Back to reality
Reality TV shows can be a polarizing subject among friends. There are those who can’t get enough of them. And there are those who wish the entire genre would disappear, making room in the television lineup for more sitcoms, crime shows, gritty dramas—even cartoons. Wherever you fall in the conversation, you have to admit that the category has come a long way since its inception.
There’s a bit of debate as to which program marks the first of the reality TV shows. Some people point to the classic TV show Candid Camera, which premiered in 1948, ran until 2014, and featured folks unknowingly being filmed in awkward situations. But for modern television viewers, MTV’s The Real World, which debuted in 1992, kicked off the version of the genre we’ve come to know and love (or love to hate).
We rounded up the 30 of the best reality TV shows, based on longevity, star-making ability, and award wins. We also took into account those unforgettable moments that cement a reality show into pop culture. Because let’s face it: The Real Housewives franchise might not be high art, but it certainly provides endless entertainment and one-liners for its fans. Check out how our list stacks up with your own preferences.
The Real World (1992–2019)
“This is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.” With those words, MTV’s The Real World changed the face of reality-based TV. It kicked off in a New York City loft in 1992, ran for 33 seasons, and became the second longest-running reality TV show of all time, after Cops. The series pretty much defined a generation of young adults trying to find themselves and was a departure from the ’80s shows featuring professional actors and scripted drama. It was nominated for one Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Picture Editing for a Nonfiction Program and scored accolades from GLAAD and TV Guide.
The Bachelor (2002–present)
Think your dating life is tough? Try dating a guy who’s dating dozens of other women at the same time—right in front of you. That’s the premise of this dating competition, in which a group of women must live in the same house and vie for the attention of the same man. Over the years, the show has gotten more and more dramatic, thanks to the alleged villainesses who aren’t “here for the right reasons” and the off-camera antics of its contestants. Nearly two decades later, it still sucks in viewers and has spawned a number of spin-offs, including The Bachelorette and Bachelor in Paradise. If you love romance on the small screen but prefer scripted shows, browse Korean dramas on Netflix, many of which feature swoon-worthy romances.
A cunning game of strategy and survival techniques, Survivor changed the game for reality TV shows with its unique approach to competition. That’s probably why it has won an impressive seven Primetime Emmys. The premise alone will tempt you to tune in: A group of contestants is marooned on a tropical island with only the clothes on their backs and their wits to survive. But what’ll keep you coming back week to week is the need to find out who wins the game—and a million dollars.
Keeping Up with the Kardashians (2007–2021)
Yes, we realize there are a lot of you shaking your heads at the mere thought of a Kardashian. But love ’em or hate ’em, you can’t deny the show had appeal. It lasted a whopping 15 years, only ending when the family called it quits. It also made huge stars out of the entire Kardashian-Jenner brood and snagged some Teen Choice and People’s Choice awards throughout its run. Fans don’t have to worry that the Kardashians will fade from the public eye. The family will continue to share their lives on social media (naturally) and in a new series being filmed for Hulu. If reality TV shows aren’t your cup of tea, enrich your mind with regular reading. These book subscription boxes make that easy.
America’s Next Top Model (2003–2018)
It’s the show that brought “smize” (that’s smiling with your eyes, for the uninitiated) into our vernacular. That alone should put it on our list of the best reality TV shows, but there’s a lot more that made America’s Next Top Model great. In the beginning, the series attempted to be a real career starter for aspiring models, and host Tyra Banks helped them get in front of the right people and Strengthen their skills while entertaining viewers with fun makeovers and beauty-related challenges. As the show evolved, it became less of a star-maker and more about the drama. But those early years were top notch. Looking for something else to watch? Try one of these tearjerker movies.
This is one of those reality shows that feels much more like a documentary. Dealing with the heartbreaking realities of addiction, each episode focuses on an individual whose family is staging an intervention to help them. The audience gets a glimpse of a day in the life of the person living with the addiction before meeting an expert who will help friends and loved ones stage the intervention. Covering such a serious subject, Intervention can feel less frivolous than other reality TV shows, especially when an episode doesn’t end in success. The eye-opening series isn’t afraid to tackle hard syllabus and has won two Primetime Emmys for its efforts.
Top Chef (2006–present)
Foodies unite over Bravo’s reality cooking competition, which pits chefs from all over the country against one another to win the coveted title. It has won two Emmys and raised the profiles of dozens of chefs over the years, some of whom have gone on to appear frequently on Food Network’s roster of shows. The creativity and skills featured on Top Chef make even the worst home cook want to Strengthen their game in the kitchen. If you have little ones, Top Chef Junior is among the best kids’ shows out there.
Big Brother (2000–present)
It takes a special kind of person to be successful in the Big Brother house. The series, which has been hosted by Julie Chen Moonves since its U.S. inception, challenges housemates to compete against one another in a variety of different contests. Alliances must be made and strategies implemented to avoid being voted out. Unfortunately for the contestants, it’s pretty hard to be sneaky when you have a mic attached to you at all times and there are cameras watching your every move. In 2018, the network released a celebrity version of the series, pitting familiar face against familiar face for viewers’ enjoyment. When you’re not binging these reality TV shows, pick up a just-as-engaging beach read.
