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Top Chef’s all-star panel should stay. So should these reality TV changes.

Top Chef Portland has been an absolute joy, the show’s best season in years, probably ever. A large part of what’s made it so terrific is the presence of Top Chef alumni, who rotate in and out as lead judges. They’ve also had other roles, from diners to recipe-following chefs.

In a pre-season interview, Padma told Variety, “it’s been such fun, and such a godsend to have these alumni with us. Otherwise, it’s the same three people. It’s good for the show. It’s good for the chefs to get that feedback.”

The god that sent the change was C0VID-19, which presented a lot of challenges for reality TV shows that have been filmed during the past year. Many shows had to make adjustments—some of which were invisible to viewers, and others, like Top Chef’s all stars, are front and center. The inability to bring in a stream of guest judges actually led

I hope that the all-star panel is a permanent part of Top Chef. Likewise, I hope the new format for Restaurant Wars—a chef’s table experience—also sticks around. While I love the drama and pressure of Restaurant Wars, I’ve never loved how one person has to run the front of the house, which may be what restaurant owners and chefs do, but isn’t what Top Chef is usually testing. This version of Restaurant Wars made hospitality part of the challenge, but in a way that didn’t make it one chef’s job.

My appreciation for these successful creative changes on Top Chef got me thinking: What other changes have reality TV shows made that should stick around once more of us get vaccinated and the world returns to normal? I posed that question on social media, and saw a lot of enthusiasm for retaining Top Chef’s changes—and some other great ideas.

For example, Kirthana Ramisetti suggested another long-running competition show adopt Top Chef’s alumni model: “Particularly would like to see something like this on Project Runway, which has a similarly talented alumni pool to draw from.” That’s a great idea.

Let’s look at three big changes that I think have worked across several shows, followed by some show-specific ideas, with your contributions and ideas included throughout.

Dump studio audiences

Lucas Reale on the Burn Rubber obstacle, which is one of two options at the new Split Decision on the American Ninja Warrior season 13 course
Lucas Reale on the Burn Rubber obstacle while friends and family watch from large screens on the sidelines. (Photo by Elizabeth Morris/NBC)

Studio audiences were the first to go, because gathering in groups and screaming has been a spectacularly bad idea over the past 15 months. So shows had to adjust both in person and in their editing.

Let’s start with the worst adjustment: The Masked Singer’s fake audiences were awful. They may be an impressive technological feat, but in the middle of a wave of disease and death, the Fox show pretended that it was safe for masses people to crowd together and breathe the same air. It also kept recycling reaction shots and pretended we wouldn’t notice.

Other shows have been more responsible. American Ninja Warrior acknowledged that it was filmed in an audience-free arena, and filled the void with crowd sound effects, both for the contestants and for viewers, just like pro sports did. The change that should stay, however, is ANW’s decision to replace grandstands and fans on the sidelines with giant monitors showing contestants’ friends and family members, who were watching from home. Its executive producer explained why “the screens have been a revelation” and told me that they’re likely to stay in the future.

The Great British Bake-Off doesn’t have an audience until its final episode, when friends and family members of the bakers come to visit, so it substituted the show’s crew members, all of whom had been sequestered together. It was a really terrific idea, giving them some on-camera acknowledgement and continuing to keep everyone safe while retaining the usual finale feel.

Over the past decade or so, I’ve grown increasingly tired of screaming audiences—or the sound effects added in post to make us think they were screaming. They take up time and sometimes distract contestants or judges. What I’ve seen this past year suggests that eliminating many studio audiences entirely might just be the way to go.

There isn’t a better example than HBO Max’s Legendary, which has become a remarkably better show in its second season. While season one had great performances, the show itself was kind of a mess, from its format to its chaotic editing. In addition to tightening the format, the show also improved as a result of its lack of a studio audience. The performers may wish they had a crowd’s energy, but without that crowd, the show has been able to focus more on the actual performance. We can hear individual judges’ responses during the performances, which helps compensate for the panel’s tendency to be frustratingly vague in their responses.

As Nick DiCeglie wrote, “Legendary season 2 without the audience was so much better. More focus on the performances and less on random person reaction shots!” And @teejslipko “the lack of studio audience actually made the performances so much more immersive and allowed us the viewers to hear the appreciate the judges reactions to the performances in real time.”

That could work elsewhere, too, though perhaps some shows really do need their crowds. Marc Goldberg gave two good examples of that, writing, “I thought I’d miss the ‘live studio audience’ on most of the prime-time game shows since COVID took them away, but I don’t actually. Press Your Luck does it well now with just the players friends/family in their little sections. I don’t mind canned audience cheering. Just not the faked shots like on The Masked Singer. However for daytime game shows I hope Price is Right and Let’s Make a Deal eventually return to their old looks as the audience’s on both shows are much more important since the contestants come from there and are in the background of most of the shots.”

Rely less on guest judges

Nicole Byer at the judge's table during RuPaul's Drag Race season 13, episode 5.
Nicole Byer at the judge’s table during RuPaul’s Drag Race season 13, episode 5.

