BBC Culture put together a list of the 100 greatest TV series of the 21 years so far the century, and only three of them are nonfiction television, and only one is reality TV.
Despite reality television absolutely changing television this century—Survivor alone was the second-most-watched TV show of the 2000s, never mind how it inspired Lost and how The Office’s director of photography worked on Survivor—just one reality TV competition representing an entire genre, plus two documentary series.
This century has, of course, been a time of abundance for television, from the golden age of TV to peak TV. The quantity of excellent scripted shows alone means that reality TV can be neglected, despite being prolific, either because there’s no time to watch everything, or because the craft of reality TV still isn’t valued as much as scripted TV.
Of course there’s a lot of filler, throwaway reality television—just like there are some garbage scripted shows—but there is some outstanding reality TV, too!
So how did we get this dearth of reality TV? The BBC says it asked “206 critics, academics and industry figures from 43 countries” who “could only vote for TV shows which had their pilot after 1 January 2000, and each critic voted for 10 programmes.”
The voters ranked them, and the shows on their lists were assigned points (10 points for their top-ranked show, all the way down to 1 for their lowest-ranked show).
Is this the best reality show of the century so far?
The 100 greatest TV series of the 21st century list was formed from the shows that received the most points, and just there are just three nonfiction shows:
- RuPaul’s Drag Race is #62
- the natural history series Planet Earth is #73
- the documentary series OJ: Made in America is #81
That’s it. The closest the rest of the list comes to reality TV is The Comeback, the brilliant show starring Lisa Kudrow, which is #87.
There are several other mocumentaries, such as The Office (both the UK and US versions), Parks and Recreation, and Arrested Development, but only one reality TV competition and no structured (such as Shark Tank) or unstructured shows (such as The Real Housewives or Hoarders).
I like Drag Race, which has done a lot for queer representation and just the elevation of an art form, and has had some great seasons, but is it the best-produced show to have premiered in the past 21 years? That’s a no for me.
Of course, this list is just a reflection of both its voters and the structure that asked them to choose just 10 shows, a difficult task! The individual ballots are all online, and scanning it, I noticed additional unscripted series—and definitely some recency bias at play for the scripted shows. (There may also be some unscripted shows on ballots that I didn’t recognize from around the world.)
Here’s what stood out to me:
- Just eight people ended up voting for RuPaul’s Drag Race, but their rankings were enough to place it at #6.
- The Great British Bake Off, which was my selection for reality TV show of the decade, got four votes, as did Nathan for You.
- Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown received two, while the meta reality show Gogglebox received three.
- Survivor did make the list for Variety critic Caroline Framke and freelance journalist Nathan Ma.
- Jamie Demetriou, the star and creator of the great sitcom Stath Lets Flats (it’s on HBO Max if you haven’t seen it) voted for The Jinx.
- Nonfiction shows that got just one vote each include Top Chef, Strictly Come Dancing, Taskmaster, Jackass, 30 for 30, and Tiger King. Wild Wild Country had two votes.