Reality TV is typically anything but real. Whether it’s producers meddling behind the scenes or wannabes acting up for the cameras, the genre has become renowned for its lack of authenticity. However, there are a number of shows which try to stay true to life. From wilderness survival guides to baking contests, here’s a look at 20 of them.
20. Judge Judy
One of the most enduring reality shows on American television, Judge Judy has been dishing out justice since 1996. And the three-time Emmy winner is also one of the most thoroughly researched. In fact, approximately 65 staff members trawl through the nation’s small claims cases trying to find the most intriguing.
Yes, those far-fetched cases you often see on the syndicated show are all-too-real ones which have been taken into arbitration out of court. And the woman who presides over them is no actress, either. Indeed, before becoming the world’s most famous judge, Judy Sheindlin served as a family court judge in Manhattan.
19. Terrace House
First screened on Japan’s Fuji Television in 2012, Terrace House is a breath of fresh air in the reality TV genre. Whereas the likes of Big Brother shove random strangers into a house hoping for non-stop drama, this cult hit welcomes peace and harmony. Indeed, blatant showmances and camera-hogging catfights are certainly notable by their absence here.
And Terrace House’s conflict-free charm has slowly built up a loyal audience across the globe ever since it hit Netflix. Not only do the cast conduct themselves in a mature and respectful manner, but they’re also often filmed carrying out everyday chores. The result is a thoroughly relatable modern experiment which reflects real life in all of its mundane glory.
One man and his camera stranded in the wilderness. Broadcast globally on the Discovery Channel since 2004, Survivorman is reality TV at its most stripped-back. Indeed, Bear Grylls certainly has nothing on Les Stroud, the Canadian survivalist who spends up to ten days entirely alone in the remotest of conditions.
Indeed, most TV survival experts have the luxury of a camera crew and can be whisked away to a hotel should things get too tough. But Stroud is the real thing. Sure, he may use a bit of dramatic licence from time to time to spice things up. But Survivorman genuinely is a one-man show which doesn’t treat viewers like fools.
17. The Last Alaskans
From Alaska: The Last Frontier to Alaskan Bush People, the most sparsely populated United State has inspired several reality shows over the years. But none have reflected the harshness of living in the area better than The Last Alaskans. Indeed, don’t expect to see much romanticism on the Animal Planet series, which first hit our screens back in 2015.
The Last Alaskans focuses on the few families who are still residing in the state’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And a number of aspects are explored – including the lack of modern home comforts, the hardship of living in such a freezing cold climate and the very real danger of roaming wolves. And unlike most reality shows, the Alaskan natives have no interest in becoming stars.
16. Masterchef Australia
The U.S. version of Masterchef may be designed to create nothing but high tension. But Aussies do things a little differently. Indeed, the version screened on Network 10 since 2009 is far more interested in giving viewers a culinary masterclass than staging a ruthless contest. And perhaps most impressively, there’s no behind the scenes interference whatsoever.
Executive producer Margie Bashfield told News.com.au in 2015 that the team prefer things to unfold naturally. She said, “We don’t ‘produce’ it, whatever happens, happens. You have to have confidence that if you get great cooks, the drama will happen.” And Judge Matt Preston agreed, adding, “Part of the thing that makes MasterChef unique is that we’ve built up this reputation of being a real food show. A lot of the internationals would never do a reality show but will do our show.”
15. Celebrity Big Brother
A huge success in the U.K. since the turn of the century, Celebrity Big Brother eventually made its way across the pond in 2018. Its format may have been designed to engineer conflict, but the star-studded version of the long-running reality show could never be accused of misleading its viewers.
Indeed, dedicated fans could watch the likes of Omarosa Manigault and Ross Matthews 24/7 should they choose to, thanks to CBS’s non-stop streaming service. This entirely unfiltered approach is in stark contrast to most reality shows, which are often edited to within an inch of their lives. It also made it virtually impossible for the celebs to hide their true selves.
