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The 10 Greatest Signature Challenges in Reality TV History

From Snatch Game to Restaurant Wars, these challenges have been crucial to the success of their respective shows.
  • Clockwise: America's Next Top Model, Top Chef, Survivor, and RuPaul's Drag Race  (Photos: Everett Collection/Bravo/World of Wonder/CBS; Primetimer graphic)
    Clockwise: America's Next Top Model, Top Chef, Survivor, and RuPaul's Drag Race (Photos: Everett Collection/Bravo/World of Wonder/CBS; Primetimer graphic)

    There's a lot that goes into a reality TV series attaining long-lasting popularity. Iconic cast members, moments of high emotion and drama, great hosts, and memorable quotes. But for a competitive reality series, the design and impact of the competitions themselves are a big part of it. The best reality competition shows design challenges to test their contestants, have them prove their worthiness to win, and give the audience at home something to marvel at. Often, long-running reality competitions land on certain challenges that are so popular, and so crucial to success for the contestants, that they become that show's signature challenge.

    Whether it's high-level chefs working in teams to run a pop-up dining service or drag queens trying out their best celebrity impersonations or aspiring models allowing their wild-eyed mentor to play around with their aesthetics like they're her own personal Barbie dolls, signature challenges take on the personalities of their shows — or sometimes help shape them.

    We've selected and ranked the 10 best signature challenges from the reality TV era that kicked off with Survivor in the summer of 2000. To make the list, the challenge had to appear consistently (that is, in nearly every season), be designed to test the skills relevant to winning the season as a whole, and be exceedingly entertaining.

    10. The Great British Baking Show: Patisserie Week

    First Instance: Series 2, Episode 7
    Number of Instances: 11

    The Great British Baking Show features a lot of recurring challenges, and for good reason. There are only so many kinds of baking that can be done, and the basics like breads, pastries, and biscuits should probably be established before the competition goes into more complicated techniques and questionable approaches to other cultures. Patisserie Week comes toward the end of the season, almost always right before the final week (only series 1, 4, and 6 have not included Patisserie Week as the semifinal challenge).

    The value of the patisserie challenge is that it calls upon the bakers to diversify their skills. They're being asked to produce not just one kind of confection but a variety of pastries, sweets, tarts, et cetera, which you might find in a cute little French bakery. Unlike shows like Project Runway or Top Chef, The Great British Baking Show isn't meant to be a pipeline to a career as a professional baker. While many contestants do go that route, the show is at its heart about the home baker. But Patisserie Week is the one challenge that asks the bakers to approximate what they might be able to do with a storefront of their own.

    Coming so close to the finale, the Star Baker for Patisserie Week doesn't correlate all that strongly with the ultimate winner of the season. That's more a product of reality TV's quirks than anything, where the shows like to elevate a contender the week before the finale to have the ultimate winner seem more surprising. The only Patisserie Week winners to win the overall trophy have been Nadiya in Series 6 and Peter in Series 11, and in Nadiya's case, Patisserie Week came two episodes before the finale.

    Weak correlation to the winners or not, though, Patisserie Week remains the show's most impressive gauntlet, and the one that most reliably tests the bakers at the skills most fundamental to their overall success.

    Notable winners of Patisserie Week: Richard (Series 5), Nadiya (Series 6), Ruby (Series 9), Crystelle (Series 12)

    9. The Bachelor: Hometown Visits

    First Instance: Season 1, Episode 4
    Number of Instances: 46

    While ABC's venerable dating franchise doesn't have the same kind of competitive structure as some of the other shows on this list, it does keep to a pretty rigid schedule, with its rose ceremonies and fantasy suites and overnight dates. And every season, usually when there are four contestants remaining, we get the hometown visits, which tend to be the most illuminating and entertaining of the shows' recurring signposts.

    The hometown visits are exactly what they sound like: the bachelor accompanies each of the remaining contestants to their hometowns, where they meet the contestants' family and friends and are sized up accordingly. Structurally, it's a recipe for drama and supreme awkwardness. The central conceit of The Bachelor franchise depends on everybody involved buying into the fact that this bachelor is conceivably falling in love with multiple contestants at the same time, on the road to selecting the one he will want to marry. The hometown visits reliably puncture this fantasy bubble, as the bachelor is often faced with parents who are rightfully skeptical about this entire enterprise. Suddenly, the veil that's been draped over the show falls away, and it's just a midwestern dad faced with the guy who is — by definition of the show — likely stringing his daughter along.

