December 12th, 2019
By: Nicole Toerpe Mason
The thing about reality TV is that there is a lot of it. In trying to determine the best reality TV of the last decade, I had a lot of changes of heart. Do I talk about iconic episodes that launched a series (the Kim/Kyle limo episode of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills”), or do I look at shows that launched an empire (“90 Day Fiancé”)? Do I acknowledge important shows that I don’t watch (“Keeping up with the Kardashians”) or do I focus on shows I loved but no one else in the world watched (“Whodunnit?”)?
In the end it really doesn’t matter because I respect all (most) reality TV shows and the fandom they create. However, I can only go by my experience and expertise. So, the parameters I set are this: (1) I picked one top show that premiered in each year of the decade. (2) They had to be shows I watched at least in passing, (3) I also decided to include honorable mentions because, I love reality TV, and most years I could not go without at least acknowledging some real winners.
2010 “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills”.
The first season of RHOBH is honestly, iconic. While not the first iteration of the Housewives franchise, this season offers up some all timers. First and foremost, we are introduced to Lisa Vanderpump. It’s hard to pinpoint the features that makes a housewife, a queen. For me, it’s a little bit wish fulfillment, a sense of humor, and some sort of unique trait. There is something that makes these women (Lisa Vanderpump, Partricia Altschul, Bethenny Frankel etc.) compelling to viewers and really, it may just be an “it” factor that is hard to put your finger on, but either way, happy to be here.
That said, most of the iconic moments of this season do not directly involve Vanderpump. The cast include, Kim and Kyle Richards- sisters, and former child stars, Camille Grammer- Kelsey Grammer’s wife and former Club MTV dancer, Adrienne Maloof- of the Palms Casino and Sacramento Kings Maloofs, Taylor Armstrong- I honestly don’t know her deal, and the aforementioned Lisa Vanderpump- a restauranteur and animal lover.
From Kyle yelling, “You’re such a fucking liar Camille” to Kyle and Kim’s constant fighting, there are a lot of iconic moments in this season, but two scenes will live in infamy. The first is the dinner party from hell. Camille’s dinner party includes the women in the cast, “the morally corrupt” (Camille’s words, not mine… although) Faye Resnick, and Allison DuBois, an e-cig smoking psychic who was the inspiration for the show “Medium”. DuBois gets a little tipsy and decides to read Kyle telling her, her husband “will never emotionally fulfill [her]”. It was wild but Kyle and Mauricio are still married nine years later so who knows.
The second iconic scene is from the season finale when Kim and Kyle (and Mauricio) get into it in the back of a limo. Kyle accuses Kim of being an alcoholic (which is later very much substantiated) while Kim tells Kyle and Mauricio, “you stole my goddamn house”. It was VERY dark and very real, and I know better than to get in the middle of sisters fighting but I will watch the hell out of it on TV.
Honorable Mentions: Pretty Wild, Basketball Wives, My Strange Addiction, Top Shot
2011 Dance Moms
If you love dance, drama and adults screaming at children to perform for them, then this is the show for you. For me, I am never not shocked that I have been watching this show for approximately 8 years (with some time off for Abby’s short stint in prison). What truly makes this show compelling is the insane relationship that Abby has with the mothers. Abby starts each episode off ranking each student’s performance from the week before while the parents watch and often freak out. They are then assigned dances for that week and drama ensues. Look, the format is not all that unique and the cast is, basically, not important. What really shines on the show is Abby. Is she mean? Yes. Is it probably not necessary? Probably. Does that make me laugh on the reg? ABSOLUTELY. I encourage you to just do a quick gif search of Abby Lee Miller and dare you not to laugh.
I would be wrong to not point out a couple of other stars from the show. The most famous of which is Maddie Ziegler has gone on to star in many Sia videos, acted in numerous tv shows, and judged various dance competition shows. More importantly is Cathy from Candy Apple’s Dance Center. He daughter could not care less about dance and quite frankly, is right not to. However, Cathy is a natural enemy for Abby. She is a loose cannon, she says insane things pretty much constantly, and is just delusional enough to think she is relevant in any way. She also hit Abby with her purse one time cementing her place in "Dance Moms" herstory.
Finally, the dances. I love dance and could watch it all day long so maybe I am biased, but I think they are actually all pretty great. Abby often chooses serious (and sometimes inappropriate) topics and there are some dances that are legitimately stunning.
Honorable Mention: Bar Rescue
2012 Shahs of Sunset
A show where one of the cast members refers to her job as “Persian Pop Priestess” is going to top my list, I have no choice. Looking back at the first season, I realize this is one of those shows that really had a mediocre first season but someone saw the potential and star power of the core group in this show and thank god they did because MJ and Reza may be two of my all-time favorite reality show characters.
