This year brought us a lot of unexpected reality in our television, from the debut of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo to the end of Jersey Shore. While people love to focus on those kinds of trainwreck shows, and lump all reality TV into one category so it’s easier to dismiss what they feel guilty for watching, it also brought some really spectacular shows that deserve time, attention, and future seasons.
These are the reality TV shows that stood out to me this year for being the best at what they did, combining artistry, entertainment, and real people.
Bar Rescue, Spike
This is decidedly the best of the business makeover shows, because it balances improvement with drama, and its second season this year fixed the problems from the first season. I discovered it this year thanks to my friend Bob, and quickly discovered how addictive it can be. Early next year, I’ll be reviewing and ranking all of these shows, because I can’t stop watching them, but Spike’s entry stands out. Unlike the hosts of similar shows, Jon Taffer is laser-focused on actually improving the business rather than creating drama. The results are both educational and ridiculously entertaining.
Hard Knocks, HBO
The HBO series that follows an NFL team’s training camp has always been awesome near-real-time television, especially because it’s filmed and edited so beautifully, but it’s the access that makes the series stand out even more. This year, that gave us footage of Chad Johnson’s firing from the Miami Dolphins, among other can’t-stop-watching moments, all narrated by Liev Schreiber. Amazing television.
This fall, Survivor Philippines marked a high point in the 12-year-old series, which continues to prove the value of its formula and attention to craft. And while Jeff Probst and others may have hated One World, I did not, especially because it was an example of the show continuing to innovate and try new things, even when they don’t work (Redemption Island, ahem). If only the producers and network would continue to trust their format and not yield to desperation.
Top Shot, History
This competition series may seem like an awkward choice as the nation is still trying how to understand and respond to the massacre of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school, although the sad truth is that even more people are killed by guns every day. If anything, however, Top Shot is a positive contribution to the national conversation about guns, because the show emphasizes safety, history, and sport, and also highlights the skills of the men and women in law enforcement and the military who use guns for a reason. It never trivializes or glorifies its weapons, even when the show is having fun with inventive challenges and blowing things up. Mostly, it’s on this list because it’s a just an extremely strong and entertaining talent-based competition.
The Glass House, ABC
Why is a show with a terrible first episode and weak finale on this list? Not because of the behind-the-scenes legal drama, though that was often entertaining, but because unlike similar competition shows–especially those set in soundstage houses, ahem–the producers listened to feedback and responded smartly to it in real time. Add strong production design and a willingness to truly let viewers be in control of a game (“Dance, Monkey, Dance”), and you had a series worth of our time.
Shark Tank, ABC
With the addition of Mark Cuban, whose presence caused everyone else to up their games, the show has become exceptional, even if it still does lead its stars to invest in towels with holes. If only they’d stop wrecking it by forcing their cast to prove they’re not actors with the stupid, fake product placement–which even the sharks hate–it will continue to be among the very best broadcast reality series.
Face Off, SyFy
A strong competition that’s a great showcase for outstanding work, and getting closer and closer to being a truly great show.
The Pitch, AMC
A visually strong series that offers great insight, except for the part when we really need to understand what was going on.
Whale Wars, Animal Planet
Okay, this show is on the list only because it starred me in a stunning cameo. Seriously, while its two seasons this year weren’t its strongest in terms of drama, that’s what happens when you just show up and film rather than pre-planning your season’s storylines in advance. But the Faroe Islands season gave us new insight, into both Sea Shepherd and the people whose lives they impact.
Small Town Security, AMC
A quiet docudrama with surprisingly unfamiliar characters, including a transgendered man, who were so awkward and stiff in front of the cameras it was like nothing I’d ever seen on television. Alas, it kept me at arm’s length because of the overly choreographed episodes.
The series continues to do what it does best. Having sleepovers in the hoard has been hit or miss, but the show continues to illustrate mental illness and use voyeurism for good. And any series that can turn a refrigerator full of liquefied dead cats or a toilet literally overflowing with poop into something redeeming deserves acknowledgement.