14. The First 48
As its name suggests, The First 48 explores the vital immediate aftermath of a particular crime. The odds of finding the perpetrator responsible reduced by an astonishing 50% after this particular period, a fact which gives this A&E show all the tension it needs. Indeed, there’s little point in creating any drama when there’s already so much at stake.
The long-running show, which has been on our screens since 2004, has been hailed as one of the most realistic depictions of conducting a police investigation. However, it’s not without its detractors. Indeed, The First 48 has been heavily criticized for its unrepresentative focus on criminals from an African-American background.
13. The Great British Bake Off
The Great British Bake Off has become a national treasure in the U.K. thanks to its gentle approach to the contestants. Indeed, judges such as Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry aren’t afraid to give their opinion on the participants’ bakes. But they do so with a grace and a kindness that’s often missing from the more cutthroat food competitions.
And unlike most TV contests, The Great British Bake Off isn’t interested in sob stories. In fact, one-time presenters Mel and Sue once stormed away from the famous tent after discovering that producers had been encouraging contestants to delve into their tragic pasts. Thankfully, this protest worked and the show has continued to put baking center stage ever since.
12. 60 Days In
Now screened in more than 100 different countries, 60 Days In has become one of the most-watched crime-based reality shows. And its success undoubtedly lies in its authentic depiction of the prison system in the United States. Indeed, the A&E hit certainly can’t be accused of glamorizing life behind bars.
The show’s interesting format follows the fortunes of seven individuals who have agreed to go undercover in an Indiana county jail. And although uncomfortable to watch, their findings often prove to be highly valuable. In fact, numerous corrections officers were fired due to the conduct they showed during the first season.
11. Undercover Boss
The disguises aren’t be the most convincing you’ll ever see on television. However, the journey that each undercover boss undergoes on the CBS show is 100% genuine. In fact, those high-ranking officials who attempt to slum it with their company’s lower level staff actually choose their very own alter-egos.
Of course, the employees may have an inkling that the man or woman who are now shadowing their every move aren’t exactly who they say they are. But they’re certainly not informed by the production crew about the true nature of the show. As a result, Undercover Boss is one of the more organic workplace reality shows on offer.
Sadly, the compulsive behavior shown on A&E series Hoarders is all too real. The title of the show refers to those individuals who store a vast number of useless objects and waste items in their homes. Indeed, this disorder can impact their ability to live their day-to-day lives. But it can also become a major threat to their health and their safety too.
But thankfully, the assistance that the show provides the hoarders with is also entirely genuine. Indeed, each individual is helped in their recovery by a team of psychologists and therapists. And Hoarders: Then and Now, a spin-off show also airing on the A&E network, proves that these sessions can have a positive life-changing effect.
Unarguably the daddy of the crime-based reality show, Cops has been capturing lawbreakers in front of the cameras since 1989. In fact, it’s one of the most enduring American TV shows in any genre. Renowned for its catchy reggae theme tune, the Fox series follows various police teams as they chase down fleeing criminals involved in everything from drugs to prostitution.
Unusually for an American reality show, Cops contains no scripted conversations or narrative voiceover whatsoever. It simply points the cameras towards the action and lets the officers and crooks speak for themselves. And this is one of the reasons why the show has stayed on air for more than 30 years.
8. Deadliest Catch
One of the Discovery Channel’s biggest hits, Deadliest Catch captures the lives of Bering Sea fishermen during the opilio, bairdi and Alaskan king crab season. The show, which first aired back in 2005, may occasionally reshoot scenes to help with the narrative. But for the most part it’s a highly authentic look at the life and death situations the fishing vessel crew face on a daily basis.
Indeed, Deadliest Catch certainly hasn’t shied away from the more tragic aspects of the profession. In 2010 the crew kept the cameras rolling when Captain Phil Harris suffered a major stroke on board the Cornelia Marie. Sadly, after being airlifted to a nearby hospital for surgery, the fisherman lost his life.