Alex Palombo wrote, “On competition shows, fewer guest judges! I always like to hear what the regular panel of ‘experts’ (Top Chef, Legendary, RuPaul’s Drag Race) have to say about a challenge because they’re more knowledgeable than a random celebrity there to hock their latest project.”

I couldn’t agree more. Top Chef, of course, benefitted from the all stars substituting for guest judges—and I also think having a few guests Zooming in was a better use of culinary legends than having them guest judge.

RuPaul’s Drag Race did not have its best season this past year, and it did bring in some guest judges, but it also used most of those guest judges multiple times in the same season, which was a change for the better. Jamal Sims, Nicole Byer, and TS Madison each judged two episodes, while Loni Love was in four. That meant they got to see contestants’ progress across episodes, while we got Nicole Byer’s terrific judging multiple times.

Guest judges can be used well. But it seems like many shows rely on guest judges to spice up their judging panel, rather than casting for a panel that’s so strong it doesn’t need regular guest stars.

Change up locations

Drai's Beach Club at The Cromwell in Las Vegas, which will be hosting CBS's Love Island season 2
Drai’s Beach Club at The Cromwell in Las Vegas, which will be hosting CBS’s Love Island season 2. (Photo by Caesar’s Entertainment)

Survivor and The Amazing Race were the only major reality shows to not film during the past year. The Amazing Race’s reason for not doing so is obvious—international travel just is not possible—but Survivor didn’t film because it opted to stay in Fiji, where it gets generous tax incentives, while other places would be prohibitively expensive to film.

Other reality shows, however, moved, and they proved that locations don’t really matter if the format is strong. Chris Billig wrote on Twitter, “It’s across the pond but lots of people (and I) loved the I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here season in Wales. In general the lesson is shows that feel they need to be locked into location X don’t need to do that. Like Love Island in Vegas worked.”

As Chris mentioned, Love Island, which had been filmed in Fiji, moved to a hotel in Las Vegas, and there was essentially no difference. The Bachelor and Bachelorette—which use the Bachelor mansion before traveling the country and then typically concluding with international travel—were each filmed entirely in a bubble at large resorts. Those location changes worked great, and didn’t affect the core show—though I’m sure the bachelor and bachelorette stars would have loved to travel more.

Some of moves were not apparent to viewers; for example, the revival of Name that Tune filmed in Australia, using American ex-pat contestants, but could have easily been filmed in Los Angeles. Shark Tank relocated to Las Vegas to lock down the cast and crew in a hotel but, with the exception of the increased distance between the sharks and on the set, the season seemed completely normal. (It did acknowledge its new home in its final episode this season.)

While studio shows can film anywhere, those that film on location might benefit from finding new places, or just recognizing that location isn’t that critical. While I do miss the varied landscapes Survivor has visited over the years, setting up permanent residency in Fiji proved that the success of a season doesn’t hinge on its location, because Fiji has hosted some terrific seasons and some shitty ones, too.

Show-specific ideas

Couples Therapy

“I also really enjoyed Couples Therapy when they were meeting via Zoom, and you got to see a little more of their home lives. Orna even.” —Seana O’Farrell

Big Brother

“Don’t know if it was directly because of the pandemic or because it was an All-Stars season, but the live BB move in was great for the most part (the competitions were a little too biased towards alpha males though […] Usually the live feeds start after the first week, and the shows really don’t show the early feeling-out process between HG’s…here we saw it from day 1. It won’t happen this season which is a shame—would have been nice to see how a new set of HG’s gelled together” —David Wilson

“I don’t mind no live audience on BB if it means giving more time to contestants/maybe longer jury questioning” —Philip Tostado

Summer House

“I liked Summer House better with them sequestered for 6 weeks, rather than traveling for the weekends. I think they should keep that format.” —Seana O’Farrell

“Summer House should keep the cast living and working in the house all Summer instead of going back and forth to NYC. Their bubble this past season definitely made them crazier *and* really leaned into the show’s thesis.” —Mark J

Below Deck

Below Deck being stuck in a bubble and no crew turnover made for a stronger season in my opinion. But, Med hasn’t aired yet and that looks like it could be crazy.” —Emily Balo

“I liked how [Below Deck Sailing Yacht] had a charter of other crew in result to a positive case for the season finale. It made me wonder why they never incorporated a crossover like that within all the series, or make a spin off of random crew past and present enjoy a charter.” —RFJ09

Guy’s Grocery Games

“The cooking shows where the chefs worked from their own homes added a certain authenticity and personality. Or maybe I just wanted to creepily see their kitchens. (@GuyFieri’s outdoor space is bomb!) However, judges not tasting the challenge meals was hard to accept.” —Chris Shugart

“The new Michael Symon cooking outdoor show is probably my favorite pandemic-influenced change. It came out of his Facebook Live segments from his kitchen & now it’s a full-blown series from his backyard (with help from his wife).” —Rick Ellis

Battlebots

“I enjoy seeing the other @BattleBots teams watching from the stands more than the over-caffeinated, fake-frenzied crowds.” —Joe Pappalardo

Top Chef

“I love the pre-ordering of food at Whole Foods on Top Chef. Saves a solid five minutes of screen time and everyone gets what they need. The all stars as judges have also been much better.” —@PantlessWonder

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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