In the seven or so years since Netflix began producing original programming, it's established itself in a number of genres: TV drama (House of Cards), TV comedy (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), limited series (Unbelievable), docuseries (Making a Murderer), and feature films (The Irishman). The one area where they've only recently begun making waves is reality television. It's ironic, since reality seems to be the last bastion of relevance for network TV, what with The Bachelor, Survivor, The Masked Singer and The Voice still holding up their ends of the bargain for ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC. But in 2020, with hits like The Circle and Love Is Blind, Netflix has taken some serious strides in reality TV as well.
That's not to say the streaming giant hasn't been putting out reality shows for quite some time. Netflix's reality brand has — like the rest of their offerings — cast a wide net over a variety of formats, subjects, and levels of seriousness. We've broken down the streamers reality offerings into a series of categories and highlighted the most prominent examples. They're not all great shows, but most of them are worth checking out, at least momentarily.
You can't throw an avocado pit on Netflix without hitting a cooking show. They take different forms, from limited-series documentaries like Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat to the many, many seasons of the overseas import The Great British Baking Show. Recently Netflix capitalized on that show's popularity and smartly snapped up one of its champions, Nadiya Hussain, to host Nadiya's Time to Eat. Perhaps Netflix's greatest contribution to the genre has been Nailed It!, the comedic cooking competition hosted by Primetimer favorite Nicole Byer and her adorable French co-conspirator Jacques Torres, wherein terrible amateur home bakers are tasked with incredibly elaborate cake creations and we watch in delight as they fail miserably.
Almost as hot as cooking shows are real estate shows, which range from renovating and flipping homes, to people looking to buy a home, to the realtors and agents who make big money selling high-end houses to rich clients. While shows like House Hunters and Property Brothers remain the top-tier shows in this genre, Netflix has contributed several interesting takes of its own. Instant Hotel shows people who have renovated their homes to become AirBnB-style hotels, and then in an ingenious twist, they swap with the owners of another property and judge each other's hotels. More recently, Selling Sunset is a candid reality series following the employees at a Los Angeles real estate brokerage firm selling multi-million-dollar homes in the Hollywood Hills. Produced by the same people who made The Hills, the series is sleekly produced and dishy as all get out, filling the void that The Hills left so long ago.
Here's where Netflix heavily populates their reality offerings. One the reasons Netflix's hadn't established themselves as a more powerful reality brand until recently is because so many of their shows have been very obvious knock-offs of other, well-established reality successes. This is a trend that seems to have abated of late, but even newer shows like Next in Fashion seem insurmountably indebted to predecessors like Project Runway. The Final Table is a cooking competition that evokes Top Chef. Extreme Engagement tries to capture the "first get engaged, then see if you're compatible" mandate of 90-Day Fiancé. The seafaring adventures of a Deadliest Catch get replicated in Netflix's Battlefish. Even something so singular-sounding as Ultimate Beastmaster feels like an attempt to capture the American Ninja Warrior vibe of extreme athleticism put to a series of tests.
Reality series as a means to help people is a subgenre that can stretch to fit many kinds of shows. Netflix's spin on it has utilized big personalities — whether they be celebrities, boisterous characters, or people with an Ethos about them — around which their shows gravitate. This has manifested in some very different shows, from the revival of Queer Eye, whose mission statement has become less makeover machine and more empathy engine; Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, which sparked joy and also a cultural conversation about clutter and the things we value; and Goop Lab, whose self-improvement message took it down some bizarre, often dubious, but doubtlessly fascinating avenues, all under the ever-curious eye of Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow.
How else to describe shows like The Circle, Love Is Blind, and Too Hot to Handle, each of which took an established reality concept — Big Brother, The Bachelor, and Bachelor in Paradise/Paradise Hotel, respectively — and added twists that essentially forcecontestants to alienate themselves from each other. This manifested as near-total physical isolation on The Circle, not being able to see your fellow contestants on Love Is Blind, and a (weak) prohibition on sexual contact on Too Hot to Handle. These shows represent the latest wave of Netflix reality, and it will be fascinating to see where they push this trend in the age of social distancing.
Perhaps the most surprising subgenre of Netflix reality is the one that celebrates people who are very good at very specific skills by pitting them against each other in a competition where they get evaluated and eliminated. This has been best deployed on shows like Blown Away (elite glass-blowers compete for a cash prize and a residency at the Corning Museum of Glass), Cooked with Cannabis (cooks compete to see who can produce the best weed-infused foods), and the recent The Big Flower Fight (where floral arrangement gets the Great British Baking Show treatment). There are also the shows that test incredibly juvenile skills, such as Flinch, where contestants — you guessed it — compete to see who can resist flinching when tested, and Floor Is Lava, where — like the classic kids game — the floor must be avoided at all costs by contestants, because it's covered by something that looks an awful lot like lava.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor 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, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: Netflix, The Big Flower Fight, Blown Away, The Circle, Cooked with Cannabis, The Final Table, Flinch, Floor Is Lava, The Goop Lab with Gwyneth Paltrow, The Great British Baking Show, Instant Hotel, Love Is Blind, Nadiya's Time to Bake, Nailed It!, Next in Fashion, Queer Eye, Selling Sunset, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, Too Hot to Handle, Ultimate Beastmaster