the premise alone. Granted, the mainstream intervention by the NBC network means that fringe and outsider comics are never going to get a true chance and that true originals are lucky to get past the first couple rounds. That doesn’t mean all of the winners and contestants were without merit, though, as plenty of decent comedy careers have been greatly enhanced or even started by a few choice appearances on the biggest stand-up competition on TV. Even the losers are bound to find fans who relate to their style of humor, meaning virtually every comic to appear on the show benefitted in some way. Not that this was always a good thing, but there were enough positives for it to be said that LCS definitely had its merits.
3 KILLED TV: Duck Dynasty
Generally speaking, the A&E network isn’t as bad as MTV when it comes to destroying society through its programming, yet Duck Dynasty alone makes them a pretty close second in that regard. While MTV reality shows focus on the worst qualities of 24-hour party people, Duck Dynasty takes an in-depth look at happily backwoods yokels representing the most base stereotypes of the American South. The Robertson family love God, America, and killing animals for sport, and—wouldn’t you know it—90% of their viewing audience feels the same way and loves hootin' and hollerin’ in joy as they crack jokes about their outdated way of life. The family patriarch regularly decries any forward thinking as “yuppie” attitude and mocks his own children for being almost mildly progressive, but there are no real worries that could ever happen, given their way of life.
2 NOT BAD: Hell’s Kitchen
Pretty much all of the horrible reality shows on this list could easily veer into the “not bad” category with a properly angry critic screaming at the cast members for their horrible behavior. Given the number of reality TV shows Gordon Ramsay stars in, he may as well take the gig for all of them since he’s already proven no one can do it quite as well as he does. Ostensibly a cooking competition show, Hell’s Kitchen and its various pseudo-spinoffs are really about Ramsay and his explosive personality, plus his ability to come up with complex and hilarious insults when lesser chefs make mistakes. While some criticize Ramsay for being far too mean, the high stakes of his situation justify it, and let’s face it: when contestants in a cooking competition reveal they don’t know how to cook, maybe they should get yelled at for trying to get famous by doing so anyway.
1 KILLED TV: American Idol
On paper, the extremely popular American Idol should probably be on the other half of this list, and the more one likes pop music, the harder they’ll try and argue that point. As a competition show seeking the greatest singer in the country, the show certainly has entertainment merit to the many people who will probably love the soundtrack. However, despite everything this list said about COPS and The Real World starting the reality TV show trend, no one show is more responsible for the genre absolutely exploding than American Idol. For eight consecutive years, American Idol was the number one rated show on television, a record that has yet to be beaten. The only shows that ever came close to Idol in the ratings were other reality shows, which is why TV producers eventually decided they were the most important type of show to produce.
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