A Quick Guide to Reality Shows for the Perpetually Confused

They’re everywhere—ordinary folks doing extraordinary things just to get on TV. And by “extraordinary,” we generally mean “stupid,” “frightening,” “earsplitting,” and sometimes just plain “gross.” From singing off-key to leaping out of airplanes… from dining on enormous insects (while the host cheers them on for trying the local “delicacy”) to dating and sometimes marrying total strangers… you name it, somebody has done it on television.


But who are all these people, and how can you keep them all straight? Fear not, confused reader, for we will break it all down for you.


Dancing With the Stars

Proving that English is in fact a living language by devaluing the word “star” further and further every season, this is America’s number one most watched reality show. People who are only famous for being on other reality shows often end up here, along with sitcom sidekicks, 80s heartthrobs, and someone you’re pretty sure you went to high school with but you actually recognize from a 1994 episode of Power Rangers. Sometimes the producers add some washed-up athletes to the cast to so wives can lean over to their husbands and say, “See? Someone you know!” The winner is usually the woman paired with pro dancer Derek Hough.

There�s Gonna be Hell to Pay


The mother of the modern network reality boom. And like most mothers, she’ll abandon you in the wilderness for weeks at a time and force you to become a lying, manipulative, underhanded scoundrel in hopes of someday getting your hands on her money. The object of the game is to make it to the final vote with the weakest competition possible; therefore, the best players are least likely to win the million dollar prize. Warning: This program is prone to grossly unfair results; do not watch if easily enraged.

american idol

American Idol

Very young people compete for a chance to sleep with Paula Abdul Jennifer Lopez Mariah Carey Jennifer Lopez again. Runners-up are automatically qualified to run for Congress in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. Most of the show is karaoke of inexplicably popular classic rock, pop, and country hits. Sometimes they throw Broadway songs into the mix so that the geriatrics in the audience can recognize some of the tunes. There’s a panel of three people who are supposedly there to judge, but mostly they grandstand, bicker with each other, and attempt to draw attention to themselves. Originally, the winner got to make one album before fading into obscurity, but after season four they reversed the order.

the.voice.s05e05.hdtv.x264-2hd.mp4 -

The Voice

A cross between American Idol and rescuing a stray from the pound. Contestants sing their hearts out as they try desperately to convince one of four celebrity coaches to take them home and let them sleep on the foot of their bed. Meanwhile, the coaches banter viciously among themselves to build and keep the best possible stable of talent. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the coaches are really impressed with the singers or if they just want to piss off the other coaches. The winner is the coach with the biggest ego. The best singer gets an automatic spot on Dancing With the Stars Season 48.

Bachelor Juan Pablo

The Bachelor

Hot, sexy women vie for one guy’s attention in a dating competition held in an exotic, romantic location. You’ve got to wonder why all these hot, sexy women need a televised dating service at all, especially since they’ve all been asked to act as one guy’s personal harem. Are they here to find love, get on television, enjoy a free vacation, or just hook up with a conceited stranger? Contestants advance when the Bachelor gives them a rose; the winner gets a full vase of wilted roses and the opportunity to find out what a jerk her “prize” really is when they get back home and reality sets in. Losers may end up coming back for another season as the Bachelorette. This season, we’ve got losers of both sexes competing for each other’s roses, and it’s really looking like an orgy.


America’s Next Top Model

Aspiring models compete to see who is best at strutting in heels with pouty attitude while kissing Tyra Bank’s butt. The winner is the one who leaves the most lipstick stains on her perfectly toned posterior. Winning may involve a single, short-term modeling contract with… somebody. Winners should not quit their day jobs.

american ninja warrior

American Ninja Warrior

This sports competition—based on the Japanese program Sasuke—invites suberbly trained athletes from all over the country to race through obstacle courses that would make Superman give up his cape and head home for a Smallville marathon. Since each contestant is running through exactly the same course, it gets really repetitive very quickly. The winner gets $500,000, but it might as well be a unicorn ride to Neptune because NO ONE HAS EVER ACTUALLY WON BEFORE. Not a single person has finished the course so the finale can be pretty anti-climactic. Maybe the producers don’t actually have a budget for the grand prize. Only three guys in Japan have ever been able to finish this thing.

