A Remembrance of Obscure Reality Shows Past

I loved American Idol for a time. Project Runway. Top Chef. We all have seen an Amazing Race here or there, or a clip from Dancing With the Stars. I know a lot about The Bachelor for someone who’s never been that into it. But some of the true gems of reality TV, the shows I look back on most fondly, are the really obscure one- or two-season wonders, the shows that barely made a blip on PBS 13 years ago, or aired one ignoble season on MTV back in the day. Keep your hits, America. I have one season of Legally Blonde — The Musical: The Search for the Next Elle Woods to keep me warm.

The Legally Blonde show is probably not the most obscure of my loves. That would be The IT Factor and The IT Factor: L.A., which aired on Bravo in 2002 and 2003. The show was a doc-style series that followed aspiring performers as they went on auditions, faced constant professional rejection, mopped floors, cried to their moms, etc. It was fascinating — and included a young Jeremy Renner. (The first season ends on his triumphant story of getting a real agent when his indie film Dahmer does well at Sundance.) The way reality TV in general and Bravo in particular work now means a show like that could never happen again; there was so much innocence in that series, but 12 years later, if you really want to be an actor, you’re better off being on The Real World or American Idol.

Bravo had some other treasures back then, too. The network acquired the Canadian doc series Cirque du Soleil: Fire Within, which followed the Cirque du Soleil performers as they staged a new show. Some were veteran performers, some were newbies, but everyone was incredibly talented and interesting. How do you become an acrobat? How do you cast acrobats for both their skills onstage and their ability to work in teams offstage? How does something like Cirque du Soliel work?

PBS took a stab at a similar setup with 2010’s Circus (also fantastic), but if I had to pick one, and only one, behind-the-scenes obscure circus reality show, I’d go with Totally Circus, which aired on the Disney Channel in 2000. That series was set at a summer camp and featured young performers learning the ropes (sometimes literal ropes!). Along with Bug Juice, another joyous kid-centric show from the same era, Totally Circus really captured the sensation of being at summer camp, the feeling of being yourself but not your regular self. American High aired four episodes on Fox in 2000 and then found a more appropriate home on PBS, and that show had the unusual strategy of giving its teen subjects their own cameras to record their daily lives and their “diary” entries. It’s absolutely one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, though again, I often feel like I’m the only one who ever saw it. Same goes for MTV’s 2010 If You Really Knew Me, which followed a community-building anti- bullying organization that hosted workshops at different schools. Each student was asked to start a statement with “If you really knew me” and then share something about themselves — and share they did! Both American High and IYRKM get at how well-crafted teenage image can be, and how misleading that image often is. The rigid roles of high school, be it prom queen or band dork or whoever, are rarely the whole picture of someone’s identity.

Not every teen show is this holistic, though. At the way other side of things is 2003’s Rich Girls, another forgotten masterpiece from the MTV vault. That show starred Ally Hilfiger and her BFF Jaime Gleicher as they rode on private jets and acknowledged that some people really needed to wear cargo pants because of working “in the fields.” That same era gave us Surf Girls and Sorority Life, neither of which seems to have any lasting legacy whatsoever, even though both were so damn good. I’d watch another season of Surf Girls in a heart beat. They’re girls who surf! Bring it!

I want another season of The Paper, MTV’s 2008 series set at a high school newspaper. Or the 2009–10 performing arts high school show Taking the Stage. I don’t understand how A&E’s 2006 series Rollergirls is the only real roller derby reality show. I still think The Joe Schmo Show is powerfully subversive and could work again. I still think Model Behaviour, a British model-search show that aired on random cable stations in the U.S. in 2002, is the better, more interesting version of Top Model. I saw every episode of Showbiz Moms and Dads. (And, God help me, Sports Kids Moms and Dads.) I can’t believe I’ll never see another episode of Gallery Girls or NYC Prep. Intervention and Hoarders always got plenty of attention, but I loved The OCD Project, too, VH1’s surprisingly humane, gripping doc series from 2010.

But such is the sweet sorrow of little-seen shows. These are my weird B-sides and bootlegs, my misprinted baseball cards, the stupid things I love in part because of their obscurity. You can talk about Survivor with anyone. But only some of us can talk about these kinds of deep cuts.

My Favorite Obscure Reality Shows: A Remembrance