Reality TV shows are what “guilty pleasures” are made of. But some of these series are a cut above the rest, managing to become true works of art. We went through all of the crowning achievements in the world of reality television — not including competition shows — and came up with our rankings of the best shows you can’t help but revel in.
25. True Life
MTV’s True Life helped paved the way for so many other reality TV shows yet to be born. When it was released by MTV in 1998, there was nothing quite like it. The show featured no narrator and no central character. Instead, it completely focused around its subjects for each episode, exposing the audience to a whole new world.
When it comes to True Life, there really is something for everyone. The miscellaneous topics covered ranged from broader subjects like “True Life: I Have Narcolepsy”, to the more incredibly niche and wacky, such as “True Life: My Dad Is A Bro”, “True Life: I’m A Compulsive Shopper”, and “True Life: I’m Addicted To Tanning”.
24. The Osbournes
The idea of following heavy metal singer Ozzy Osbourne and his colorful family and putting their lives on television was like striking solid gold in the world of reality TV. When it premiered in 2002, ultimately running until 2005, The Osbournes was, unsurprisingly, MTV’s most-viewed series ever.
Fans of the Osbourne family were treated to an intimate peek into the mundane but insane lives of Ozzy, his wife Sharon, daughter Kelly, and son Jack. And while half of the show’s soundtrack was composed of the constant bleeps of the producer’s censor machine, that just added to the hilarity of watching the family’s antics, such as throwing a ham at their annoying neighbors, hiring a dog therapist, and chasing the accursed cat.
23. My Strange Addiction
TLC’s My Strange Addiction is probably one of the craziest shows on television and, for lack of a better term, one of the most addicting. The jaw-dropping real-life stories and afflictions that producers find are just so out there that we cannot take our eyes off the screen.
And by out there, we mean that the show has covered topics like addictions to eating sand (she liked “the crunch”), drinking paint (“a thicker version of warm milk”), chewing rubber tires, snacking on cat food, smelling dirty diapers, performing unnecessary body casting, engaging in relationships with inflatable animals, being an adult baby, eating dry wall, and role-playing as a mermaid, just to name a few.
22. Love & Hip Hop
Any show that introduces the world to the greatness that is chart-topping rapper Cardi B surely deserves a spot on this list of best reality TV shows. Not enough? How about the fact that Love & Hip Hop has also included storylines from the likes of Soulja Boy, Waka Flock Flame, Remy Ma, Keyshia Cole, Juelz Santana, Trina, and many, many more?
Love & Hip Hop follows the lives of mostly aspiring hip-hop artists “as they try to make their mark” on various cities across the country, according to VH1’s website. The result? A show that is “unapologetically outlandish and packed with juicy drama and scandalous antics”, raves The Los Angeles Times. We’d have to agree with them on every single point.
21. Bad Girls Club
When we think of the guiltiest of guilty pleasures from the reality TV canon, it’s hard for Bad Girls Club not to come to mind. The premise for the show was pretty simple: take a handful of the worst behaved women in the country, make them live together in a mansion, and follow their lives of non-stop partying. Occasionally add male party guests, stir, and shake.
What would ensue was an entire season of women screaming, fighting, and doing horrible things to each other’s luggage (a common theme was throwing someone’s bags in the mansion’s pool). Unsurprisingly, the show has been called “tasteless” and “horrible” by some critics. But as far as we’re concerned, we’d just call it “reality TV at its finest”.
22. Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica
Was there any other new marriage in the world more fit for a reality television show than that of boy band 98 Degrees member Nick Lachey and pop singer Jessica Simpson? We certainly don’t think so — and viewers agreed. While the marriage, along with the show, really only lasted three seasons, it was all worth it when we got to witness this reality television greatness.
Truly, we have not been able to look at a can of tuna fish without thinking of Simpson’s most iconic moment, as she looked down at her bowl and casually asked Lachey, “Is this chicken, what I have, or is this fish? I know it’s tuna, but it says ‘Chicken Of the Sea.’ Is that stupid?” No, Jessica, it’s genius — reality TV genius, that is.
19. The Simple Life
Paris Hilton was tailor-made for reality TV. And so, when Fox announced that it would put out a reality show about the socialite and her best friend Nicole Richie embarking on a journey to do actual work and interact with blue-collar society for the first time in their lives, it was pretty much guaranteed to become a classic. And it definitely delivered.
While the show was definitely full of some cringeworthy moments, what was more cringeworthy was watching how outrageously privileged the two wealthy lead characters were. Luckily, some of those moments were also broken up by hilarious scenes like Hilton and Richie writing “Salty Weiner Burgers” on the Sonic Drive-Thru sign.
18. My Super Sweet 16
With the reality TV hit My Super Sweet 16, MTV turned the normal 16-year-old “coming of age” story into a train wreck that we could not stop watching. This show had it all, from the dads shaking their heads as their teenage daughters tried on cutout dresses in Paris, to daughters crying over their $42,000 flower budgets.