7. Say Yes to the Dress
Say Yes to the Dress boasts one of the simplest reality TV premises out there. And you may be pleased to know that producers keep things just as straight-forward when it comes to filming the TLC hit. Indeed, all the stresses, worries and eventual joy that comes with searching for the perfect wedding dress are entirely genuine.
And the wedding boutique at the center of the series is also very much the real deal. Manhattan-based Kleinfweld Bridal has been assisting blushing brides-to-be with their dresses for more than a decade. And as the former Senior Vice President of Saks Fifth Avenue, co-founder Mara Urshel certainly has the right pedigree to take on such a role.
6. Diesel Brothers
Diesel Dave and Heavy D shot to fame in 2016 as the exuberant hosts of Discovery Channel motor show Diesel Brothers. You may think that their larger-than-life personalities are all for the cameras. But it turns out that the highly experienced siblings really just are that enthusiastic when it comes to the restoration of diesel vehicles.
And the generosity and humility the duo display on Diesel Brothers isn’t just for show either. Following the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, the pair helped to raise funds for its victims. And going one step further, they even traveled down to the scene of the natural disaster to assist with the relief efforts.
Discovery Channel show Mythbusters got the general public invested in science programming when it debuted in 2003. Presented by special effects experts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, the show set out to debunk various well-known rumors using scientific expertise. And it did so without creating any needless extra drama, too.
Indeed, both Adam and Jamie were initially pressured by producers to stage fights in order to achieve high ratings. To their credit, the duo refused to follow in the footsteps of more contrived reality shows such as American Chopper. And with the series running for no less than 13 years, their decision proved to be entirely justified.
4. Project Runway
By far the most stylish reality show on the box, Project Runway has been screened across either the Bravo or Lifetime networks since 2004. And viewers are left under no illusions about how hard life as an aspiring fashion designer is. Indeed, contestants often work from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m. to get their creations just right.
Admittedly, contestants such as Jack Mackenroth from the fourth season have occasionally claimed that judges care more about making great TV than showcasing great designers. But overall, Project Runway is one of those talent shows which doesn’t need to rely on contrivances. Indeed, viewers largely tune in for the incredible outfits and to see the incredible amount of work that goes into them.
3. Below Deck
First aired on the Bravo network in 2013, Below Deck is set on the kind of luxury yacht that most viewers can only dream about owning. However, as its name suggests, it’s the staff who cater for the rich of the richest that take center stage. And despite their workplace setting, life is anything but glamorous.
For their part, employees are forced to sleep in cramped conditions, work for long periods of time and pretend to be nice to their rude clients. Sure, some of the situations may have been guided by producers. But the tensions that arise below deck appear to be authentic, as does the moronic behavior of those on top.
Perhaps one of the bleakest reality shows around, Intervention explores the hardships of addiction and the long, often unsuccessful path to recovery. Indeed, the A&E series certainly doesn’t flinch when it comes to the ugliest side of substance abuse. Many episodes feature the person at the center of the intervention using their narcotics of choice in graphic close-up.
The consequences of addiction are also explored in heartbreaking detail. Families are split up, kids have to witness things they shouldn’t have to and homes become little more than drug dens. Sometimes there’s a happy ending, but more often than not the individual is no better off at the end of the episode than they were at the start. Thankfully, producers tackle this tough subject matter without the kind of bombast that’s become a default setting within reality TV.
1. My 600-lb Life
Few shows have addressed the nation’s problem with morbid obesity as explicitly as My 600-lb Life. The TLC show, which debuted in 2012, films each patient over the course of 12 months as they attempt to shed the weight that has left them at death’s door. And the resulting scenes are often hard to watch.
Indeed, from gastric bypass operations and infections to excess skin and the difficulties of maintaining a personal hygiene routine, My 600-lb Life certainly isn’t for the squeamish. But the way the producers chronicle their challenging journey is for the most part documented with consideration and understanding.