The best reality TV of 2013

This calendar year was quite an eventful one for unscripted television. So much happened on so many shows, but these are the moments and shows that stood out to me. Enjoy the look back–and enjoy the last day of 2013. Happy New Year.

  1. Stripped down = awesome. Several shows last summer went in the opposite direction than a lot of recent reality TV. Instead of being over-produced, scripted, and predictable, these were back-to-basics shows that seemed almost like throwbacks to an earlier era. Discovery’s great Naked and Afraid and TNT’s 72 Hours were like stripped-down versions of Survivor and The Amazing Race. Honorable mention to National Geographic’s Ultimate Survival Alaska, which needs more character development but is brutally real.
  2. Masterchef Junior and King of the Nerds. A Fox series with Gordon Ramsay, kids, talent, and heart? Yes! The junior edition of this competition was easily its best season. Both it and TBS’ fun King of the Nerds proved that casting is everything, and that there are still a lot of people unlike the archetypes we’re all too familiar with yet who keep getting their own indistinguishable shows. (I’m looking at you and your stable of assholes, Bravo.)
  3. Shows that tried new things. There was some interesting experimentation with new formats this year. None of these shows became a breakout hit, and all were imperfect. But they all tried something new, and risk-taking is far too rare in television. The CW’s Hunger Games reality show, Capture, had a lot of suspense for a game of tag, and ABC’s Whodunnit offered a lot of entertainment, and not just from the people who thought it was killing its contestants. Honorable mentions: Discover’s The Big Brain Theory, TNT’s The Hero.
  4. Survivor, still, incredibly. Survivor rebounded from a disappointing spring with another amazing fall season: a gimmick-heavy but extremely successful season that demonstrated how elements of the show can really, really work, even three-time returnees and Redemption Island. Even in its 13th year, it continues to surprise.
  5. RIP Hoarders and Intervention. Before A&E sold its soul to a pretend reality show, it aired two of the best reality series, both of which aired their final episodes this year: Hoarders and Intervention. Both certainly had elements of voyeurism, but both managed to help people and educate their viewers while being frequently entertaining–and both demonstrated that it was possible for reality TV to tackle serious subjects and deliver both empathy and entertainment.
  6. Shark Tank, The Profit, and The Pitch. All three shows found both entertainment and reality in the business world. ABC’s Shark Tank continued to get stronger–finally mixing up the panel so that it wasn’t just swapping out female sharks. Meanwhile, CNBC’s The Profit took an element of that show and applied it to the business makeover format that’s multiplying across cable. Finally, AMC’s quietly amazing The Pitch returned to show us more of ad agencies’ creative process.
  7. Mr. Wentworth and the rest of the Joe Schmo cast. The ventriloquist dummy Mr. Wentworth’s creepy cameos were inspired comedy on their own, but the absurdity was just too much for his ventriloquist, actor Jo Newman. Nothing makes me laugh more than an actor laughing and breaking character, and her laughter while singing the most absurd song ever was the highlight of the overly anxious return of The Joe Schmo Show.
  8. Docudramas that were about more than Housewives. HBO’s Hard Knocks and 24/7 always make exceptional television from just following real life with cameras, but this year, some smaller but equally strong series showed that finding real people and just observing their real lives can be incredibly compelling. The absolute best was Hulu’s show about mascots Behind the Mask, with Cooking Channel’s Freshmen Class a close second. More, please.

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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.