By the end of each episode, we weren’t quite sure what was more dramatic: the over-the-top 16th birthday parties, or the positively unhinged teens who demanded them. Who could forget the dramatic invitation giveaways? Or the car shopping scenes? Then, of course, there was that one girl who climbed into a Range Rover and responded with the classic review: “It’s used? Ew.”
17. The Real World
Love The Real World or hate The Real World, there is no question that without this iconic MTV show, we might not see most of the reality TV that’s taken over our screens today. This “true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house, work together, and have their lives taped”, as the opening credits proclaim, launched a whole new reality TV genre.
The Real World is the longest-running television show on MTV, and for good reason. Over the 33 seasons in cities across the world, the show has taken on such issues like politics, race, religion, substance abuse, and the AIDS epidemic, all while following non-stop the lives of these seven strangers.
16. The Girls Next Door
Slate got it right when they wrote the headline “The E! Reality Show The Girls Next Door Was the Best Thing Hugh Hefner Ever Gave Us”. The Playboy magnate’s show, featuring the controversial icon alongside his girlfriend Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson, was truly the gift that kept on giving with every single episode.
The Girls Next Door gave viewers a peek behind the curtain of what life was like inside of the famed Playboy Mansion. And we’ve gotta say, it was basically what we expected. From multiple girls claiming to be “Hef’s number one girl” to lavish Playboy parties with little left to the imagination, everything went down while Hefner basically just shuffled around quietly in the background.
15. Mob Wives
Mob Wives is one of those shows that we can only watch with the volume turned down just a little bit. That’s because about 75 percent of the show usually involves screaming fights in thick New York accents about “loyalty”. But what else should anyone expect from a show that follows the family members of people connected to the American Mafia?
Breakout stars like Drita D’Avanzo, Renee Graziano, and the late Angela “Big Ang” Raiola brawled their way onto television screens across the nation, bickering with each other, along with some of their mob-affiliated husbands in jail. Entertainment Weekly called the show a “floridly funny, vicariously vicious reality series [that] exerts a vulgar charm”.
14. Pretty Wild
When a reality show becomes legendary having only filmed just one season, that’s when we know it’s epic. Pretty Wild is a perfect example of being at the right place at the right time. And by that we mean that producers were already filming the life of Alexis Neiers when the police showed up to her door and arrested her for stealing from celebrities like Lindsay Lohan in The Bling Ring scandal.
The perfect timing of this show was only made more perfect by the combined antics of Neiers, her “sister” Tess Taylor, and mother Andrea Arlington. From their trials at home schooling and pole dancing to Neiers’ infamous screaming phone call to Nancy Jo Sales, it’s hard to believe so much perfection was packed into only 9 episodes.
13. Love After Lockup
Many of us might have heard about those websites where people can start relationships specifically with people in prison. But what happens when those prisoners are released, and the relationship really begins? Well, according to a show about that particular scenario, called Love After Lockup, the end result is usually pretty outrageous.
Love After Lockup is one of those shows showcasing people almost too crazy to be real. From the moment that the couples meet outside of the prison gates, anything, and we really mean anything, goes, as these couples and their generally colorful families try to adjust to life outside of prison.
12. Dance Moms
When casting directors were searching for the perfect person to personify the madness that is competitive dance training, they found exactly what they were looking for in Abby Lee Miller. The oftentimes loud, screaming, and incredibly demanding dance coach earned a reputation as being harsh, but also for churning out incredibly talented dancers from her Pennsylvania studio.
But if casting directors struck gold with Miller, they hit the jackpot with the mothers that bring their children to this dance company, who often match their pre-teen children in terms of their own maturity. From the bickering to clawing their way to get their children on the top of “the pyramid”, each episode brings drama. And, luckily, each episode usually also brings a pretty astounding dance number, too.
11. Catfish: The TV Show
After the widespread success of the 2010 film Catfish, MTV decided to take a gamble and churned out Catfish: The TV Show. The show, MTV said, would follow people in online relationships with people they had never met, or even seen. By the end of each episode, viewers would find out through Nev Schulman and Max Joseph’s investigative work whether the person was real or using a fake profile — a “catfish”.
But by far the beauty of this show came when the person who hired these catfish sleuths would get to meet their online love interest for the first time. We were all left holding our breaths just thinking about that fateful moment where they knocked on someone’s door before the big reveal.
10. The Hills
There are a few things that the legendary reality TV show The Hills on MTV taught us. First, don’t wear combat boots to the beach. Second, don’t be known as The Girl Who Didn’t Go To Paris. And third, always invest in waterproof mascara.
The Hills followed the life of Laguna Beach star Lauren Conrad as she moved out of her parents house and into the great big world of Los Angeles. Fans of Conrad get to see her date around, fight with her roommate Heidi and America’s Least Favorite Boyfriend Spencer, and drink and party suspiciously before the episode that features her 21st birthday.
9. Below Deck Franchise
Oh how we love a workplace reality TV drama. And we especially love when that workplace reality TV drama comes in the form of Below Deck or its incredible spin-off Below Deck Mediterranean. The Bravo TV show follows the crew members who work on a mega-yacht during peak season.