Throughout the history of this show Asa has created diamond water (water with actual diamonds in it!), started a kaftan line and casually mentioned she is dating Jermaine Jackson Jr. (who does not appear on the show). Golnesa (GG) pulled a knife on someone, tried to start a fight at a pool party, has an intervention planned for her and admits she has never had a job her entire life. Reza accused his best friend MJ of bank robbery, planned, called off and re-planned a wedding to his partner, and ordered flowers complete with apology notes to the entire cast pretending they were from GG. MJ has an intense relationship with her mother, calls Asa’s unborn baby a ‘bastard’, and meets and marries her husband. Mike tries a bunch of jobs, cheats on his GF with GG (maybe), marries her (Jessica the girlfriend, not GG), cheats on his wife, gets divorced. This all just scratches the surface of this show.
The “it factor” this show has is that these people, genuinely, are an actual group of friends that have known each other for years and have a “families can fight like this” vibe to it. It’s what makes it intense, funny, and legit sad when relationships stumble.
Honorable Mentions: Mystery Diners, Breaking Amish
2013 Vanderpump Rules
“Vanderpump Rules” may be my very favorite show on this entire list. Again, the secret to the show is that these are people who have known each other for years, and only your best friends can be this horrible to you, I guess. Technically a spin-off of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, this show follows the men and women who work at Lisa Vanderpump’s various restaurants and their exploits. The core cast of the first season are Scheana, Tom Schwartz, Tom Sandoval, Kristen, Katie, Jax, and Stassi (later additions include Ariana, James, Lala and Brittany).
They all sleep with each other, they cheat constantly, they drink too much and they are all exceptionally beautiful. In this first season alone, it is revealed that Jax cheated on Stassi, so when she has her annual birthday blow-out he is uninvited and replaced with a new BF, Jax shows up and takes of his insanely large cable-knit sweater (eat your heart out Chris Evans) in order to fight. Later he is accused of sleeping with a co-worker in the SUR bathroom, and Scheana has a meltdown because she is not allowed to work an event with real housewife Brandi Glanville because Scheana had an affair with Brandi's husband (!).
The show only gets better with age and if you have never seen Stassi slap Kristen in the face for sleeping with Jax, or James yell “It’s not about the pasta”, or the general love that is Sandoval and Scwartz, I don’t know what to tell you.
Honorable Mentions: Buckwild, Newlyweds: The First Year, Whodunnit?, Naked and Afraid, Courtney Loves Dallas, Below Deck (whoo what a year)
2014 90 Day Fiancé
The first season of “90 Day Fiancé” was only 6 episodes long and doesn’t seem like something that would launch an empire, but here we are. The show documents the K-1 Visa process and the 90 days in which these people must get married. The majority of the couples are….. questionable at best. The only couple in the first season that are still on the franchise are Russ and Paola but I feel like the beginning of the series has more “legitimate” couples. We go from them to Mohammed (26) and Danielle (41) in the second season real fast though. I am so aggressively obsessed with these people.
It is really a variety of men bringing women they barely know from Ukraine and women bringing men they barely know from the Middle East. It has a real weird vibe of Americans acting like America is so great they can treat people however they want but also, Russian and Ukrainian women who are fully scamming American men in a way that I am almost impressed with. The show has had multiple spin-offs and online content and it’s just overall exactly the kind of reality TV I want to watch.
I do want to take a special moment to discuss my absolute favorite character to ever come out of this franchise, Anfisa. She is an Instagram model from Russia who met Jorge on Facebook. Jorge claimed to be a (legal) marijuana distributor, she demanded a $10,000 a month allowance among other things all of which Jorge said he could afford despite appearing not to have an actual home at the time. Would you believe that he was lying? He later plead guilty to transporting 293 pounds of marijuana and is currently serving a 2.5 year prison sentence. Anfisa now lives with her cat and competes in body building competitions- maybe she will see Teresa Guidice on the circuit! She is exactly what you want in a reality star, part volatile, part greedy, part hilarious and I want her back on my TV.
Honorable Mentions: Kim of Queens, Southern Charm, Alaskan Bush People, Little Women LA, Married at First sight (another solid year)
2015 The Island- Hosted by Bear Grylls
I know this is going to be a controversial pick. I know it only had one season in the US but it has forever changed me. The show is a Survivor style show where 14 men are placed on a deserted island and will have to live for 30 days on their own. There is no camera crew, rather, there are men that are responsible for filming. There are no prizes, eliminations or winners. It is literally just a bunch of dudes living on an island together. They try to cast a variety of people so that they can essentially create a new society (i.e. a doctor, a radio producer, camera man etc.). There are multiple seasons in the UK of the same show but it just didn’t catch on here.
The moment of this show, that I will never forget involves one man getting something stuck in his bowels and having to be medically evacuated. One of the men eats a bunch of crabs, shell and all, SHELL AND ALL! The shells get impacted in his colon and he slowly gets sicker and sicker. Then the doctor offers to try to relieve the issue by going into the jungle, and trying to pull it out. I don’t know how to express my feelings about a man, putting his hands into another man, without clean water and soap on a TV show where there is no prize. It’s wild and I will always remember where I was when I watched it. The guy ended up getting medically evacuated, but he will always remain in my heart.
