the year in reality TV, 2003.

the year in reality TV, 2003.

Judging by orgasmic news, tabloid, and blog coverage, and a general lack of breathless “reality TV isn’t real!” stories, 2003 was finally the year the world embraced reality TV. At least, the world begrudgingly began to accept it and laugh at it, as we’ve done since July of 2000. Heck, making fun of reality TV is a lot more healthy than a McGriddle.

I’m not quite sure why Best Of lists start coming out in early December, when one-twelfth of the year hasn’t even occurred yet, but who am I to question things; that’s why I’m publishing this with 10 days left in 2003. But don’t think I’m jumping on this trend bandwagon now; I bailed on it last year, but recapped both 2001 and 2000.

Next week I’ll name the top reality TV whores of the year. Today, though, I present my completely arbitrary, noncomprehensive list of the nine most memorable reality TV moments from 2003. From tiger attacks to war, it was a dramatic year, but we still turned to real, if edited and heavily produced, drama for entertainment.

Enjoy. And happy holidays. Andy Dehnart.

the best nine things about reality TV in 2003.

  1. The hype over The Simple Life and Paris Hilton. Paris and Nicole gave us the most anticipated series of 2003, and managed to not disappoint, thanks to their ability to play the fool while making fun. Still, the series isn’t half as fun as the hype: that video, the heroin, the underwear, or the fact that the series wrapped early when the girls were run out of town. Nicky must be kicking herself.
  2. Survivor Pearl Islands and the twist. Although it still stuck to its rigid formula (could we ever tired of hearing Jeff Probst say, “Immunity, back up for grabs”?), the latest season of Survivor brought the franchise back with a vengeance. All it took was a significant twist (that made the boys versus girls thing look like child’s play) and a liar named Jon (whose success surely made fellow asshole and Big Brother 2 cast member Mike Boogie hate himself for failing to capture the nation’s wrath).
  3. Celebrities take over reality TV. This was the year during which celebrities realized that the attention they were receiving by, like, every major media outlet was not enough, so they decided to open themselves up to even more scrutiny. From Jessica Simpson’s Newlyweds gaffes and farts to MC Hammer’s The Surreal Life-fueled comeback, if celebs weren’t getting arrested, they were giving us access to their private lives. Celebrity attempts to grab the limelight from ordinary media whores weren’t always successful, though: recall I’m a Celebrity–Get Me Out of Here.
  4. Gay people take over reality TV. This year, reality TV made Will and Grace look like Ozzie and Harriet. Leading the gay way was Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which thrilled straight women everywhere with its promise to turn their gross men into hot metrosexuals; if only they made an OnStar button for the Fab Five. In that show’s Bravo shadow was the first-ever gay dating-show-with-a-twist Boy Meets Boy. Also this year, a gay and married couple, Chip and Reichen, won The Amazing Race 4, although they later broke up; a gay guy rushed a frat on Fraternity Life 2; Ryan Seacrest bravely worked to “break stereotypes” with gay jokes; and Kelly Clarkson acted in a gay film. And the year began with a documentary profiling the final days of reality TV’s–and television’s–first gay star, Lance Loud.
  5. Home design shows take over reality TV. This year, Trading Spaces spread its DNA all over cable more rapidly than George Michael in a stall of a park’s restroom. Not only did the show spawn two spin-offs, but basically every single cable network found an excuse to launch a home decorating/makeover show of its own. If you haven’t had a room in your house redecorated for free yet, you haven’t really tried. The original TLC show, which of course is a spin-off of the UK’s Changing Rooms, also turned to gimmicks in its third and fourth seasons, bringing new designers, celebrities, cash, and tons of merch into the equation.
  6. Reality TV becomes the new dating scene. Other year-end wrap-ups might argue that Friendster and online dating were big things this year, as people flocked online to “meet people” (e.g. hook up), but in actuality, reality television was the country’s best way to meet people. By my rough estimation, one third of the United States has participated in a reality TV dating show. I can’t even count them all, but here are just a few that we saw this year: Boy Meets Boy, Cupid, both Joe Millionaires, two Bachelors and a Bachelorette, For Love or Money, and Average Joe. Heck, even reality TV icons CBS chief Les Moonves and Big Brother host/cutout Julie Chen are dating. Of course, most of the relationships were over before the sound crew took off the cast members’ wireless mikes, but one couple actually went all the way. One out of a few hundred: not bad odds at all.
  7. The rise and fall of Joe Millionaire and its spawn. 2003 opened with a doofy underwear model capturing our attention (40 million viewers for the finale) as he lied to women about his background, and got a little slurping action in-between. Those lies spawned other shows with lies and/or deception at their core, from Monica Lewinsky’s Phantom of the Opera-esque Mr. Personality to a show in which everything was a lie, The Joe Schmo Show. But then came disaster, as Joe Millionaire 2 dropped viewers faster than Jayson Blair could make up stories; even FOX execs admitted they screwed up.
  8. Talent ceases to make a difference. In addition to more product placement and gay double entendre than you could shake Clay Aiken at, American Idol 2 also brought with it a pint-sized spin-off and even a worldwide competition. Never mind the other talent shows, such as ones featuring country singers, comedians, and surfers. But mostly the show gave a bunch of attention-seeking whores the possibility of screen time, even if their singing made our ears bleed and their clothes made us pull our trucker hats down over our eyes.
  9. Show concepts become so 2002. With the utterly fantastic Paradise Hotel, FOX didn’t even pretend to offer rules, or even a schedule. Instead they just threw a bunch of horny, immature people together, and they didn’t even need a blackout for people to start screwing around. Proving that reality TV personas are just as portable as cell phone numbers now are, Toni “Yahtzee!” Ferrari ported her Love Cruise personality and mammoth eyeballs to paradise, where she was joined by people whose brains and emotional maturity never grew after they left middle school. The results were even more fun than watching Martha Stewart collapse. Thank whatever higher power you worship that it’ll probably be back in 2004.

Frankie leads Big Brother's parade of delusion

Frankie on Big Brother

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Shark Tank is getting a spin-off

Shark Tank

Companies that get deals on the show will be followed for this new spin-off.

Also: Before the show began, Shark Barbara Corcoran was cast and then replaced--but then she sent this amazing e-mail and won the job.

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.