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The best reality TV of 2021

The best reality TV of 2021
My picks for the best reality TV shows of 2021 include CBS's Tough As Nails, truTV's Fast Foodies, ABC's Ultimate Surfer, Bravo's Top Chef Portland, Showtime's Couples Therapy, and Paramount+'s The Real World: Homecoming New York

How is 2021 almost over, and yet feels like it just started? That’s how it feels to me. After the pain and uncertainty of 2020, this year has felt accelerated. It feels like just yesterday it was a year ago, and we were unvaccinated, and now here I am, boosted, and full of gratitude for everyone who made that happen.

Life has come fast, and so has all the reality television. Pandemic or not, reality shows kept being produced. With various kinds of restrictions, some of them changed for the better; others were the same as always. But either way, people put their lives on their line to bring us entertainment. I’m grateful to them, too.

The sheer quantity of reality TV that premiered this year—I mean, just look at it all—means that I did not watch every reality show that airs. That’s quite impossible!

My general goal was to at least sample all new reality series, though I even failed at that, and still have a list of shows I’d like to watch. What I did watch has a slight bias toward competitions and documentary series, which were my original loves (The Real World and Road Rules).

Meanwhile, a lot of reality shows—some of which I watch—keep churning out familiar and similar episodes, year after year, season after season. Those tend to not make my year-end list.

With all those caveats aside, my selections for best reality shows of 2021 are below, preceded by a list of scripted shows, and some honorable mentions.

I’d love to know what you watched and loved this year, especially if I missed it. Add your picks in the (newly revived!) comment section below.

And thanks for reading reality blurred this year: for reading my reviews, discussing with me, disagreeing with me, sending me your tips and suggestions and typo reports.

Watching reality TV is better with friends, and that includes Internet friends. Thanks for another great year of doing that. Okay, on to my 2021 lists!

My favorite scripted shows

Nandor, What We Do in the Shadows
Kayvan Novak as the vampire Nandor in FX’s forthcoming mockumentary series What We Do in the Shadows. Soon, FX will have actual reality TV, not just parodies of it. (Photo by John P. Johnson)

While my focus on reality blurred is unscripted TV, I watch plenty of scripted TV too. Here are some of the shows that I particularly loved this year.

When I made this list, I was amazed at how many have direct or tangential connections to reality TV:

  • The White Lotus, HBO, written and directed by Survivor and Amazing Race contestant and auteur Mike White
  • Only Murders in the Building, Hulu, which both imitated and parodied true crime while being just a very watchable series by itself
  • What We Do in the Shadows, FX, a brilliant mockumentary series
  • Abbott Elementary, ABC, which has only aired one episode so far, but it was a near-perfect pilot. Created by Quinta Brunson, it’s in the style of The Office, and has Survivor and The Office cinematographer Randall Einhorn as an executive producer
  • Star Trek: Lower Decks, Paramount+, which has Survivor winner John Cochran and Survivor player David Wright among its writers
  • Ted Lasso, Apple TV+, which last year gave us joy when I needed it, and this year processed grief and depression when many of us were also struggling to do the same
  • Dickinson, Apple TV+, which I cannot recommend more highly, and keeps getting better and better
  • Hacks, HBO Max. Jean Smart is a national treasure, but the supporting cast makes this an amazing series.
  • Succession, HBO. Fuck off.

My favorite reality TV of 2020

Small Fortune host Lil Rel Howery in front of the final game, "The Big Little Heist," which involves a bank named Lil Rels Fargo.
Small Fortune host Lil Rel Howery in front of the final game, “The Big Little Heist,” which involves a bank named Lil Rels Fargo. (Photo by Trae Patton/NBC)

Before the big list, here are a few honorable mentions:

The best reality shows and documentary series 2021, including broadcast, cable, and streaming reality TV.

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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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart

    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.

Discussion: your turn

I think of writing about television as the start of a conversation, and I value your contributions to that conversation. We’ve created a community that connects people through open and thoughtful conversations about the TV we’re watching and the stories about it.

To share our perspectives and exchange ideas in a welcoming, supportive space, I’ve created these rules for commenting here. By commenting below, you confirm that you’ve read and agree to those rules.

Happy discussing!


Tuesday 21st of December 2021

What We Do in the Shadows is my absolute favorite!!! Another that made me consistently laugh out loud was Resident Alien on SyFy.

Do talk shows count as reality? I LOVE Desus & Mero on Showtime, whatever category you want to put them in.

Only other recommendation I have if you didn't watch it is The 100 Foot Wave on HBO; I thought it was fascinating and now I want to go to Portugal to watch these surfers. Maybe some day.

Thanks for bringing back the comments! You're right, reality TV is better with friends, even internet friends. :)

Andy Dehnart

Tuesday 21st of December 2021

You're welcome, Melissa! I'm so glad I found a solution—and slightly embarrassed that, after all the research and weighing options, the easiest and best solution was just sitting right here, built into WordPress. 😆

Thanks for the recommendation—I actually started 100-Foot Wave, but must have forgotten to finish it, so I need to do that! It really had some breathtaking cinematography.

Michael Harmstone

Friday 17th of December 2021

My pick is - unsurprisingly - Belgian Mole's season this year. Filmed in Germany "at the height of the second wave of Corona", they set out to film an entirely normal season with minimal references to the pandemic. In nine episodes, I think there were only two or three direct references to the time it filmed in which was very refreshing.

The big twist this season? That everyone had to earn their place - the Mole included. Ten people were selected, but a group of ten who missed out by a whisker competed against them in the first challenge - if an intruder managed to defeat the contestants, they all took an immediate test and execution. If the intruder who defeated the contestant was the alternate Mole? The Mole got a red screen.

Then we get delights like their take on Carpool Karaoke (a challenge with half of the group in paddling pools in the back of a van hurtling around a race track, while the other half learn a piano piece. If they play a note that isn't in the piece, the van does a brake check), their corona-friendly family visit episode (putting the family members in transparent globes and giving everyone the night off to be able to have conversations) and a particularly spectacular challenge at final four, where they had to face-first rappel down a hotel and look in on a scene that one of the others was taking part in, describing it to the other two without saying a banned word. Saying a banned word dropped them to the ground immediately.

Such a delightful season from a delightful production team.