Below Deck (2013–present)
It’s safe to say that most of us don’t have the financial means to charter a private yacht for our next vacation, but this is one of those reality TV shows that delivers the luxury and drama into your home. While following an ever-changing crew of yacht staff intent on giving each charter’s eccentric guests the time of their lives, viewers are treated to the tangled relationships among the staff. Watch it once, and you’ll be hooked. Speaking of getting hooked, pick up one of these true crime books and you’ll have a hard time closing the cover until you hit The End.
The Great British Baking Show (2010–present)
Producers tried to put an American spin on this beloved show, but the U.S. version can’t compete with the original across the pond. The Great British Baking Show recruits amateur bakers from across the United Kingdom to compete in three challenges per episode in an attempt to win the coveted Star Baker title. If you find American cooking competitions too dramatic and the judges too harsh, settle in for the kinder, gentler, more British option, which brings criticism without a heavy helping of shame. deliver it a few episodes and you’ll be critiquing contestants’ underbaked cookies like a pro.
Queer Eye (2003–2007; 2018–present)
Launched in 2003 (under the original title Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) and revived by Netflix in 2018, this is one of the most well-loved reality TV shows around. A group of gay men, affectionately referred to as the Fab Five, sets out to help people from all walks of life clean up their lives. They address everything from fashion to fitness, giving them a much-needed makeover. It’s all done with a lot of heart and good intentions. Others clearly agree: The series has won a total of nine Primetime Emmys. Reality or not, it’s easily one of the best shows on Netflix.
Jersey Shore (2009–2012)
Nothing calls to mind the early 2010s quite like the Jersey Shore aesthetic. Even if you didn’t watch the show, you’re certainly familiar with nicknames like The Situation, Snooki, JWoww, and Pauly D. These heavily tanned and coiffed reality stars left quite an impression on audiences and pop culture during the series’ tenure. In fact, because MTV viewers just can’t seem to let go of their time spent at the shore, we’ve been treated to multiple spin-offs. There’s Jersey Shore Family Vacation and Snooki & JWoww, not to mention the forthcoming Celebrity Shore. Brace yourselves for what’s to come because this is one franchise that isn’t going away any time soon.
Never has so much media attention been brought to the mental illness of hoarding disorder. The series addresses people afflicted with the disorder, touring their homes and following as family members or friends attempt to intervene. Much like Intervention, the show tries its best to approach the subject carefully, particularly since mental illness is involved. The goal of each episode is to bring some organization to the subject’s life and get them the mental health aid they need. Stay entertained with these amazing autobiographies.
The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (2010–present)
With a franchise that includes 11 shows in 11 U.S. cities—with a 12th coming to Dubai next year—it’s hard to pick a favorite. But the ladies of Beverly Hills have to be toward the top of any fan’s list. While the cast changes somewhat regularly, with the exception of original star Kyle Richards, the women always bring the drama. With a cast that often contains at least one soap opera actress and more designer purses than one can count, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills hasn’t lost its luster in 11 years.
Project Runway (2004–present)
If you love fashion and drama movies, it’s hard not to be obsessed with Project Runway. Though the original hosts, Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn, have moved on, this reality show continues to inspire. It has won two Primetime Emmys since it debuted in 2004 and continues to churn out mind-boggling competitions in which aspiring fashion designers compete. The show has made style stars of the winners, including Christian Siriano, who’s returned to the show as a mentor.
The Hills (2006–2010)
Already a reality TV star in her own right, Laguna Beach alum Lauren Conrad (that’s LC to those in the know) moved to Los Angeles and allowed her life to be filmed for the series’ spin-off, The Hills. Filled with tons of drama and fighting among friends, The Hills gives viewers the sense that they’re getting a glimpse of what life is really like for a wealthy high school graduate in Hollywood. If you can’t commit to the entire series, stick with the early seasons. As the series progressed, reality started looking like bad acting. But hey, that’s part of the charm of reality TV shows, and viewers still hungrily tuned in. While Conrad eventually left the show and passed the baton to her Laguna Beach nemesis, Kristin Cavallari, it helped propel her entrepreneurial endeavors and she’s still a star in her own right.
90 Day Fiancé (2014–present)
Talk about a culture we didn’t know existed until 90 Day Fiancé premiered on TLC seven years ago. In this reality TV show, people who live outside of the United States travel stateside on a 90-day engagement visa to live with their American fiancés for the first time. If they don’t marry before the 90 days are up, the noncitizen has to return home. It is a fascinating experiment of sorts, particularly since many of the couples have only connected online and haven’t met in person. Is it one of the best TV shows of all time? Nope. But it’s the sort of engrossing reality TV show you can tune into for an escape from your reality.
Million Dollar Listing (2006–present)
If you love to browse real estate listings even when you aren’t in the market to buy a new home, Million Dollar Listing should be your jam. The franchise kicked off in Los Angeles and made its way to New York, following big-time real estate agents as they sell pricey listings. Come for the jaw-dropping homes; stay to see who buys these extravagant properties.