    It's heteronormatively regressive — as everything on this show is, to be honest — as it is to wait on tenterhooks to see if parents will give their blessing to their daughter's relationship, it's also great fun for the viewers. You get to see Arie Luyendyk sweat it out when faced with a military family. Or Peter Weber get confronted by an ex-girlfriend with a story to tell about one of his prospective brides.

    Hometown visits are the moment when the audience finally gets to have a surrogate stand in for them and be just as skeptical about these relationships as they are. The Bachelor franchise is as much about the audience getting to stand in judgment of these relationships as it is about people finding true love. Hometown visits are finally when that judgment gets reflected on screen.

    Notable Hometown Visits: Jason Mesnick (season 13); Ben Higgins (season 20); Peter Weber (season 24)

    8. Big Brother: Double Eviction Night

    First Instance: Season 7, Episode 24
    Number of Instances: 24

    The challenges on Big Brother were for so long pretty dubious. The early seasons saw a lot of obstacle courses full of splatter and slime, like a grown-up version of Nickelodeon's Double Dare. As the show evolved, in an effort to even the playing field, Head of Household competitions became Q&A booths, leading the houseguests to spend their downtime during the week studying up on the show's minutiae to date. The show's vast studio-lot backyard has allowed for oversized games of mini-golf, giant tilting walls that the houseguests have to hang onto, or the recurring tiki god known as "OTEV." Big Brother has blithely recycled its competitions so much that they've lost a lot of their luster, particularly since competitions are meant to be only a fraction of the show's social-strategy game.

    This is why the true signature challenge of Big Brother is the double-eviction week. Once or twice during a season, host Julie Chen will surprise the remaining houseguests on eviction night with the news that following that episode's eviction vote, the players will compete in a fast-forwarded week of competitions — Head of Household and Veto — followed by a second eviction vote.

    For a show that tends to lazily stretch across the entirety of summer like a lizard sunning itself on a rock, Big Brother comes to vibrant, frenzied life for a double eviction. With only minutes to scramble, players are rewarded for having built strong alliances. On the flip side, without the expanse of a week for plans to go awry, double eviction night is often the chance to make big moves and betrayals to happen swiftly, like ripping off a Band-Aid.

    Double Eviction Night isn't one distinct challenge, but rather a whirlwind of two challenges plus a vote, which makes it harder to determine "winners" (though it's certainly easy to know who loses once the eviction votes have been cast). But in most cases, the eventual winner of the season either wins the Head of Household on Double Eviction Night or manages to vote with the majority. On only two occasions has the eventual winner voted incorrectly in the double eviction vote (Josh not voting out Raven in Big Brother 19 and Xavier not voting out Alyssa in Big Brother 23).

    Double Eviction Night is Big Brother at its fastest, hardest, and most intense. And since it comes later in the season, it's an acceleration that's welcomed by the fans, why by this point are ready to get some of these joker houseguests out the door.

    Notable "winners" of Double Eviction Night: Dan betraying Michelle and Ollie in Big Brother 10; Ian winning Head of Household at both double evictions in Big Brother 14; Andy snaking Amanda and then framing Elissa for his vote, leading to her immediate ouster, on Big Brother 15.

    7. Hell's Kitchen: Blind Taste Tests

    First Instance: Season 1, Episode 6
    Number of Instances: 21

    Hell's Kitchen is the nastier, sillier cousin to Top Chef in many ways, a fact that is readily apparent when it comes to the show's signature challenge, the blind taste test. Top Chef has done blind taste tests from time to time as Quickfire challenges. Padma Lakshmi presents the blindfolded contestants with discreet little bowls of tomato paste or soy sauce or lychees, and the winners get a prize of some kind, and the losers get to go on about their business. Not so in Gordon Ramsay's culinary underworld!