amazing race

The Amazing Race

Two-person teams group up in this high-speed trip around the world, rushing through a stunning array of exotic and fascinating locales so quickly they don’t even get to take pictures. They may, however, get to scream at local taxi drivers, plead with annoyed airplane ticket agents, sample some of the most bizarre and vomit-inducing local dishes, and navigate through a gauntlet of baffling puzzles. If they are really lucky, they’ll get the opportunity to shave off all their hair. The winning team gets another vacation that’s a little less stressful. We hope.


Keeping Up With the Kardashians

A family of very rich, gorgeous, shallow, self-absorbed attention whores order a camera crew to follow them around as they go through their everyday lives, showing off how very rich, slutty, trashy and devoid of basic decency they are. For some odd reason, the media vehemently demands that we pay attention. Apparently, trashy people are fascinating. Nobody seems to be quite sure why any of them are actually famous, since none of them (except Bruce Jenner, who used to be an Olympic athlete, and thus double-qualifies for Dancing With the Stars) have any discernible talents or skills.


19 Kids & Counting

A family of deeply devout bible-thumpers with more children than they can feed have found an ingenious way to pay the bills—they have a camera crew follow them around as they go through their everyday lives, showing off how hard-working, thrifty, God-fearing, chaste, virtuous, and (above all) fertile they all are. Since revenues from the show have enabled this enormous family to take televised trips to such places as Great Britain, Japan, and New York, it’s hard to argue with their strategy, even if the show itself is kind of dull. Unfortunately, really nice people are boring—at least on TV. Likely to get canceled when Michelle hits menopause. Or maybe get a lot more interesting.


The Real Housewives of Who the Hell Cares

The county, city or state being featured may change—Orlando, New Jersey, Orange County, Beverly Hills, Miami, God knows where else—but the premise is always the same. Bored housewives in affluent neighborhoods have camera crews follow them around as they go through their everyday lives (anybody see a trend here?), airing their dirty laundry, betraying their husbands, gossiping about their neighbors and making haphazard attempts to raise their unfortunate children, who must be getting teased mercilessly at school as all this crap comes to light. These people are both trashy AND boring.


The Apprentice

Donald Trump enlists an array of aspiring business moguls and attempts to teach them the Art of the Deal. No, that’s just the sales pitch. The contestants have to put together marketing campaigns for various products. The show is actually one long advertisement for the businesses and corporations that are being showcased. The winner is the one that Lord God Trump thinks can make him the most money. When Trump brings in a crew of has-been actors, singers and reality stars as contestants, it’s called Celebrity Apprentice.

biggest loster

The Biggest Loser

Overweight contestants compete to see which person can lose the most weight through sensible diet and vigorous exercise. The upside of competing on this show—contestants generally are likely to lose a lot of weight and leave the show much healthier. The down side—they have to spill their guts to the entire nation in order to reap those benefits. Stepping on that scale in your underwear can be deliciously humiliating. Sob stories make for more inspiring transformations. The winner is… anybody who actually loses that weight and manages to keep it off safely. One has to wonder how many eliminated contestants drowned their sorrows in a gallon of ice cream.



Aspiring chefs from across the country attempt to make mouth-watering dishes while Gordon Ramsey screams obscenities at them and makes them wish they’d never been born. Apparently, being insulted by Gordon Ramsey is a highly prized privilege; other shows which feature Ramsey’s rants include Kitchen Nightmares, Hell’s Kitchen, Hotel Hell, and The F-Word. The winner eventually manages to escape from Gordon Ramsey. The losers get to escape sooner.

For more Claire Abraham, check out her website – Recapper’s Delight!



You may also like...