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How and why I grade reality TV shows

When I was in middle school, my grandmother gave me a subscription to USA Today for Christmas. Every day I’d wake up and go out to the driveway, and after I pulled the paper out of the bag, I’d flip to the Life section first. I wanted to read about TV, especially what the paper’s critics thought of new shows.

But that wasn’t enough pop culture and TV coverage. So a few years later, I started buying Entertainment Weekly, and eventually subscribed. When it arrived in the mail, I’d look first at the back section, where the magazine’s critics gave their takes on new movies, music, and TV shows.

This wasn’t before the Internet, but it was before I had conversations with people about TV on the Internet. For me, the reviews were conversation: someone who also liked TV was taking it seriously enough to evaluate, and reading their review allowed me to understand their perspective.

EW used letter grades on all of its reviews, so that’s what I started doing, years later, when I began reviewing TV shows.

(I was even once graded! Two months after I launched reality blurred in the summer of 2000, I opened the magazine to find my own work reviewed there, in the Internet section. That was a surprise; the A grade was an even bigger shock.)

I share all of this because there’s a direct line to what I’m trying to do when I review reality TV shows. When I started writing longer reviews in these pages, I adopted that model, borrowing from EW. Grading was also not unfamiliar, since my day job, teaching, also involved grading.

In the late 2000s, letter grades were displayed next to recently-reviewed reality shows in the sidebar. At some point, I stopped grading, and I wish I had a clear recollection of why.

It may have had something to do with my day job, teaching, where grading is my least-favorite thing to do. It’s not just because it’s laborious and sometimes tedious, but because what I love about teaching is sharing my passion and knowledge with other people. Grading creates a potentially antagonistic relationship.

Earlier this year, I once again started grading the reality TV shows that I review, and this summer, I started breaking down those grades in more detail. I thought I’d share the reason for both—because my intent is to be helpful and conversational, not antagonistic.

What my reality TV show letter grades mean

I returned to grading my reviews because it provides a succinct, quick way for you to get a sense of how I felt—and also helps me gauge what I think about a particular show.

Why letter grades and not stars? Letters give me 13 options, versus four or five stars, and I like having more options and a broader range.

Even with 13 options, there’s a lot of variation. I know I’ve given very different shows the same letter grade for very different reasons.

Here’s my general scale—and of course, there are plus and minus options in each of the first four grades here:

  • A. Generally, A-level shows are spectacular, highly engaging and entertaining thanks to outstanding content and production values. They are not necessarily flawless, but are the best examples of this art form. Highly recommended.
  • B. Pretty great. Watchable and entertaining, with perhaps a few rough edges, or perhaps just a better version of a predictable, expected format.
  • C. Average. What you’d expect from a show in its sub-genre. Nothing too spectacular, nothing too horrifying, though the problems may outweigh the strengths.
  • D. Deficient. Multiple things are broken.
  • F. Failing. Fail. Failure. F this show.

As you can see, the letter grades are a kind of shorthand for my sense of a show’s overall quality. And there are many different paths to each grade.

Some publications grade individual episodes—with stars or letter grades—but I’m not doing that, at least not now. What I am doing now is trying to give you a better idea of my thoughts, good and bad, about new (and sometimes classic) shows.

You may have noticed the addition, at the end of my recent reality TV reviews, of a box that gives the letter grade, a brief summary of my evaluation, and two lists: a few things I liked and a few things that could be better. I’ve seen versions of that elsewhere, and found that I appreciated the breakdown, so I added it here too.

Of course, the real breakdown is the review itself, in which I try to share my reactions and ideas about what I’ve watched. I hope that info box is a nice companion to the longer review.

Most importantly, whether I’m recapping an episode of Survivor or reviewing a brand-new show, I never intend for my grade and my review to be a definitive statement. Instead, it’s a snapshot of my thoughts, ideas, and knowledge at the time—and hopefully, also the start of a conversation with you.

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.

All reality blurred content is independently selected, including links to products or services. However, if you buy something after clicking an affiliate link, I may earn a commission, which helps support reality blurred. Learn more.

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