Now, what exactly is reality? That’s a tough one to answer because it’s such a fluid concept. Fluid enough to spill right out of your brain and all over the floor if you think too deeply about it.
Your reality is completely different from somebody else’s. It’s easy to forget that, in the age of firing off snarky comments on the internet without a second thought, but that’s the truth of it. It’s going to be wildly different, depending on who you are, where you live, what you do for a living, how much cash you have… all these things.
Take a look at what the sci-fi writers of past eras thought ‘reality’ would look like now. Life in 2019 is hardly Minority Report, is it? Where are those neat hoverboards and such that Back to the Future promised us? It’s all very disappointing.
We don’t even want to get started on reality TV. That’s exactly what this whole list is going to be about, though, so we really probably should.
How real are reality shows, really? That’s the… real question. While they claim to offer super-dangerous stunts, survival situations and that sort of thing (and that’s just an evening in the kitchen with an enraged Gordon Ramsay), it’s important to remember that these are TV shows. They’re made for entertainment value, first and foremost.
From Undercover Boss and Bridezillas to River Monsters and Keeping Up with the Kardashians, let’s take a look at the reality shows that keep things authentic (and the ones that just aren’t what they may seem).
20 NOT REAL AT ALL: Man Vs Wild
Now, nobody’s questioning Bear Grylls’s pedigree as a survival expert. Let’s just make that plain right from the off. The man’s performed some frankly ludicrous feats that some people (and lots of us wouldn’t make it more than an hour or so without every modern convenience in the book these days) could never understand.
The fact is, though, he has quite a lot of behind-the-scenes support on some of his shows. As we’ve previously reported, Man vs Wild kicks off with a disclaimer that states, “Bear Grylls and the crew receive support when they are in potentially life-threatening situations.”
Now, the show has never claimed that Bear does absolutely everything depicted in the show by himself, but with that being the case, you can never be quite sure what he is doing solo.
19 TOTALLY REAL: I’m A Celebrity: Get Me Out Of Here!
You’re totally right, friends. We hear you. As realness goes, I’m A Celebrity: Get Me Out Of Here! might be just a little bit questionable. The British reality show sees a band of celebrities living in a camp in the Australian jungle, completing tasks (the infamous Bushtucker Trials) to earn food.
While the contestants do have support from the outside (naturally, they’re celebrities), and the creatures in the trials aren’t going to eat them alive or anything, things are a lot more real than some were expecting. For instance, the winner of the last series, soccer manager Harry Redknapp, had never watched the show before agreeing to take part. He certainly got a rude awakening.
“I have never even seen one minute of this show, I thought there would be a caravan behind the camp where we all sit around the log and make out you’re hungry, then they go, ‘OK, cut!’ and you go behind there and have a nice cup of tea or bacon sandwich,” he said, “but I couldn’t find the caravan anywhere. What you see is what you get, I had four days without eating.”
18 NOT REAL AT ALL: RuPaul’s Drag Race
So, yes. This is television we’re talking about. The medium as a whole is becoming less and less relevant, in an age of Netflix binging and such. TV shows made for actual televisions are struggling to compete.
How do they battle for our attention? By ramping the drama up to eleven, that’s how. Sometimes, reality shows are as chock-full of manufactured melodrama as wrestling.
RuPaul’s Drag Race has certainly been accused of this. Contestant Phi Phi O’Hara (real name Jaremi Carey) left the show on less-than-great terms, later claiming in interviews that so much was taken out of context or downright fabricated.
“It’s like watching a completely different show. Because it’s nothing like what happened on set… people truly don’t understand how context comes into play, and they’ll cut off something and add it to another thing and then make this whole different story,” Phi Phi said.
17 TOTALLY REAL: Dancing With The Stars
Now, some of these things are super difficult to call. When it comes to reality (or otherwise), we’re not always talking about survival shows where the crew are preparing a three-course luxury meal for the host just off camera (not that this is actually a thing, you understand).
Take Dancing With The Stars, for instance. It’s a simple premise (celebrities team with professional dancers to learn various routines and perform for the judges’ votes), but the show has been dogged for some time with accusations of being ‘rigged.’ Then there was the tale of Alexis Ren, contestant and experienced ballet dancer.
Is there a deep-rooted dancing conspiracy at work here? Hardly.
16 NOT REAL AT ALL: WWE Smackdown
Ah, yes. We’ve already touched on wrestling, and how things certainly aren’t as they may appear. That’s just the logistics of it all: they can’t be. Just look at some of those signature moves, and what they’d do to our poor, squishy human bodies (even huge, muscular wrestlers’ bodies).
Fans are in it for the spectacle, the entertainment value, which is what sport is all about. WWE Smackdown defines this whole concept better than anything else in the wrestling world. It’s been dubbed a male soap opera, with scripted drama outside of the ring and equally scripted outcomes of bouts within it.
