For a genre that’s deeply in trouble and infected with fear, reality television managed to give us some high-quality entertainment this past year, ranging from the light and frivolous to a masterwork of nonfiction.
Creating a list of the best anything is challenging, but what ended up of the best reality shows of 2016 are shows that did something new. As usual, my definition of reality TV is broad, covering all unscripted entertainment. Some unscripted shows would like to shun the label; I’d rather reality TV include them to make the genre better, and so that’s what I’ve done.
O.J.: Made in America (ESPN)
Ryan Murphy offered quite a feast with his scenery buffet The People vs. OJ Simpson, but that show doesn’t come close to director Ezra Edelman’s accomplishments and achievements of O.J.: Made in America. What Edelman did is create a narrative that takes what we know, pulls it apart, follows the threads backwards in time, and then ties everything back together. It’s one of the greatest pieces of nonfiction I’ve ever experienced for its ability not just to help me understand our history and culture, but to keep me riveted at every moment about a story I thought I knew. It also never forgets Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman as it tells the story of O.J., American hero, to O.J., imprisoned for stealing his own memorabilia.
O.J.: Made in America has been shortlisted for a best documentary film Oscar and has been reviewed as a film, but for me, it is absolutely a television show—and absolutely one of the best television shows I’ve ever seen. I understand the impulse to have it considered for an Oscar; it is a masterwork of nonfiction. But this seven hour and 47 minute documentary aired as a series over five nights on ESPN, as part of an ongoing series, 30 for 30. And it is best consumed as episodic television. (Viceland is broadcasting all episodes on Jan. 1, starting at 4 p.m., or you can watch online.)
Project Runway Junior (Lifetime)
Kids shows are all the rage, as networks slowly figure out that watchable shows don’t need to be mean. Project Runway Junior was exceptional even by the standard set earlier by Masterchef Junior‘s first season, mostly because the young designers were treated just like the show’s regular designers. And though it lacks the show’s main cast, Project Runway Junior absolutely is the best Project Runway.
The Great British Baking Show
In the UK, The Great British Bake-Off has effectively ended, having lost its three main stars, though its format will continue. I am grateful for the season that aired in the UK this fall that we haven’t yet seen in the States (actually, PBS also hasn’t aired seasons one, two, and three here, either). I’m also grateful that ABC has managed to capture the spirit of the original with The Great American Baking Show, now in its second season.
But mostly I am grateful for what Love Productions created and captured for seven seasons: a competition with wit instead of cruelty, and warmth instead of the icy shells that are left after U.S. networks pick over competition shows and turn them into the same sad version of every other competition show.
ABC’s game shows
With Match Game and The $100,000 Pyramid, especially, but also Celebrity Family Feud and To Tell the Truth, ABC captured the spirit of the original games, which were just pure joy. But these shows—which are more personality-driven than other game shows—also have a lot to teach the rest of Hollywood about unscripted television.
Continent 7: Antarctica (National Geographic) and Ocean Warriors (Animal Planet)
Both shows arrived late in the year, with the latter being mysteriously burned off by its network despite its high quality, so their inclusion here may have a bit of recency bias. But both were strong reminders that the most compelling true stories are often just happening right now, without cameras present, and all you need to do is show up to film them. I don’t mean to pretend that there wasn’t a lot of work involved, especially when you’re filming in Antarctica or onboard poaching vessels. There is more craft involved in both shows than just turning on a camera, especially because shaping coherent and entertaining narrative in post production is no small task. Both shows succeeded, however, in showing us real people doing important work, emphasizing the drama and character over lectures.
I Am Cait, E!
As the buzz died down, so did ratings (hence its cancellation), but that’s too bad because I Am Cait was so much better in season two than in season one, despite the road trip conceit. The surprise was that Caitlyn Jenner faded to the background, and in the foreground were her TV friends, who told their stories and let us into their lives, broadening understanding while making us laugh and cry.
The Circus (Showtime)
The Circus didn’t just document what happened behind the scenes during this absolutely crazy election year. It illustrated how the cable news media does its work, and particularly how stories and narratives are chosen and shaped. Also remarkable about The Circus—besides the fact that its episodes were filmed and edited in less than a week—was the way it morphed and changed from episode to episode, depending upon its content. It was a remarkable and problematic artifact in a remarkable and problematic election year.
Viceland is producing interesting unscripted television, and one of my goals for 2017 is to watch and cover more of it. But from what I’ve seen, Gaycation does the best job with the formula of embedding personalities in other people’s lives and stories that touch on important issues. Here, Ellen Page and Ian Daniel travel the world and have raw conversations and real experiences that shows the diversity of gayness—and the horrors and highlights of life for gay people around the world, including right here in the U.S., when Ellen and Ian went to Orlando in the aftermath of the massacre at Pulse.
American Grit (Fox)
John Cena’s reality competition was a great surprise, from its non-beach location (the snowy Pacific Northwest) and twist on the usual elimination format (no voting, eliminations only as the result of someone quitting). While celebrity hosts are all the rage, John Cena wasn’t just a name attached to the show, he was deeply invested in it. And that first episode’s conclusion—just wow.
- The Real Housewives of New York City (Bravo). The “Please don’t let it be about Tom. Don’t do this to me.”/”It’s about Tom. And it’s true” episodes were peak Real Housewives, two women playing to the cameras in a contrived environment while still grappling with very real emotions from actual events.
- Eat the World with Emeril Lagasse (Amazon). Netflix’s Chef’s Table made my list of last year’s best reality TV, and though I love its perfectly composed images of food and impeccable storytelling, it wasn’t a binge-worthy show because it was too perfect, too untouchable. Emeril’s show, on the other hand, pulled me in with the imperfections and messiness of food and food culture.
- The Last Alaskans season two (Animal Planet). Life-affirming, quiet, gorgeous.
- Adam Ruins Everything (truTV) is scripted and populated by actors, but its content is highly entertaining nonfiction. It’s also more transparent than most reality series, with a host who responds to criticism and on-screen sources for viewers to fact-check the show’s assertions.
- The Profit (CNBC). The Profit has gotten more formulaic, but between its fascinating episode in Cuba and the way it’s started to revisit past investments, it’s still the best in class. I’m looking forward to the new spin-off.
- RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars. The promise of the queens voting each other out was implemented in a way that was far too sketchy for my taste, but it was otherwise a strong season, eclipsing the regular season that came before it.
- Survivor (CBS) has typically made the best-of list these past few years, and its two seasons this year had strong characters and epic moments. And it did end the year on one of its highest notes ever, with a winner who was deserving and had a heart-breaking story to go with it. And honestly, it is consistently one of my favorites. But I’m demoting it this year because troubling trends in voting sullied this season, and the show really needs to reckon with its sexism, starting with its host and executive producer.
- First Impressions (USA). Just a lot of fun.
- The Runner (go90) took 15 years to make it to television—er, an app. A thrilling real-time game and some top-level audience/contestant interactivity showed the promise and potential of the format. I’d love to see it find a television partner so that it can play out online in real-time and in televised recaps for those of us who could not follow three times a day.
Scripted and other shows
I don’t just watch reality TV, though that’s obviously my focus here and my first true television love. But here are some of the non-reality shows that captured space on my DVR and in my heart this year:
- Mr. Robot, USA
- Westworld, HBO
- The Real O’Neals, ABC
- Atlanta, FX
- Speechless, ABC
- Blackish, ABC
- Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, TBS
- Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, HBO
- Veep, HBO
- Stranger Things, Netflix