"Reality" is nearly synonymous with "documentary," but with one clear distinction: whereas a documentary aims to observe a situation that already exists, reality creates the situation to be observed.
That's the key difference between, say, Chef's Table and Top Chef.
But just because the situations in reality TV are "produced" doesn't mean they're always fake, and just because they aren't 100% authentic doesn't mean they can't be engaging, insightful, nourishing, and yes, entertaining.
Reality TV has a poor reputation because there are a lot of stinkers, but there are some good ones if you dig deep enough.
Show Type 1: The Reality Voyeur
The reality voyeur is the kind of show that gives you a fly-on-the-wall view of a specific person, group of people, or type of people.
The most notable example is Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Reality voyeur is about as close to documentary as reality TV gets, but it's not quite there because the premise and/or situations are set up and not entirely objective.
Superb examples of reality voyeur:
- Cops: A series that follows on-duty law enforcement officers as they respond to calls, enact stings, and do what on-duty cops do. Only the most exciting cases are aired, but it's about as real as reality TV gets, complete with the ethical dilemmas that stem from filming a show of this kind.
- Terrace House: A Japanese series about six housemates—three male and three female—who come from all walks of life to live together under one roof. They go about their lives per usual, and it's surprisingly drama-free compared to most American reality TV. Read more about why Terrace House is the most honest reality show on TV.
- Hoarders: A glimpse into the lives of people who struggle with compulsive hoarding disorder. What's interesting is that episodes often look at hoarders from previous episodes who have gone in for treatment to see how they're progressing.
Show Type 2: The Reality Exhibit
The reality exhibit is the kind of show that has something to display for the viewer to see, usually something that they wouldn't be able to see in normal everyday life.
Food shows and travel shows make up a huge portion of this. It's similar to reality voyeur in a lot of ways, but where reality voyeur is about people, reality exhibits are about things and places.
Superb examples of reality exhibits:
- Parts Unknown: Anthony Bourdain's travel show where he visits the world's most unknown locations to experience their customs, culture, and cuisine. This one's so good that it might even be considered a documentary of sorts, given Bourdain's integrity.
- Scam City: A series that focuses on a particular city per episode and dives into the local scams that tourists might be victim to when they visit those places. The host intentionally seeks out and falls prey to these scams, and sometimes speaks with scammers to learn how they operate.
- Dark Tourist: A filmmaker visits some of the most unusual and macabre tourist spots in the world, highlighting the best and worst things on offer around the globe.
Show Type 3: The Reality Project
The reality project is the kind of show that showcases transformations, where the viewer gets to see the before, after, and in-between of said transformations.
Each episode is usually self-contained with a proper beginning, middle, and end. Fashion makeovers, home improvement, and self-development make up the bulk of this type of reality TV.
Superb examples of reality projects:
- Property Brothers: Twin brothers—a real estate agent and a licensed contractor—buy fixer-upper homes and turn them into dream homes through renovations on a strict budget and timeline.
- Say Yes to the Dress: The journey of individual brides as they search for the perfect wedding dress, including all the steps along the way and all the personal hurdles that get in the way of accepting the right one when they see it.
- Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: A team of five gay professionals give a fashion and lifestyle makeover for straight men who haven't the faintest idea of how to look good or take care of themselves.
Show Type 4: The Reality Experiment
The reality experiment concocts an unusual situation or circumstance, puts one or more people in it, and sees what happens.
The focus of this type of show is more on the results, which are often unpredictable, than the people themselves. Hidden camera shows are one of the most popular varieties, as are any shows about social experiments.
Superb examples of reality experiments:
- Survivorman: A filmmaker/survival instructor heads out into the wilderness and stays there—alone, without a camera crew—for seven days. Each episode takes place in a different location, and the host handles all the filming while he effects survival.
- The Carbonaro Effect: A hidden camera show where magician-prankster Michael Carbonaro performs otherworldly tricks for unsuspecting passersby. Interesting and funny!
- The Colony: Two modern British families try to survive in Australia under conditions that resemble what it was like for the first penal colony that arrived 200 years ago. Not to be confused with the sci-fi drama series, Colony.
Show Type 5: The Reality Competition
The reality competition is exactly what it sounds like: multiple people competing against each other according to a set of rules, usually with some kind of episodic elimination to keep things interesting. Often the competitions revolve around a specific skillset, but not always.
Superb examples of reality competitions:
- Chopped: A reality cooking competition where professional chefs are given a basket of mystery ingredients with which they must craft three different dishes within a time limit. One of the most interesting and intense cooking competition shows on TV.
- Survivor: A group of strangers are brought to a remote island where they must fend for themselves and survive. Each episode features challenges for rewards, plus a vote to see who gets eliminated from the island. Last one standing at the end wins the grand prize.
- The Mole: A group of contestants compete in various physical and mental challenges to build the overall prize pool, but one of them is "The Mole" whose goal is to sabotage success in the challenges. Each episode, players take a quiz that gauges how well they know who the Mole is—based on performances in the challenges—and the least knowledgeable one is eliminated.
What's Your Favorite Reality TV Show?
The key to appreciating reality TV is accepting the fact that all TV shows must be produced to some degree, and there's no such thing as a 100% authentic "reality show"—the logistics of TV simply don't allow for it.
But just because a show is produced doesn't mean it's manufactured. That difference is why I can confidently say that Terrace House and MasterChef are great reality TV while Jersey Shore and Cutthroat Kitchen are trash-tier.
Overall, I think reality competitions are the most interesting type of reality TV, because there's so much on the line and so many impressive things that can happen along the way.