When it was first released, Bravo’s Andy Cohen called the show: “Downton Abbey on a private yacht.” And while we’re not so sure we’d go that far, we will concede that the crew, along with some of the absolutely bonkers guests that they have on board these luxury yachts, make the show so addictive that we’ll happily get on board with this one any day.
8. Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County
Let’s go back, back to the beginning. There was no way that the classic reality TV show that was Laguna Beach wouldn’t make it onto this list. The show is so profoundly burned into our memories that we can practically hear Kristen Cavallari yelling “Stephen” from here.
From 2004 until 2006, it seemed that every group of friends in high school wished that they could have their own reality show, just like the students at Laguna Beach High School. From the boy drama, to the prom pictures, to the partying, Laguna Beach was just like every other high school, except students lived in mansions and vacationed to Cabo San Lucas without parental supervision.
7. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo
It would be almost impossible for a family whose members sport names like Mama June, Honey Boo Boo, Chubs, Pumpkin, and Chickadee not to make good reality TV. And producers of Toddlers in Tiaras picked up on that when they featured Honey Boo Boo and decided to give her her own show.
For years, this show became something like the antidote to the Kardashians. Instead of seeing the rich and famous on TV, audiences got to see something much more relatable. Okay, so maybe the rest of the country didn’t call spaghetti “sketti” and serve it with ketchup, and maybe they didn’t mud wrestle, but this unlikely pageant girl and her family made their way into the hearts of reality TV lovers everywhere.
6. Keeping Up With The Kardashians
Love them or hate them, the Kardashian family has changed reality TV forever. What started as a television show about the little-known Kardashian-Jenner blended clan has launched the careers of every single one of them, and turned their last name into a multi-million dollar brand that simply can’t be escaped.
What makes Keeping Up With The Kardashians so good is not the super stardom that all of the sisters eventually achieved. Instead, fans find joy in the little moments, like when Kim lost her diamond earring in the ocean, or when Kim took a selfie as Khloé was on her way to prison, or when the sisters fought over a Bentley. You know, the little things.
5. Jersey Shore
And to think, before the Jersey Shore aired, most of the world had no idea what it meant to be on the hunt for a hot, sexy, “juice head gorilla” on the beach (for the rest of us lay folk, that means a good-looking, muscular man). But thanks to the cast members Pauly D, Snooki, The Situation, Ronnie, Sammi Sweetheart, J-Woww, and Vinny, now we know.
This look at a handful of “guidos and guidettes” living in a beach house on the Jersey Shore also taught us things that helped us prioritize our lives, like the meaning of “GTL” (meaning “gym, tan, laundry”), how to do a hair pouf, and the very specific inflection that comes with saying “cabs are here”. No wonder Barbara Walters named the cast on her “10 Most Fascinating People” list (yes, that happened).
4. Bachelor In Paradise
While competition shows have been excluded from this list, we found a work-around to include a piece of The Bachelor franchise. And, honestly, anyone who watches The Bachelor knows that Bachelor In Paradise is the best that the franchise has to offer. This recipe for incredible reality TV starts with taking the craziest cast members from The Bachelor and just putting them all in the same island resort.
In this spin-off, the producers essentially acknowledge the joke that The Bachelor world has become, and poke fun at themselves. Yet somehow, even with all of the over-produced tears and love triangles, this spin-off has actually managed to produce more couples than the original Bachelor series.
3. Vanderpump Rules
In Vanderpump Rules, a show about the servers and bartenders who work at SUR Restaurant & Lounge in Los Angeles, Bravo TV and the show’s cast serve up some of the best scenes in reality TV history. Skeptics need only watch the scene where cast members Lala and James engage in a screaming argument about pasta (admittedly, “it’s not about the pasta”) to understand.
It’s almost as if the entire cast speaks entirely in the most perfect, made-for-television sound bytes. Some of our other favorite gems include the time that Tom Sandoval had a meltdown while fully dressed in drag, and when Stassi made the most perfect drink order ever (“I’m not really sure what I’ve done to you, but I’ll take a pinot grigio.”).
2. The Real Housewives Franchise
Whether the particular Real Housewives show covers its original location in Orange County, or its spin-offs in New York City, Atlanta, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Beverly Hills, Miami, Potomac, or Dallas, it doesn’t matter. All of The Real Housewives series are so absolutely, incomparably incredible that it is impossible to pick a favorite.
The show was originally meant to document the real lives of the ultra-wealthy housewives who inhabit the most luxurious communities in the country. But what we really learned is that no matter how much money anyone has, “money can’t buy you class,” as our reality TV commander-in-chief Countess Luann de Lesseps once sang.
1. 90 Day Fiancé Franchise
The 90 Day Fiancé franchise truly has it all. For anyone who has not seen it, the show focuses on an American who applies for a K-1 Visa, meaning that they have 90 days to bring their foreign fiancé to the United States and marry them. Seems simple, right?
What makes 90 Day Fiancé so outstanding is that it not only has the arguing and hilarity of any other reality television show. It accomplishes all that while also highlighting the strange culture shocks, language barriers, and cultural differences that come with moving halfway across the globe. The result is often uncomfortable, funny — and undeniably addicting at the same time. That’s reality TV in a nutshell!
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