When COVID-19 halted Hollywood production schedules, the reality TV genre was one of the hardest hit. Many reality shows rely on dropping a bunch of strangers into a house/kitchen/deserted island together and filming the results, which is, of course, inadvisable in the middle of a pandemic. The Bachelorette and Survivor were put on pause, and networks are now airing reruns or pulling out shows they’ve had in the can for a few years. (Fox, for example, is currently running last year’s season of Masterchef in a primetime timeslot, as well as the dating show, Labor of Love, which was filmed in 2017.)
However, thanks to streaming services, there’s still plenty of great reality TV to watch right now on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. If you’re a hard-core reality fan jonesing for some drama and want to know where you can stream your favorites, we break it down below. But if you’re a newbie to the genre we’ve got you covered too, with suggestions of where to start watching in order to get a sense of the type of drama you’re in for.
America’s Next Top Model
For nearly 20 years, Tyra Banks has ended each episode of her iconic reality competition by saying, with utmost sincerity, “I only have one photo in my hands. And this photo represents the girl who will still be in the running towards becoming America’s Next Top Model.” She then breaks down what specifically is wrong with each of the two aspiring models standing (and, usually, crying) in front of her. Cruel? Certainly. Fascinating television? Absolutely. After 24 seasons (or cycles, in ANTM parlance) America’s Next Top Model may or may not be returning for cycle 25, but it will forever live on the internet, having gifted us with some of the most useful gifs and the strangest clips across the web.
Seasons to watch: Cycle 5, Cycle 8, Cycle 18
America’s Next Top Model is streaming on Hulu.
The Bachelor(ette/ Pad/ in Paradise)
ABC’s long-running dating show franchise has become increasingly incestuous as the show has moved away from casting eligible bachelors and bachelorettes (read: boring normal people) in favor of aspiring Instagram influencers, who then pop up on Bachelor spin-offs like Bachelor in Paradise or, if they’re really lucky, become The Bachelor or Bachelorette themselves. That just makes the conflict more cartoonish and, consequently, more fun to watch.
Seasons to watch: The Bachelor season 20 (Ben Higgins), The Bachelorette season 12 (Jojo Fletcher), Bachelor in Paradise season 5, Bachelor Pad season 2
Select seasons of The Bachelor et. al. are streaming on HBO Max.
One of the best things about competition shows is watching experts talk intelligently and passionately about fields I know nothing about. One such field: glass blowing, a skill which looks unfathomably hard. Netflix’s Blown Away is a glassblowing competition show that takes 10 glassblowers and tasks them with a series of challenges that range from practical to abstract. (Challenges in the first and so far only season include, a light fixture, a robot, and a sculpture inspired by dance.) The fragile nature of the work means everything is incredibly high stakes — there’s no more devastating reality show moment than hearing glass crash to the floor with five minutes left on the clock.
Blown Away is streaming on Netflix.
Japanese comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto hosts this game show in which 10 comedians are put in a room together for six hours to try and make each other laugh. If they break, they’re eliminated. Matsumoto acts as judge, watching from a bank of TV monitors. The last one standing wins a cash prize. The catch? They’re playing for their own money — each contestant contributes 1 million yen to the pot, with the winner receiving 10 million yen (approx. $88,000.) The competition gets delightfully bonkers, with comedians playing joke chicken with each other. Fair warning: the longer the competition wears on, the bluer the humor gets.
Seasons to watch: Season 1
Documental is streaming on Amazon Prime.
Forged in Fire: Knife or Death
A History Channel bladesmithing show may seem like peak Dad Content, but I promise it’s worth watching. Forged in Fire follows a standard competition show format: four contestants compete to forge a bladed weapon, with a panel of judges deciding a winner. With the spinoff Knife or Death, though, the producers seem to have recognized that the most exciting part of the show is not the actual weapon-forging, but the various ways that the judges test the weapons (cutting ropes, slicing watermelons, stabbing blocks of ice, etc). Knife or Death cuts to the chase (pun intended) and puts contestants through an obstacle course of knife challenges.
Seasons to watch: any episode is a delight
Forged in Fire: Knife or Death is streaming on Hulu.