15 TOTALLY REAL: Big Brother
Ah, yes. Here we are, friends. When it comes to reality TV, Big Brother is the first name that comes to mind for many of us.
The show was inspired by the Big Brother of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the figurehead of a society in which the inhabitants are subjected to 24/7 surveillance. In the show, contestants live together in the specially-designed Big Brother House, which is outfitted with cameras throughout.
Their only outside contact is with the voice of Big Brother (‘played’ by various crew members) and is limited to the diary room. It’s quite an oppressive environment, just as it’s supposed to be.
14 NOT REAL AT ALL: Keeping Up With The Kardashians
Now, there are a lot of things you could say about the Kardashians. A whole darn lot. They’re just about the most colorful famous family on the planet, and that status comes with a lot of attention (both positive and negative, of course). Unsurprisingly, it also comes with their own reality show.
Your feelings about Keeping Up with the Kardashians are going to differ, depending on how you feel about the family at large. That’s just inevitable. But how about views on the reality of the whole thing? That’s a bit of a grey area too.
As Kim herself told Piers Morgan in 2011, “From the start, they’ve always said we have, you know, the right to edit and to approve all footage.” Couple that with the whole Kris-Jenner-house-that-isn’t-actually-Kris-Jenner’s-house thing, and you’ve got a show that presents viewers with reality as the Kardashians choose to show it.
13 TOTALLY REAL: Undercover Boss
The concept of Undercover Boss is one that we're totally on board with. More companies need to get the bigwigs down on the frontlines with their employees, giving them a chance to see what’s what with their own eyes.
So many of us just don’t get the appreciation we deserve in our jobs, and being acknowledged is a wonderful thing. This is what Undercover Boss tries to portray, and despite the hilariously awful wigs and such, real change in businesses can and does result.
Some things are exaggerated, and the employees featured are carefully chosen, but Undercover Boss really does achieve what it sets out to.
12 NOT REAL AT ALL: Chopped
If you're somebody whose cooking skills are all kinds of questionable, Chopped is probably your worst nightmare in reality TV form.
The concept of the show is this: four contestants have 20/30 minutes to make the best dish they can, from a provided basket of random ingredients. The popular show has been running for over a decade, but all isn’t as it seems here either.
As ENews puts it,
“Sometimes, the reactions to the basket ingredients are actually just the contestants making a face, because they will film basket openings multiple times with the ingredients still covered up, just to get the perfect shot. And yeah, sometimes, contestants are kept because they're good TV, and not necessarily because their food was up to par.”
Not only that, but “producers used to hide things or put out only one stick of butter, for example, to cause problems among the contestants.”
11 TOTALLY REAL: The Masked Singer
There are lots of reality shows featuring singing competitions. The market is saturated with them. The Masked Singer offers a unique twist on the theme, a hook that keeps viewers engaged and guessing.
Inspired by South Korea’s King of Masked Singer, the show revolves around celebrities performing in silly costumes to conceal their identities.
They are not kidding with those concealed identities, either, as the show goes to great lengths to hide those secrets from everyone (everyone on the show, too). We’re given vague clues like their gender and height, the performers themselves give further hints (speaking with a ridiculous voice changer) and that’s it.
Even in the age of the internet spoiler, The Masked Singer does a fantastic job keeping its secrets until it’s ready for the reveals.
10 NOT REAL AT ALL: Bridezillas
As we’ve already firmly established, it’s very difficult for reality TV to truly deliver on its promise of reality. I mean, you wouldn’t watch a show that simply followed the average person on their commute to the office, would you? Things have to be a little larger than life.
That’s certainly the case with Bridezillas. You can’t have a show that revolves around the extreme reactions of contestants without said contestants playing up for the cameras a little, let's be honest.
Not to mention the fact that contestants have claimed that they were completely misled by producers. Cynthia Silver claims that she was told she was actually working on a documentary named Manhattan Brides.
9 TOTALLY REAL: River Monsters
Whichever way you slice it, River Monsters really is a show to behold. All too often, fishing is regarded as a slow, sedate, we’ve been here for four hours and all that’s happened is that grandpa’s accidentally dropped his sandwich into the lake sort of affair, but this show didn’t seem to get that memo.
Host Jeremy Wade travels in search of some of the biggest, strongest and deadliest fish in the world, and he tangles with them for real. Stories are told (and exaggerated) and they lay the drama on a little too thick at times, but there’s a purity to the show.
8 NOT REAL AT ALL: Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares
If you’ve ever seen Gordon Ramsay in action on TV, you’ll know one thing: he’s got one heck of a fiery temper. The esteemed British chef has developed a reputation as a hard taskmaster, who rules his kitchen with an iron fist and unleashes all the fury of Beelzebub on anyone who makes a mistake.
This is certainly the Ramsay we see on Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. Again, though, it’s often a case of hamming things up for the cameras. Ranker tells us that the temperamental chef was cool and collected during the filming of one particular episode in restaurant Finn McCool’s.
