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The best reality TV I watched in 2020

The first version of the headline for this story said, “The best reality TV of 2020.” That’s the format I’ve used the past few years, and I’m drawn to that kind of definitive declaration, especially because I think excellent reality TV is worth celebrating.

But I had to admit to myself that I have not just not watched everything. That is a literal impossibility now, and not just this year, when we’ve all been just trying to cope with what we’ve been living with since March.

I typically have some anxiety about missing shows, but this year, that’s been heightened, even as I’ve spent hours rewatching the same Golden Girls episodes over and over. When NatGeo aired all six hours of City So Real on a single day, I felt actual anger, a heightened version of how I feel when Netflix releases a show at midnight and people are talking about it at 7 a.m.

Starting to compile this list brought up similar feelings of frustration. I wanted to watch Immigration Nation, Love on the Spectrum, and How to with John Wilson, but have not yet. The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City has piled up on my DVR.

I wanted to revisit Legendary, which I appreciated for its representation but thought was an absolute mess of a show in the three episodes I watched. I only watched Cheer’s first episode and I certainly don’t want to go back to it now.

My husband and I just finished watching Ted Lasso, which I’d argue is the best—and perhaps only!—reason to try Apple TV+. The show came out in August, but it was actually perfect to watch now, post-election, at the end of this stressful year.

So, I’m going to let 2020 teach me about the impossibility of watching and writing about everything immediately, and embrace the shows I am able to watch and love whenever I get to them.

What’s particularly incredible about the quantity of reality TV this year was the quantity this year. Some shows were filmed years ago, or earlier this year, but many were not, including ones that will premiere in early 2021.

That means people literally risked their lives to bring us reality TV. Some shows were virtually indistinguishable from a normal version, while others smartly modified their formats.

Some shows modeled good behavior, with masks and distance, while others made baffling choices. Instead of embracing creativity, most shows just did their thing—and some were definitely not worth the risk.

The gold standard, as usual, was The Great British Bake-Off, which had its cast, some of their family members, and the production crew all together at a single location for the duration of filming—and then brought the crew on camera during the last episode to thank them. Of course, people who risk their lives need more than just thanks; they need support and money.

While it’s not enough, I do appreciate all the people, on-camera and off, who brought unscripted entertainment into my living room this year. And perhaps that’s the best way to think about this year-end, best-of list: just shows that I’m grateful for.

My favorite reality TV of 2020

I obviously cover reality TV and unscripted entertainment here, but I watch and enjoy scripted shows—and not just The Golden Girls, though it has been in heavy rotation. So let’s start with my favorite non-reality TV from this year:

  • What We Do in the Shadows, FX
  • Star Trek: Below Decks, CBS All Access
  • The Mandalorian, Disney+
  • Lovecraft Country, HBO
  • The Good Place, NBC
  • Ted Lasso, Apple TV+
  • Schitt’s Creek, Pop

Next, a few honorable mentions in reality and documentary TV:

  • Love Is Blind (Netflix) and Spy Games (Bravo), both of which tried with new formats that didn’t fully click in for me during their first seasons, but which were still enjoyable watches (and, in the former’s case, a brief phenomenon)
  • Lego Masters (Fox), a fun show hampered by bad judging and awkward editing
  • The Titan Games (NBC) season 2, which had a vastly improved format, and American Ninja Warrior (NBC), which had a compact, single-location season that worked really well
  • Crystal Maze (Nickelodeon). Adam Conover and the families were having a great time, and that made for a great watch
  • Canada’s Drag Race (Logo), a really fresh version of the format
  • The Circus (Showtime), which kept up its in-depth, behind the scenes coverage of the election while modeling great production and human practices, with masks and distance and outdoor locations.
  • Tiger King (Netflix), which was certainly riveting TV, but I just can’t forgive it for the way it edited the person trying to save animals into a crazy person everyone thinks is a murderer, and turned the guy actually convicted of attempting to murder her into a folk hero.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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