The year in reality TV, 2006

Another year is almost gone. Since Survivor and Big Brother came to CBS one otherwise dreary summer, preceded by ABC’s Making the Band, six and a half years have passed. Those years have brought us plenty of joy in the form of real people living and competing in often unreal situations.

This year was no exception. From a flying loogie to a loopy judge, the year had its moments. Here, in no particular order, are the highlights from this past year that made me proud–or just slightly less ashamed–to be a reality TV fan and critic. See you in 2007 for even more fun and excitement.

  • Project Runway catches on. Bravo’s fashion design reality show first debuted more than two years ago. Those of us who have been addicted since then knew it was a hit. But it was in 2006, when seasons two and three aired (almost back-to-back, as the show moved to the summer), that the rest of the country caught on, finally. It’s American Idol for the educated, or at least for those who have grown tired of five months of karaoke. The show was again fueled nearly entirely by its cast, from star Tim Gunn to lovable villain Santino Rice, whose impressions of Tim Gunn are already a part of reality TV history. As the world began to pay attention, the reverberations were apparent on Bravo, which seemed to basically start photocopying the show’s format, and on other networks. HGTV debuted the talent-focused series Design Star and CBS aired another season of a musical talent competition featuring only talented people. So, thanks, Project Runway, for two more entertaining seasons, and for helping to send reality television in a new direction.

  • Survivor is reborn. Its 13th season may have been marred by a controversial twist, but the diverse casting that led to the twist also brought us some of the best players in the show’s history. They played a physical and mental game like few before them ever had, and the producers did their part by constructing exceptional challenges and introducing twists that kept everyone on their best game. Hopefully, Survivor Cook Islands was just the first of many seasons of its kind.
  • D-list celebrities no longer have to embarrass themselves for fame. Once upon a time, if you were a D-list celebrity who wanted to make a comeback via a reality show and you were not interesting to get your own series, you appeared on The Surreal Life and peed on the carpet while standing naked on your scooter. Worse, you went on an ABC reality series. Riches followed for some of those celebs, while the rest faded away yet again. Now, though, as reality TV has embraced shows that lack mean-spiritedness, celebrities have a more classy route to take. That route mostly consists of Dancing with the Stars, but other shows, too, have provided a vehicle for celebrities to reintroduce themselves without taking themselves too seriously. For example, David Hasselhoff returned as a judge on America’s Got Talent with a new nickname and even a cheesy single. Even if he did it only for the money, he was far more entertaining than most of the rest of the show, and thus we all win.
  • Crazy people are fun. Three words: Flavor of Love. There was literally no reason to watch two seasons (soon to have two more, in the form of two spin-offs) except for the crazy women who were allegedly competing for Flavor’s love. One woman spit in New York’s face. Another crapped on Flavor’s floor. And there were more crazy people on reality television: Paula Abdul acting weirder than usual on American Idol; Survivor Cook IslandsBilly falling in love with Candice; The Real World Key West‘s Paula, whose craziness continued even after the show ended; and Vincent on Project Runway 3 having a temper-tantrum over his laundry. They were all too ridiculous to take seriously (which would cause consternation about the future of our planet) and thus provided some engaging–if empty and forgettable–entertainment.
  • Crap disappears quickly. There were a number of examples last year of viewers quickly rejecting crap that was flung their way. One good example: the movie American Dreamz, which pretended to parody American Idol but without humor, opened in ninth place. Box Office Mojo says it had a budget of $17 million, but it made $16.3 million worldwide, and only $7.2 million in the US. ABC canceled the unwatchable series The One after four episodes, which was four too many. And Bravo dumped Katie Lee Joel, the most wooden and lifeless host of 2006, from Top Chef. This is admittedly anecdotal evidence, and perhaps I’m being optimistic and ignoring all of the crap that just wouldn’t go down the drain, but hopefully this is another trend that will continue.
  • Reality and truth still matter. This year began with a pair of truth-related revelations: The Smoking Gun exposed fraud in James Frey’s memoir, while author JT LeRoy was finally revealed to be a hoax (although that wasn’t a surprise). These lies weren’t just excused; Frey was dismembered by Oprah, who felt betrayed by his deceit. Some reality show producers–and some viewers–forget that we’re drawn to reality television because it’s real, even if the situations are contrived and the broadcast is edited to maximize drama. As Frey proved, we may be temporarily deceived if producers continue to play with editing or play God, but eventually those lies will come crashing down, and that encourages everyone to keep the real in reality.
  • Past years in reality TV: 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2005 [reality blurred]

    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.