I’ve never really identified as a fan of reality TV. With the exception of the Bachelor franchise, I don’t watch what I think reality TV has become nowadays – irritable housewives’ Bravo shows, the ever-persistent singing competitions, and delectably sweet baking shows.
Instead, I associate more with the earlier concepts of the genre. Strangers thrown into a house together, competitors in a remote location proving survival of the fittest, and relatively unproduced docu-series. Starting from when I was nine years old and lasting throughout my teens, the age of reality TV’s rise and fall left a decent influence on my cultural identity. I hope you’re ready for a trip down memory lane, because I wanted to share thoughts about some of the reality TV seasons that most contributed to this shaping.
America’s Next Top Model, Cycle 6
The first eight cycles of America’s Next Top Model summarize exactly what was so great about reality TV in the early 2000s. Contestants still didn’t realize how production could portray them wrongly, social media fame didn’t quite exist yet, and personal fashion was simultaneously simple and horrendous. I also love Cycle 3 and its whackily entertaining cast, but I was first introduced to ANTM through an MTV weekend marathon of Cycle 6. Can you even call yourself an ANTM fan if you don’t live for Jade’s one-liners in this season? On top of that, the rest of the cast was also funny and complex, and Tyra Banks was at her peak of zaniness. I always resort to Cycles 3 and 6 when I need something brainless to play in the background as I do something else. After all, nothing truly beats a reality competition series with all of the old-school ANTM elements.
Married at First Sight, Season 2
I still keep up with Married at First Sight, but I inevitably fall off the bandwagon halfway through a season when filler content becomes overwhelming. However, I was strangely fascinated by Season 2, which was my introduction to the show and the second and final season filmed in the New York area. Perhaps it was because I’m from Long Island and saw each contestant as a very recognizable regional archetype, but I love these episodes despite none of the couples remaining together. For being filmed in the mid-2010s, it comes across as surprisingly unproduced and real, and I believe it’s a good dive into the series because it feels unpredictable and not as trashy as later seasons.
The Bachelor, Season 15, & The Bachelorette, Season 7
The trainwreck that is the current Bachelor season has me pining for this earlier era of Bachelor Nation. I started watching The Bachelor for the first time during Brad Womack’s second season, which segued into Ashley Hebert’s season of The Bachelorette. She ended up choosing and marrying Long Island native JP Rosenbaum, who remains my gold standard for both Long Island reality stars and Bachelorette men. I adore how Ashley and JP are such a low-key, normal couple with adorable, mini-me children, but having rewatched segments of this Bachelorette season, I marvel over how normal, mature, and over 30 most of its men were. This formula hooked me onto the franchise, which is now the crack I can’t quit, no matter how inane recent seasons have been.
I’ve talked about this teen version of Survivor before. Endurance ran for six seasons in the 2000s and filmed in a different remote location for each one. The contestants ranged from 12 to 15 years old and competed in teams of two in mental and physical games for the grand prize of an elaborate trip to an exotic place. What appears to be the entire series is currently available on YouTube, so I recently had my own marathon viewing, particularly of Season 3, seen above, which began airing right as my sisters and I discovered the show.
This rewatch provided so much more insight into the show, as I’ve now experienced teenage dynamics, friendships, and communication. Having that psychological perspective made the show even more entertaining, but Hawaii is forever and always my favorite season. Such a great cast, so many unique twists, and a decidedly different location choice. To this day, there may not be a reality show contestant I love more than Monroe, the sassy superfan who proved everyone wrong about his strength and capability countlessly.
16 and Pregnant, Season 1
Was there anything as raw and heartbreaking as these six episodes? I think I watched most, if not all, of Season 1 in real time, and I still remember sitting through the premiere (Maci’s episode) in total astonishment. At the time, I was starting high school in an area where teen pregnancy is rarely seen, where it is not a societal norm you become numb toward. I wasn’t that much younger than the featured girls, but they seemed so much older and wiser. Now being in my 20s, I’ve only realized through recent rewatches how harrowing this series was. If it interests you, I definitely recommend going back and watching some of the older episodes.