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
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
Before the big list, here are a few honorable mentions:
- Framing Britney Spears, a documentary series that had real-world impact
- Legendary season 2, HBO Max. So much talent, and now, without a studio audience, the TV show became a lot more watchable in its second season.
- Big Brother’s Cookout alliance. The CBS show is still the same summer trash as always, but an alliance of six managing to stay together until the end of the game was an impressive accomplishment.
- Hoarders, A&E, which has just been excellent with its expanded episodes
- Squeaky Clean, Quibi (RIP) and now Roku Channel
- Sunderland ‘Til I Die, Netflix
- Small Fortune, NBC
- Nadiya Bakes, Netflix
- Bling Empire, Netflix