It’s March, which is when a pop-culture website’s mind turns to thoughts of brackets. Over the past two years, Vulture has held 2012’s Drama Derby, a brutal dogfight to determine the best TV drama of the past 25 years (winner: The Wire), and last year’s Sitcom Smackdown for comedies (The Simpsons rules all!). In 2014, we turn to what is arguably the most dominant and proliferative genre of TV of the current millennium: Welcome to the Reality Rumble, a battle that will reveal the greatest season of the greatest reality shows!
When planning our previous brackets, we spent hours arguing what year to make the cutoff for eligible shows, as both genres had been TV staples since its earliest days. However, reality TV is a relatively recent phenomenon: Yes, The Real World (and its itinerant sibling, Road Rules) has been around since the early ‘90s, but the true reality explosion didn’t occur until 2000, with the debut of Survivor and the one-shot Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire. The former, a summer smash that mixed The Real World with ruthless competition, mind-fucking, and low-blood-sugar crankiness, inspired an immediate network rush to come up with their own lock-people-inside-a-BLANK-and-watch-them-fight series. Fox’s instant marriage special Multi-Millionaire, on the other hand, sparked waves of pearl-clutching tsk-tsking about television’s devaluing of love and the show’s broad interpretation of “real” (multi-millionaire “prize” Rick Rockwell was only technically wealthy and once had a restraining order on him); this fetch-my-smelling-salts outrage now seems laughable, considering the ensuing rich tradition of reality weddings, obvious scripting, and bogus contestant backstories that TV viewers have not only become inured to, but have been trained to expect.
Since then, reality has become the dominant genre on network and cable. Networks love it because it’s cheap, and audiences love it because it’s addictive: At its most rewarding, reality TV can be a fascinating look at social dynamics, an enlightening education into a specific skill, or a fully invested spectator sport spent rooting for one talented singer/dancer/cook/model to triumph over all and become a star! And at its ickiest, it is a ringside seat to truly awful people behaving in incomprehensibly un-house-trained ways – and that can be just as rewarding.
For our bracket, we selected the 16 greatest, most influential shows since The Real World. (Yes, PBS’s 1971 An American Family was important, but a different animal from modern reality.) But to stage a more brutal fight, we did not pit the shows as an entity against each other: We picked each series’ greatest season. So many of these shows thrive on their consistency (read: repetition), with Survivor’s 28 seasons of alliances and blindsides, The Bachelor’s 18 journeys (and Bachelorette’s nine), and Top Chef’s restaurant wars. These reliable beats are part of these shows’ appeal, but when mercilessly judging them as a whole, it is easy to apply debits for this predictability. So instead we made our contest about the best seasons of these greatest shows: The Osbournes’ first, hilarious introduction to stars-are-just-like-us celebreality. American Idol’s second-season showdown between Clay and Ruben. Season one of The Hills, before Spencer came along and ruined everything. And the second season of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, with Kim recording “Tardy for the Party.” Singling out these seasons makes this a fight that reminds us all of just how surprising, bonkers, or riveting these shows were when they were at their peak.
As in past years, we have a different writer judging a different round each day, with the contest progressing until Vulture’s Margaret Lyons makes the final call on Tuesday, March 25. And we will pay tribute to each day’s fallen combatant with a special post that looks at that show in a surprising, fun way that will remind you just why you spent so many hours watching its weekend marathons. We don’t expect you to agree with all the calls – that’s what the comments section is for. And while normally we would hope the comments would be an exemplar of decorum, this is reality TV; if there is anything short of virtual hair-pulling, then something has gone horribly wrong.
Without further ado, get yourself to Round 1, where the iconic Real World: San Francisco takes on the second season of Project Greenlight, where Ben Affleck and Matt Damon tried to make someone’s dream Shia LaBeouf movie come true.