Since its rise in the mid-90s, reality TV has been a pop cultural cornerstone. The actual merits of reality TV (if they exist) and the appropriate real-to-scripted ratio of content that should carry the label are unclear.
What isn’t unclear is the fact that for every “good” reality TV show, there are ten or so crazy ones that crop up. Below are ten of the most bizarre and insane that ever existed.
10 Who’s Your Daddy?
Fox’s Who’s Your Daddy (2005) warped adoptees' attempts to identify their biological father’s into a game of deceit. Choosing from a lineup of eight potential dads, the competitors would have to guess who fathered them. Guessing right would send contestants home with a cash prize and the knowledge they sought, but if they fingered the wrong man, the imposter would leave with the money instead.
The ridiculously exploitative and cruel show was under fire from adoption rights advocates before it even hit the airwaves, and after airing its first highly controversial episode, it was promptly canceled.
9 My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss
No one would mistake The Apprentice for a realistic portrayal of the corporate world, but CBS decided to throw even the pretext of reality out the window with My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss (2004), a yuck-a-minute hoax in which contestants compete for a position at a nonexistent Chicago-based conglomerate.
The “potential job applicants” were subjected to awful exercises (such as marketing landmines and hocking plastic surgery for deceased loved ones) all to impress their mysterious boss, who, in the final episode, was revealed to be Mowgli--a business suit-wearing chimp who made decisions by spinning a wheel. To be fair, there was a financial gain to be had for the winners, but the cost of looking bad on national television when you’re just trying to better your life may have been too high.
8 All My Babies’ Mamas
The best reality series allow us to experience life through someone else’s eyes, which is clearly what Oxygen was going for with this 2013 series. Unfortunately, not all ideas are good ones.
Starring rapper Shawty Lo, his brood of eleven children, and the ten different women who mothered each of them, All My Babies’ Mamas never even made it to air. Subjected to vocal opposition in the form of a petition to can it, Oxygen learned their lesson when they were accused of perpetuating negative stereotypes.
7 Boy Meets Boy
Bravo has the distinction of being the very first channel to host a gay, Bachelor-style dating show. Unfortunately, there’s a vindictive edge beneath the progressive veneer. In 2002, Boy Meets Boy showed a group of fifteen handsome young men vying for the hand of the very available James Getzlaff. Unbeknownst to James, however, half of the potential partners were heterosexual men playing gay to win money.
Thankfully, James' gut served him well and he chose Wes Culwell, another gay man in the final episode, taking home money and a vacation. Still, the unsavory, offensive nature of the program still smarts years after its airing. It would take Logo’s Finding Prince Charming in 2016 to produce a proper gay version of the Bachelor template.
6 Mr. Personality
Unlike many of the other shows on this list, Fox’s 2003 oddity Mr. Personality felt like its heart was in the right place. A dating show not predicated on titillation masquerading as romance, Mr. Personality featured one woman who had to pick from a stable of eligible bachelors in metallic face masks.
The idea was kind of nice (not judging books by their covers, and all that) but the sight of a woman surrounded by twenty identical, grinning masked men was just bizarre and unsettling. To make things even stranger, Monica Lewinsky served as host!
5 The Swan
Another offering from Fox, and potentially their most controversial reality series ever, The Swan (2004) took two “ugly duckling” women each week and subjected them to sometimes brutal, full-body surgical makeovers. This was all presented as a way to better the lives of the contestants.
Though many did seem happy with the results, each was forced to compete in a beauty pageant at the end of the season. This added an unpleasant sexist edge to a show that seemed to posit, from the ground up, that a woman’s happiness and worth are based on the attractiveness others perceive in her.
4 I Survived A Japanese Game Show
Spend even a few minutes on YouTube and you’ll learn that Japan has some of the most whacky competition shows on the globe. In 2008, ABC sought to capitalize on the viral phenomenon with I Survived a Japanese Game Show, which shipped a group of Americans to the Asian country to compete in...you guessed it...a Japanese game show.
The show of the title was not, in fact, a true-blue Japanese game show, but was created by American producers after watching hours of the stuff on YouTube with the help of Japanese producers. Though it was produced at the famed Toho studios, this ouroboros-like contrivance remains one of the most creatively bankrupt ideas in reality TV history.
Many have tried to replicate the success of Dancing With The Stars, and all have failed. The most ludicrous of the copycats came from ABC in 2013. Based on a Dutch show, Splash staged a professional diving competition with ten celebs who were coached by Olympian Greg Louganis.
The show suffered from poor ratings and the celebs suffered quite a few injuries, but at the end of the day, watching D-grade celebs like Louie Anderson and Keshia Knight Pulliam plummet heels-over-head into a pool just makes for boring TV.
2 The Pickup Artist
As reviled a reality show as was ever produced, VH1’s The Pickup Artist perfectly encapsulates the not-so-casual sexism and misogyny of early 2000s bro culture. An answer of sorts to the makeover show, The Pickup Artist took eight men who struggled to score with women and endeavored to mold them through the tutelage of a frankly ridiculous so-called “master” named Mystery.
Mystery (he of the fuzzy hat and soul patch) schooled his pupils in the art of “negging”, or, lightly insulting attractive women to chip away at their self-confidence in order to make them easier to bed.
1 I Wanna Marry Harry
Some of the meanest reality shows deceive their contestants, but the people who fell for the central conceit of Fox’s I Wanna Marry Harry (2014) deserved what they got—that is, if they weren’t just putting it on for the cameras. This show saw 12 single American women who were under the impression that they were competing for the affections of the Prince Harry. The catch is, Harry is an imposter.
How was this pulled off? Have these women ever heard of Google? Are they simply farsighted? The jury is still out, but I Wanna Marry Harry proves just how far “reality” can bend.