For decades, many critics have frowned upon the genre of reality television, viewing it as nothing more than nonsense and filler—some might stay a steamy hot pile of garbage—but we disagree. Reality programming is as important to our lives as any Emmy or Golden Globe-award winning show on a premium cable network or streaming site.
Take MTV’s classic, The Real World, a show that explored race relations and LGBTQ+ issues well before many news networks at the time. Or American Idol, which gave us Grammy-Award winning pop stars and musicians. Let’s not forget Jersey Shore, a show that single-handedly emphasized the importance of exercise, getting Vitamin D, and taking care of errands (ie. “GTL”).
It’s because of reality TV that people from across the country can come together and experience a moment in time in unison, even if that’s just witnessing one “Real Housewife” throwing a glass of wine at another. It’s not all great or life-changing, we know, but that’s precisely why we love it.
Together, the Men’s Health team compiled some of the best reality shows ever and in one list to help satisfy your need for vicarious drama and debauchery.
There’s something wholesome about five men just wanting to help someone become the best version of themselves. And the glorious end result is always the same: a hero emerges with a new and improved outlook on life (and gut-renovated apartment, to boot). Oh, and let’s not forget Antoni Porowski never failing to shed a tear at the end of every episode.
Before Jersey Shore premiered in December 2009, I signed a petition calling for MTV to take the show off the air. As a Jersey native, the thought of my state being represented by an overly tanned, overly coiffed group of New Yorkers, filled me with dread, but the day I sat down and watched that same gang fist bump in Karma, my life what was forever changed. It’s been 11 years and fans still love to use phrases like “The cabs are here,” “Grenade whistle,” and “”Sam, the first night at BED when you left, Ron made out with two girls and put his head between a cocktail waitress’s breasts.” – Temi Adebowale, Editorial Assistant
The Real World
The Real World had a simple premise, one it acknowledges in its famous title sequence: This is the true story of seven people, picked to live in a house, work together, and have their lives taped to find out what happens when people stop being polite—and start getting real. What The Real World didn’t prepare audiences for, however, was just how real things actually got. In its 33-season run, the series changed the face of television, and arguably, became part of history itself. It was the 1994 season in San Francisco that audiences met Pedro Zamora, one of the first openly gay men with AIDS on television. It was the 2000 season in New Orleans where issues of race relations and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” became a focal point in larger cultural discussions. And it was the 2002 season in Las Vegas that maybe gave us one of the first televised threesomes ever? Not everything about The Real World was great, we’ll admit, but we have the series to thank for informing hundreds, if not, thousands of other reality shows to date. – Josh Ocampo, Senior Editor
Worst Cooks In America
I never thought I’d find a show about trying to teach terrible cooks restaurant-quality meals would be so entertaining. But for twenty seasons, it has everything I’d ever want in a cooking show—some drama, hilarious graphics, interesting looking food (I say that nicely), and commentary about the difference between a stove and an oven.
I don’t know what’s weirder—people willingly allowing those they didn’t know to go through their personal things in order to find a date or that MTV created a whole show around the concept. Nevertheless, it was popular back in the early aughts, and sometimes it featured some future movie stars (hello, Zac Efron!) before they even tasted fame, which is kind of cool… but also super creepy.
College Hill followed the lives of students at historically Black colleges, and it was a cool inside look at how co-eds really live. As you can expect from college students, there were many fights and hookups, and an incident involving a well-placed shoe during the show’s fourth season in The Virgin Islands which caused a dramatic spike in ratings—and a number of complaints from parents. College Hill made university life look as glamorous as Hollywood. – TA
America’s Next Top Model
This was the show for the person who wanted to “be on top.” It took guts to get on the show and the challenges were sometimes traumatizing. But it also took major social strides, like crowning a deaf male model winner or featuring women who were traditionally considered “plus size.”