It also transpires that the producers sometimes hire actors to play kitchen staff.
7 TOTALLY REAL: MythBusters
Along with the likes of Big Brother, MythBusters was one of the first shows to really define the reality genre. That was its whole premise, in fact: taking a look at popular scientific misconceptions and the truths behind them.
Without getting too philosophical about it, friends, truth and reality should really be one and the same. The good news is, as we’ve reported previously, MythBusters does not compromise on that score. Early in the show’s run, producers wanted fabricated arguments on camera, but show hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman refused to pander like that.
A little integrity in reality shows is always great to see.
6 NOT REAL AT ALL: Love Island
Love Island, as you’ve probably noticed, has become quite the British phenomenon in recent years. It’s one of those shows that becomes an event in and of itself.
Naturally, though, the nature of the beast (a Big Brother-type affair in which contestants live together in a villa on Mallorca in the hope that romance will bloom) has led viewers to question whether the resultant relationships are real or staged. It’s often just about friendship, with couples simply shooting for the cash prize at the end.
Furthermore, as former contestant Tyla Carr has said, “What viewers don’t see is there is always a producer on site; they don’t live in the villa with us but someone generally comes in every hour to have a chat… they tell you what they want you to talk about, and who with. You have to tell the producers on site if you are planning to have an important chat or do something, so they make sure the microphones pick it up and the cameras get it.”
5 TOTALLY REAL: Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown
Anthony Bourdain was never a man who’d settle for reality TV’s often-shonky take on reality. He wasn’t one for half measures, or for visiting the same tired old tourist spots as your average traveler. A celebrated chef and travel documentarian, Bourdain was serious about his craft.
When he tells you he’s taking you to parts unknown in his show, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, that’s exactly where you’re darn well going. We think Looper put it best:
“He used fixers, friends, and local craftsmen to navigate him to past the guidebook stops and into homes and businesses that represent "the soul of the city"—a phrase at which Bourdain would most definitely scoff. He was constantly self-deprecating, almost eager to expose the artifice of television at all costs.”
4 NOT REAL AT ALL: Say Yes To The Dress
Now, this one, we're a little conflicted on. Say Yes To The Dress isn’t exactly fake in the way that some reality shows are, but there are still some behind-the-scenes shenanigans going on here.
On the screen, New York City’s Kleinfeld looks much larger than it really is. As Amanda Lauren put it, “Despite looking like a palace on TV, Kleinfeld isn’t large enough for the number of customers it attracts.”
Additionally, a participant on Say Yes To The Dress: Bridesmaids stated that the show’s producers were very specific about the members of the bridal party that they wanted to show. As always, they were hoping for controversial decisions and potential drama.
3 TOTALLY REAL: Cops
As far as we're concerned, being a police officer is one of the most admirable professions out there. Just as with nurses, they’re criminally underappreciated. In the case of the police, they’re often met with outright hostility. Still, on they go, performing the most thankless tasks without wanting fanfare or a big fuss. It’s just what they do.
Lots of us can barely imagine what goes into an average day’s policing. If you’re curious, Cops is the show for you. There’s no sugar-coating here, it’s just real officers dispensing real justice to real criminals. The show’s certainly got staying power: at over 1,000 episodes, it’s one of the longest-running in U.S. television history.
2 NOT REAL AT ALL: Fixer Upper
This is another format that’s sure to be super, super familiar to fans of reality TV. The house-renovating thing has been done hundreds of times in hundreds of ways, but whatever the show, they have a way of hooking us in.
We want to see what these houses are like. We want to lament the fact that we could never remotely afford them. We want to wonder at how Brian the convenience store owner and his wife Mary, the retired florist, could have a budget of $750,000.
In Fixer Upper, husband and wife duo Chip and Joanna Gaines give couples a choice of three Texas houses that are in dire need of repair. The couple chooses one, and the hosts set about renovating it for them. It sounds simple enough, but behind the scenes, the owners have already chosen and purchased the house before the show is shot.
This is nothing new with these sorts of TV programs, but there’s also doubt about whether Chip actually works on these properties away from filming.
1 TOTALLY REAL: Survivorman
As we saw with Bear Gryll’s Man vs Wild earlier in this rundown, the authenticity of survival shows is always a little on the questionable side. After all, you can’t put yourself in too dangerous a situation just for entertainment’s sake, can you?
Not to mention your unfortunate cameraperson. This is an issue that Survivorman neatly sidesteps in the most brilliant of ways: Les Stroud films the whole show himself.
As Looper explains, this is probably about as authentic as it’s possible for survival shows to get:
“Getting dropped off in the middle of Earth's most remote locations with nothing but his camera gear (he shoots the entire show by himself), a sort of utility knife, a satellite phone (for emergency calls to a remote crew who are always close enough for a rescue), and the bare minimum of supplies, Stroud must find a way to survive for days at a time. There are no celebrity cameos, no airlifts to luxury hotels at night, and no drinking his own pee.”