    In the world of Hell's Kitchen, the chefs break up into teams, get blindfolded and sound-proofed, and then compete to identify a cluster of four ingredients, tallying points as they go. The winners accrue points for their times. The losers get dropped into a dunk tank. Or shot with a confetti cannon. Or doused in marinara sauce, or chocolate sauce, or turkey gravy. Gordon Ramsay is a sadistic f*ck, and that's what makes Hell's Kitchen's blind taste so much fun.

    The blind taste test is the only challenge to have appeared in all 21 seasons of Hell's Kitchen, and the show treats it with the kind of fanfare befitting the best signature challenges. It's also legitimately challenging. Over the course of those 21 seasons, with over 150 individual chefs having participated in the challenge, only five have ever achieved a perfect guess of all four of their ingredients.

    The challenge has evolved over the years. Sometimes the chefs have to taste ice creams and guess the flavors. Sometimes it's baby food or mashed potatoes. The introduction of the punishments to the losing tasters happened around the middle of the show's continuing run, and it's now hard to imagine the challenge existing without them. Hell's Kitchen's success has never depended on prestige, which frees it up to get sillier when it wants to. Ramsay himself clearly delights in watching the contestants turned into human bowls of pasta, an emotion which transfers to the viewer.

    Notable winners of the Blind Taste Tests:: Justin (Season 10); Milly (Season 14); Wendy (Season 16); Mia (Season 18); Declan (Season 19)

    6. The Challenge: Trivia

    First Instance: Season 6, Episode 10
    Number of Instances: 18

    Few reality competition shows have evolved as dramatically as The Challenge has. What began as a Road Rules knockoff became an elimination-style game of strategy and athletics, with a recurring contestant base that made for long-form friendships, rivalries, and romances. The competitions evolved too. The early seasons were a mix of gross-out spectacle and vertigo-inducing heights challenges. In the modern version of the game, the competitions have settled into a mixture of big-budget movie stunts, with the players aboard flat-bed trucks speeding down an empty highway or Iron Man-style endurance courses. Through the years, though, one competition has broken format, baffled the competitors, and brought host TJ Lavin no end of delight: trivia.

    Trivia began as a kind of palate cleanser, a break from the more highly athletic competitions and a chance for the less brawny to succeed. Its first instance came in the first Battle of the Sexes season and included a strip-if-you-answer-incorrectly element that led to several of the female contestants refusing to participate in protest. When trivia was re-introduced around season 14, the stripping element was thankfully jettisoned. There was no need for it, when merely asking these dunderheaded players to answer simple trivia questions was humiliation enough.

    The Challenge has never selected players for their intellectual acumen, and never is that more clear than in trivia, when fairly easy questions about geography, current events, and even pop culture are fumbled in the most forehead-slapping ways. Players are usually suspended high above a body of water for these trivia quizzes, and when they answer incorrectly, they tend to get dropped from great heights. If only your weekly pub trivia had such high stakes.

    Nobody has more fun with trivia than Lavin, though, whose cackles of pure schadenfreude have become synonymous with this particular challenge. At most, one or two players per season are any good at trivia, and success at this particular challenge doesn't have more than a coincidental relationship with who wins the season, but for a show whose more physical competitions can seem pretty similar to one another, trivia has always stood out from the crowd.

    5. Survivor: The Merge

    First Instance: Season 1, Episode 7
    Number of Instances: 44

    The Survivor merge deserves an asterisk on this list, because it's not exactly a challenge but an entire phase of the game. But seeing as it's the episode that occurs every season that best tests every facet of a player's game and often determines the direction that the second half of the season will take, the merge definitely qualifies as Survivor's signature challenge.

    Of the handful of moments that made Survivor the cultural phenomenon that it was in its first season, the merge episode was one of the most pivotal. When the Tagi alliance of Richard, Sue, Kelly, and Rudy schemed to eliminate Gretchen at the first merged vote, the game was turned on its head. At that point, Gretchen was seen as the most capable and most likable of the Pagong tribe, who were not voting based on strategy but on a vague and shape-shifting sense of who "deserved" to remain in the game, based on performance or sometimes just vibes. By any modern sense of the game of Survivor, Pagong deserved their fate, even wonderful Gretchen, for not playing the game. But it was that merge vote that essentially invented how to play the game.

    From then on, the merge episode has been the apex of strategy, when both tribes become one and the team game shifts to an individual game. Here is where strategy becomes more complex, where strong players go from being assets to being threats, and where alliances can start to shift.