In the early 2000s, TV producer Simon Fuller was hoping to translate the massive success of the UK’s Pop Idol to American audiences. It was a heavy undertaking—recruiting celebrity talent for judges, rounding up thousands of auditioners in cattle calls, and hosting a live competition week-to-week. Still, out of its first season in 2001 emerged a once-in-a-lifetime television phenomenon. American Idol had its ups and downs—gleefully watching Simon Cowell skewer hopeful contestants feels sadistic, in retrospect—but few reality shows have had the kind of impact that the series has had on television and music. It’s because of American Idol that we have major pop stars, and it’s also because of American Idol that we’ll never sing out of the privacy of our showers. – JO
Catfish is simple enough. Nev Schulman and co-host Max Joseph try to help someone find the person they’ve been talking to online. Sometimes, it’s true love. Other times, it’s a total shit show. No matter the twists and turns, the journey is always a crazy one.
Survivor is largely credited with ushering in the reality TV competition genre, and the show’s premiere in 2000 introduced viewers to a group of competitors that were “not here to make friends,” along with the ever-guiding presence of one Jeff Probst. Along with the constant backstabbing and blindsides, viewers were intrigued by the competitors’ willingness to rough it for a chance of winning a million bucks. The show has gone strong ever since, with a landmark 40th season inviting back 20 former winners to compete for the top prize again. –TA
The Great British Baking Show
The great thing about the Great British Baking Show is that the contestants love each other and what they do. There’s no real drama, outside of culinary mishaps like falling cakes and souffles, which is just really damn refreshing.
Flavor of Love
In 2006, Flavor Flav was immersed in a group of single women a la the Bachelor with the idea that he’d find true love. Instead, total chaos ensued. For three seasons, Flavor Flav struggled to find the one amid memorable catfights and house drama. And it was Tiffany Pollard who would go on to become a bonafide reality star for more than a decade.
MTV had a problem: They had a number of charismatic reality stars from The Real World and Road Rules, but they had no other shows to put them in. And so, The Challenge was born. The concept is simple; alumni from those two shows competed in challenges against each other for a trophy and cash prize. Later, and because they ran out of contestants, they would begin recruiting major reality stars from other series. The show has been on for an amazing 35 seasons, and fans still love going back and reliving the best of the show with massive compilation videos like this one. – TA
After two seasons on the hit, Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, Lauren Conrad, then 19, flew the coop and left the sunny OC for an even brighter future in the hills of Los Angeles. What began as four girls, Conrad, Heidi Montag, Audrina Patridge, and Whitney Port, working in Los Angeles soon became a cultural phenomenon. But it was the relationship between frenemies, Conrad and Montag, that would carry the show throughout most of its original six-season run between 2006 and 2010. Somewhere in the streets of Los Angeles or in foreclosed nightclubs in West Hollywood, the screams of Conrad directed at Montag can still be heard to this day – JO
RuPaul’s Drag Race
RuPaul’s Drag Race is part America’s Next Top Model, part American Idol, and part ‘90s ballroom competition, and its fandom is like no other. The show will swing from a queen fiercely stomping down the runway one second to tearfully explaining how she was never accepted by her family the next, and the show’s dedication to telling the stories of LGBTQ+ people is much needed and much appreciated by its fans. Phrases from the show like “spill the tea” and “throwing shade” have also gone mainstream, but it’s important to remember where that culture comes from. Luckily, we have RPDR to remind us. – TA
Shahs of Sunset
Bravo is known for its reality shows, but Shahs of Sunset is a particularly bright spot on the network’s roster. The series follows a group of Persian-Americans in Los Angeles, and as you can expect, there are plenty of shifting alliances, luxurious trips, and screaming matches, but the show feels different because most of the cast have been friends for decades. In addition, the group isn’t afraid to talk about topics that many shows avoid, including racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. – TA
It sometimes baffles my mind about how simple and successful the concept of this show is. But what’s more surprising is how much drama a group of restaurant workers can truly get into, ranging from cheating rumors (which almost always turn out to be true) or firings for talking back to their boss. But there’s something heartwarming about this group always having each other’s backs… until the next crisis ensues.