Chrisley Knows Best (2014–present)
When it first premiered, we weren’t exactly sure what to make of real estate developer Todd Chrisley and his chaotic family. Did the world need another show about super-rich people and their rich-people problems? Well, we gave the show a shot, and now we’re hooked on the brood. Though each episode’s storyline hardly feels organic, the Chrisleys add much-needed breeziness and comedy to the world of reality TV shows. When there’s a marathon on, it makes for excellent mindless watching. And we mean that in the best way possible. Chrisley Knows Best is the escape of all reality TV escapes, and we’re here for it. At its core, the show is a family sitcom.
While many plastic surgery reality TV shows preceded it (we’re looking at you, Dr. 90210), we appreciate Botched for its goal of fixing problems created by less-skilled surgeons. Starring Terry Dubrow (husband to Heather Dubrow of The Real Housewives of Orange County) and Paul Nassif (the ex-husband of former Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Adrienne Maloof), Botched is a show about doctors who work to correct plastic surgeries gone horribly wrong. While some cases are very challenging, the end results are satisfying.
So You Think You Can Dance (2005–present)
Dancers are truly incredible athletes, and that has never been more apparent than on the long-running So You Think You Can Dance competition series. It has won 17 Primetime Emmys (typically for choreography and costuming), proving it’s a force to be reckoned with in the world of reality TV shows. Similar to American Idol, contestants compete each week in the hopes of making it to the very end and being crowned the dancing champ.
American Idol (2002–present)
The ultimate talent competition, American Idol has spawned oodles of singing stars, from Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood to Jennifer Hudson and beyond. When it premiered in 2002, the concept was wholly original, and the show soon broke viewing records and became the most-watched unscripted primetime show. Though it inspired a bunch of other reality singing competitions, American Idol remains the classic. It’s the proud owner of nine Primetime Emmys and has become a cultural touchstone. For more fun, cue up one of the funniest movies of all time.
The Voice (2011–present)
The overwhelming success that is American Idol paved the way for this singing competition. And while the basic idea is the same, The Voice feels wholly its own. It has one of the most celebrated rotating judging panels on television—the latest season features Blake Shelton, John Legend, Ariana Grande, and American Idol alum Kelly Clarkson. While we can’t say it has spawned as big of a star as American Idol has, the playful banter among the judges surely makes up for it. And in case you need extra convincing, consider the fact that The Voice has won seven Primetime Emmys.
The Real Housewives of Atlanta (2008–present)
When the Housewives franchise hit Atlanta, all bets were off. These Georgia peaches brought an entirely different dynamic to the show. There have been many highs (and many lows) for the stars, but we always root for them to achieve their best. A testament to the housewives’ star power, not one but three of its cast members have also competed on Dancing with the Stars. If you love getting a glimpse into the lives of the rich and famous (or semi-famous), open one of these biographies.
Hell’s Kitchen (2005–present)
If The Great British Baking Show is a warm scone you savor on a chilly morning, then Hell’s Kitchen is a plate of hot wings you demolish in five minutes flat. It’s best known for celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s red hot temper. While we wouldn’t invite Ramsay into our kitchens for fear of being the object of his scorn, we can appreciate the entertainment he brings to the cooking competition. Aspiring restaurateurs of all skill sets compete for Ramsay’s approval in this intense contest. It’s an inside look at how difficult it is to work on the line in a restaurant and be successful in an extremely brutal industry.
Teen Mom OG (2009–present)
Picking up where MTV’s docuseries 16 and Pregnant left off, Teen Mom OG started following the lives of the young parents who were trying to navigate their new lives as mothers. Some of the original girls (that’s OGs to you) are still on the show, while others have left the cameras behind. At the end of every season, Dr. Drew Pinsky regroups with the women to find out where they are in the world and what they expect next from motherhood. If you binged 16 and Pregnant for its teen drama, you’ll appreciate the spin-off.
911 Crisis Center (2021)
A newcomer to the world of reality TV shows, 911 Crisis Center is exactly as it sounds. Tune in to watch the team of a 911 call center take calls both traumatic and decidedly less so. For every true emergency, there are some lighthearted issues. The 911 operators tackle crime and comedy, becoming close to one another as they navigate the ins and outs of emergency life. If you like scripted dramas like 911 and 911: Lone Star, this is the sort of reality TV show you’ll appreciate.
Live PD (2016–2020)
You’ve heard of Cops, the longest-running of all reality TV shows. But you may have missed this lesser-known series, which follows officers across the nation as they patrol their neighborhoods in real time. (A caveat: The show isn’t necessarily “live” everywhere because of the varying time zones.) It’s an interesting look at the policing field and highlights what is done well—and where things need improvement. If you have an interest in police work or love true crime documentaries, this series offers a fresh perspective.
Love & Hip Hop (2011–present)
This VH1 franchise has exploded over the years—Cardi B was even featured on Love & Hip Hop: New York before she hit superstardom. Though the original premise featured women supporting the hip-hop men in their lives, the show’s focus quickly evolved. In any of the various cities where you’ll find the franchise, there are just as many women in the music game as there are men. It’s a rotating cast of characters in each city, but there is never a dull moment and always plenty of drama.
Originally Published: December 17, 2021