    As Survivor all-star Malcolm Freberg told Primetimer when we interviewed him about the importance of the merge episode in the show’s lore, the merge is "the best example every season of what makes Survivor great."

    Notable merge episodes in Survivor history: Survivor: Borneo — Gretchen voted out; Survivor: All-Stars — Lex voted out; Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains — J.T. voted out; Survivor: Cagayan — Sarah voted out

    4. Project Runway: Unconventional Materials

    First Instance: Season 1, Episode 1
    Number of Instances: 20

    The very first challenge on Project Runway saw Tim Gunn lead the designers to a Gristedes in midtown Manhattan and tell them that all the materials for their very first garment would need to be sourced from that very supermarket. The designers made dresses out of shower curtains, aluminum foil, mop heads, and bubble gum, but the most creative and daring was Austin Scarlet's stunning dress made of corn husks. He won the challenge and set the tone for a series that would be fashion as filtered through the obstacle course of reality TV.

    Over the years, the designers have been tasked to create garments out of greeting cards, parts of a car, newspapers, candy, and flowers. The task at hand is to showcase innovation: how well can a designer's aesthetic shines through when making clothes out of things that are not fabric.

    Materials are chosen using strategy: Some designers stay within the letter of the law while choosing the safest, most fabric-adjacent materials possible (see: all the designers who used seatbelts to make their car-parts garments), while others take a chance on something strange yet striking.

    Project Runway has always been a show that's had to balance the artistry of its contestants with the often silly or crassly commercial requirements of reality TV (design a dress for Barbie!). Unconventional materials challenges allow Project Runway to have its cake and eat it too. No matter how outrageous the materials, there is undeniable skill involved in the transformation of these materials into something wearable. The results can vary wildly from the insane (Wendy Pepper's barely-there candy garment) to the sublime (Daniel Vosovic's garden dress), which is exactly the kind of dichotomy that's made the show such a success.

    Notable Unconventional Materials challenge winners: Austin Scarlett, Season 1: corn husks; Daniel Vosovic, Season 2: flowers; Leanne Marshall, Season 5: car parts

    3. America’s Next Top Model: Makeovers

    First Instance: Season 1, Episode 3
    Number of Instances: 24

    For better or for worse, Tyra Banks had very clear ideas for the paces she wanted to put her prospective models through on America's Next Top Model. Sometimes that meant requiring the contestants to pose with raw meat, sometimes that meant draping the models in spiders, and sometimes that meant deeply questionable choices like having the models pose as sexy corpses. But the one constant through every season was that Tyra required the models to undergo a makeover to her exact specifications. And that's where things got very dramatic (for the models) and fun (for the audience).

    It didn't take long for the makeover episodes of America's Next Top Model to earn a reputation for sadism. In the early years, the image-conscious and emotionally fragile contestants would often weep over a change in hair color or hair length. Did this then lead Tyra and the ANTM producers to cook up ever more extreme makeover options in order to provoke ever more extreme reactions from the models? Who can say for sure? But if you see enough models saddled with Raggedy Ann weaves and Tootie from The Facts of Life wigs, you start to wonder.

    No makeover concept was more notorious than the infamous Rosemary's Baby-inspired Mia Farrow pixie cut. Seemingly every season, Tyra was obsessed with giving one of the models that iconic short hairdo, and almost as reliably, the models had very intense reactions. The shorter the proposed haircut, the sadder the model, at least in the early years. Cassandra's meltdown in Cycle 5 over having her hair cut off was so extreme that she eventually quit the show.

    At some point in the show's run, the more intensely competitive models began to angle for more extreme changes to their own looks. This was partly out of a sense of adventure, but there was also the implication that a more extreme makeover signaled that Tyra had big plans for that model's future.

    Notable ANTM Makeovers: Cassandra (Cycle 5); Brittany (Cycle 8); Bianca (Cycle 9)

    2. RuPaul's Drag Race: Snatch Game

    First Instance:Season 2, Episode 4
    Number of Instances: 14 (plus seven all-star seasons)

    With its cavalcade of celebrity impressions and high likelihood for sublime comedy or utter disaster, it's no surprise that the Snatch Game caught on so quickly as the signature challenge for RuPaul's Drag Race. Initiated in the show's second season, Snatch Game is a challenge that fits perfectly into RuPaul's drag aesthetic: it's a '70s throwback to the bawdy game show Match Game, with the queens each delivering their best celebrity impersonations and then engaging in comedic fill-in-the-blank games.