The Simple Life
Whomever came up with the idea to send two heiresses to work had a stroke of genius. Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie knew how to play the reality show game by causing trouble wherever they went. While the show was beloved by viewers, what didn’t last was the girls’ long-time friendship. I guess “that’s hot” has an expiration at some point?
Below Deck Mediterranean
This show is like the ultimate vacation… if you’re looking for some seaside drama, interesting food, and a front row seat to some of the most coveted spots on the Mediterranean Sea. The boats are big, the crews have big personalities, and the captains take no shit.
If you’re unaware of the legacy this show has on the culture of reality TV, then it’s time to start binging. The idea of a man searching for love amongst a group of women could be considered reasonable, until you take into account all the drama that comes with 25 women all vying to get the final rose and uber-expensive engagement ring. Let’s face it—we all watch to see the Fantasy suites and what new juicy detail is going to be exposed before then. And if you’re genuinely interested in the true love element… well, maybe that could happen?
‘Real Housewives’ Franchise
The charm of Real Housewives is the fact that there’s something for everyone. Want to watch a bunch of blonde divorcees drink it up and then yell senselessly at each other? Go for RHONY. Witty comebacks and intriguing drama more your speed? Say hello to RHOA. The women on the show definitely don’t portray the typical housewife, but that’s what we love about them. – TA
‘Million Dollar Listing’ Franchise
If you’re not enchanted by the elaborate properties, then it’s the interaction between the toughest real estate agents in the country that will have you floored. Each home gets larger with every episode and the schemes the agents come up with to sell their homes gets stranger and stranger. Oh, and be prepared for some celebrities to casually come across the screen, because—just like us—they need to buy a home, too.
I love the concept of the entire series, with aspiring entrepreneurs trying to get investors (the “sharks”) to help fund their companies. Whether it’s the investors themselves or the products presented to them, the show sort of functions like a business 101 class we’d actually want to pay attention in.
From start to finish, it’s amazing to witness the transformations Jon Taffer can make. Plus, he’s angry all the time! And what makes for better television than disgruntled hosts?
I Love New York
Yes, Flavor of Love was good, but I Love New York was even better. Starring Tiffany “New York” Pollard as the lucky lady searching for love, the two seasons of the show proved why New York got a spinoff in the first place, as her charisma and eccentric group of suitors made for hours of endless watching. And while New York didn’t find love, she did win the public’s hearts as one of most iconic reality tv stars of all time. – TA
Let’s set the scene: You’ve been planning on renovating a room in your house. You and your neighbor decide to swap and redecorate each other’s houses on a reality show because you think it’ll be fun, but you realize what a horrible decision you’ve made after you walk back into your home and see that there’s now hay on your walls. Welcome to Trading Spaces. Unlike House Hunters or Property Brothers, the 2000 series shined the brightest when things didn’t go as planned, and the wacky decor choices made for endless hours of binge watching. – TA
While reality tv is often just seen as a form of cheap entertainment, the shows we watch can also break down barriers. Baldwin Hills followed a group of wealthy African American teenagers growing up in the Los Angeles neighborhood of the same name, and the BET series showed these teens doing regular things like going to parties, getting into (and out of) relationships, and dealing with all of the trials and tribulations that come with growing up. The show was highly entertaining, but its real power was in the fact that many Black teens saw themselves reflected on TV for the first time.
An OG cooking show at its finest. I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of having timed rounds of cooking mystery ingredients, because it’s both an educational experience and a chance to see what creativity each chef brings to the table—literally.
Extreme Makover: Home Edition
At some point in your life, you just wanted to hear Ty Pennington shout “move that bus!” in front of your house. From start to finish, the show was about giving back and sometimes in the tackiest fashion, which makes it commendable and totally worth binging.
We might’ve heard stories about the mob and all its crimes. But what about the women who are embedded in it? This show takes that notion and gives viewers an insight into what it takes to truly live and breathe the mafia lifestyle. From family celebrations to heartbreaking betrayals, these women prove they’re tough and can weather through any storm.
Adrianna Freedman is the editorial fellow for Men’s Health, where she focuses on entertainment, music, health and fitness.
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