Honorable Mention: Ice Loves Coco
2016 The Real Housewives of Potomac
The Real Housewives franchise is really a revolution to reality TV and Potomac to me is the diamond in the rough (BTW Dallas also premiered this year and it was a real hard choice for me but check that out too...it's AMAZING). I feel like a lot of people are sleeping on Potomac and if you are one of those people, get on it. The first season cast is Karen (the Grand Dame of Potomac), Ashley (married to an old dude), Charisse and Robyn (I am told their spouses are famous basketball people, Eddie Jordan and Juan Dixon respectively), Katie (a fully insane person), and Gizelle (quite frankly, one of the funniest and messiest housewives in the franchise). Later additions to the cast Monique and Candiace are also brilliant and very much add to the show. I also would like to add Candiace’s husband Chris to my list of favorite househusbands.
First seasons of Housewives shows are always hard because we want iconic moments to shine and they sometimes need a chance to breath but I want to point out that in the first season alone we get the following moments: (1) Ashley googled Robyn to discover she only has $25 in her bank account (an unthinkable crime in Housewives world), (2) Ashley’s husband takes off his pants and threatens to jump into the river at a fancy yacht party (just the first of a number of VERY questionable moments with Michael), (3) Gizelle sets up a “Come To Jesus” lunch to teach Katie about black history and man oh man does Gizelle deserve a producer credit for many moments of this caliber in this series.
Honorable Mention: White Rabbit Project, The Real Housewives of Dallas
TLC’s answer to the “16 and Pregnant” franchise on MTV is a lot more…. TLC. The show follows around three girls, Lilly (16), McKayla (16), and Lexus (15) through their journey into becoming teen moms. I think the thing I like about this show is that it really does show that less than glamorous lifestyle being a teen mom affords to you. This is exactly zero shade to the girls on the show. They are idiots because they are teens, that’s what teens are supposed to be. However, it is a solid look into why being a teen mom is so hard. It is also a solid look into a society where boys are full on idiots and somehow don’t believe they have the same expectations that teen moms do *gets off soapbox*. (full disclosure: some of the boys- mostly Caelan- are fine).
There isn’t much to say but that it is a fascinating, funny, sad, and sometimes infuriating show and is exactly what I love about reality TV. The third season of the show just wrapped up and the current cast includes McKayla as she goes through her second teen pregnancy. Full of drama and just a little trashy, would recommend.
Honorable Mention: Summer House
2018 Celebrity Big Brother USA
“Celebrity Big Brother” is an institution in the UK but is new to the US. Is it great? Not exactly but it absolutely has the potential and the first season is a case study in, “really almost great but definitely enough to keep me excited”. Also, did our fucked up situation with what president we have intrude upon my TV viewing? Yes! So let’s at least get some entertainment out of it amiright? The first season features Metta World Peace, Omarosa, Ross Matthews, Marissa Winokur, Mark McGrath, Ariadna Gutiérrez, James Maslow, Brandi Glanville, Shannon Elizabeth, Keshia Knight Pullman and Chuck Liddell.
The thing I love the most about “Celebrity Big Brother” is that we get more exposure to D (E? F?) list celebrities that we love but maybe forgot how much we love. I think the US version is good but maybe misses the camp that makes the UK version so beloved. Sure, Ross and Marissa were lovely and yes, Shannon overplaying as a superfan was fun but we missed the camp value that a Trisha Paytas, Tiffany Pollard or Kim Woodburn bring to the table that CBBUK always gets right (please look it up, it’s worth it). We can get there, we just need to live in it the way the Brits do.
Honorable Mentions: Nailed It, Ex on the Beach (USA), Gordon Ramsey’s 24 Hours to Hell and Back, Dr. Pimple Popper
2019 Racing Wives
History will tell the tale of whether this show is successful or not, and I suspect it will not be, but not because it’s not good. I have long called for a NASCAR wives show and honestly, this show was more transparent than I ever expected NASCAR to allow – which is why I suspect it will not be successful. The point is, it was really fun- even if it was very controlled and scripted. The main conflict of the season was the idea that brand models Mariel Lane and Whitney Ward Dillon try to transition into racing wives with top dogs Ashley and Samantha Busch- also Amber Balcean, aspiring race car driver, is also there.
The drama, while slightly canned, is fun, and Mariel having no idea that impersonating Ashley Busch would backfire on her was legit hilarious. That said, it was hard to imagine anyone believing anything on the show was even kind of spontaneous. Everything was very staged but at the same time, I really loved it and Mariel and Whitney’s friendship is worth the price of admission.
Honorable Mention: Mexican Dynasties, sMothered, Texicanas, The Family Chantel, Welcome to Plathville, Unpolished