    Have most of the queens who have participated in Snatch Game ever seen an episode of the original Match Game? Highly doubtful! But Ru does love a throwback, which is also why some of the most successful Snatch Game impersonations have been of old-school celebrities. Jinkx Monsoon is almost certainly the greatest Snatch Game competitor of all time, with her uncanny turns as Little Edie (from Grey Gardens) and Judy Garland. Old Hollywood is a recurring Snatch Game theme, with winning turns from Alaska Thunderf*ck as Mae West on All-Stars 2 and Alexis Michelle as Liza Minnelli.

    Snatch Game isn't just about a flawless recreation of celebrity, though. It's, at its heart, an improv comedy challenge. The best Snatch Game performers are able to volley back Ru's prompts as well as interject snappy rejoinders throughout play of the game. The most disastrous Snatch Game turns come from the queens who concentrate so hard on nailing the visual resemblance to their character but are dead fish when it comes to making that character funny. (The queens have thankfully stopped attempting Beyoncé after numerous failed attempts.)

    Each Snatch Game installment includes the sweet and the sour. The same Snatch Game that featured Chad Michaels' incomparable Cher also featured Phi Phi O'Hara's baffling Lady Gaga. It's the entire Drag Race experience in one challenge, from looks to attitude to comedy. Which is why success in Snatch Game strongly correlates to success in the season overall.

    Notable Snatch Game Winners: Jinkx Monsoon (Season 5): Little Edie; BenDeLaCreme (Season 6): Dame Maggie Smith; Aquaria (Season 10): Melania Trump

    1. Top Chef: Restaurant Wars

    First Instance:Season 1, Episode 7
    Number of Instances: 23

    No signature challenge has evolved more than Top Chef ‘s Restaurant Wars. The sense of awe and respect that the contestants have for the challenge is astounding considering what a minefield it often is, and how often promising chefs have been sent home for it.

    The concept is one of Top Chef's best: split the remaining chefs up into teams (usually teams of four, but not always) and task them with creating the concept, menu, and dinner service for a restaurant. As the best challenges do, this one calls upon all of the qualities of a Top Chef: a strong culinary vision, an ability to communicate that vision to a team, and the skill to transfer that vision to the plate. This is all combined with the ultimate X factor, which is that the chefs are also responsible for front-of-the-house service. And that's where everything tends to fall apart.

    Chaos tends to descend during Restaurant Wars. Teammates have to rely on each other to help finish their dishes, and that goes double for the poor front-of-the-house sap, who often finds their own dish given short shrift by their teammates. It's a recipe for disaster. Pun intended.

    Restaurant Wars has been a malleable challenge over the years. Season 4 altered the concept into Wedding Wars, upping the pressure significantly. Seasons 10 and 17 tasked the chefs with a pre-Restaurant Wars challenge as a kind of ramp-up to the main event. Restaurant Wars has been presented as two-part spectaculars, and on one occasion, in Season 3, the chefs were forced to do Restaurant Wars all over again when everybody screwed up the first time.

    Countless Restaurant Wars challenges have hinged on whether the judges were kept waiting too long, whether the other diners were satisfied with the attentiveness of the staff, or whether the dishes were churned out at an acceptable rate. The graveyard of promising Top Chef contenders who were eliminated because they chose the front-of-the-house role and thus took the fall for their team's failure is a vast one.

    That unpredictability, in which anyone can get sent home after a bad Restaurant Wars, is a big part of why it's such a popular challenge with audiences and a momentous one with contestants. This is the mountain that must be scaled at mid-season in order to hit the home stretch.

    Notable Restaurant Wars Winners: Richard Blais (Season 4 and Season 8); Michael Voltaggio (Season 6); Buddha Lo (Season 20)

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Reality TV, America's Next Top Model, The Bachelor, Big Brother, The Challenge, The Great British Baking Show, Hell's Kitchen, Project Runway, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Survivor, Top Chef