The Great British Baking Show
To know The Great British Baking Show is to love The Great British Baking Show. From the sweet contestants who constantly encourage each other (and remain friends after production) to the sweet banter between hosts (Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, followed by Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig) to the sweet constructive criticism from the judges (Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry or Prue Leith,) it’s just so dang sweet!
Seasons to watch: Collection 1, Collection 9, Great British Baking Show: The Beginnings
The Great British Baking Show is streaming on Netflix.
Love and Hip Hop
VH1’s Love and Hip Hop is one of the reality shows most often accused of fabricating storylines, but when those storylines are so damn compelling, who really cares? Ostensibly about the lives and relationships of hip hop artists, the franchise has featured such luminaries as Soulja Boy, Waka Flocka Flame, Keyshia Cole, and, notably Cardi B, who is unquestionably the breakout star. Love and Hip Hop has franchises based in New York, Atlanta, Hollywood, and Miami, as well as spinoff series that focus more closely on favorite cast members like Remy Ma and Stevie J.
Seasons to watch: Love and Hip Hop: New York season 6, Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta season 7, Love and Hip Hop: Hollywood season 5
Love is Blind
Netflix’s first attempt at a reality dating show was billed as a social experiment, but ended up looking more like an exploration of what it means to find love on TV. From our review:
The issues that are often cited as reasons for Bachelor breakups — different plans for the future, incompatible communication styles — are on full display in Love Is Blind. It almost feels like a hybrid between a dating-show competition and documentary-style reality shows like Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica (which Love Is Blind co-host Nick Lachey starred in with his ex-wife Jessica Simpson) and Married at First Sight (which is also produced by the team behind Love Is Blind). But Love Is Blind carves out a novel new approach within those existing structures.
At the end of the day, Love Is Blind is a reality show that thrives on drama. But the way it evolves into an in-depth exploration of cliché tropes makes it one of the most interesting reality shows currently airing. It’s impressive how it manages to pull off this nuanced take on dating shows while maintaining its delightfully trashy allure.
Love is Blind is streaming on Netflix.
The Real Housewives
Bravo’s sprawling Real Housewives franchise about wealthy women who love drama has spawned 10 American installments (The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City will premiere in 2020), 14 international installments, and nearly as many spinoff series. There’s something comforting about watching a bunch of rich moms melt down over who’s best friends with whom or complain to multiple people that they were served champagne in a wine glass.
Because it’s such a behemoth, with conflicts spanning several years, it can be hard to know where to start if you’ve never watched the show. While The Real Housewives of Orange County is the original franchise, the women of Beverly Hills, New York, and Atlanta are much more interesting.
Seasons to watch: The Real Housewives of New York season 8, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills season 5, The Real Housewives of Atlanta season 6, Vanderpump Rules season 2
The Real Housewives franchise is streaming on Hulu.
RuPaul’s Drag Race
RuPaul helped bring drag into the mainstream with the hit reality competition RuPaul’s Drag Race. The show has evolved over the years from a scrappy, low-budget competition to a flashy one with A-list guest judges and fully produced music videos and sketches. But the fan-favorite mainstay challenges — Celebrity Snatch Game, Reading is Fundamental — are still going strong. In addition to the main season, RuPaul’s Drag Race has an All Stars spinoff, bringing back past contestants for a second shot at the crown.
Seasons to watch: season 6, season 9, RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars season 2
The Real World-style reality show, in which “regular” people live in a house together, is typically fodder for outlandish drama, but the Japanese Terrace House is refreshingly calm. That’s not to say that it’s boring, though. If you’re used to the blow-ups and meltdowns of American reality TV, it’s fascinating to watch people resolve conflicts like human beings. In Polygon’s 2016 review of Terrace House: Boys and Girls in the City, Justin McElroy wrote, “In a reality TV landscape cluttered by fame-hungry pseudo-human caricatures, Terrace House stands alone by simply letting actual humans be delightfully, heartbreakingly human.”
Season to watch: Terrace House: Boys and Girls in the City
Terrace House is streaming on Netflix.
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The first TV show to regularly feature members of the public as its stars was America's Candid Camera which premiered on ABC in 1948 (it was then called Candid Microphone and was a TV version of an established ABC radio show of the same name which began in 1947).