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Ten Moments That Defined Reality TV in 2021

Unscripted series found new ways to innovate and excite this year.
  • Photos: E!, Paramount+, Bravo, CBS
    Photos: E!, Paramount+, Bravo, CBS

    It was a great year for television in general, but it was arguably an even better year for reality TV. With much of the world still mired in the pandemic, reality television found new ways to innovate and excite, whether that meant shaking up formats à la Survivor, teeing up storylines with a larger cultural impact (Big Brother, The Real World Homecoming), or delivering pure, unadulterated chaos, as is the norm on Selling Sunset and The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. Here's a look back at ten of the most memorable reality television moments of the year, listed in chronological order:

    The Real World Homecoming: Becky with the Bad Take

    That ain't it, Becky. (Photo: Paramount+)

    The Real World: Homecoming's first season was fascinating for eight billion reasons, especially if you came of age in the era of television defined by the groundbreaking MTV series. The reunion of the roommates from the original New York season could have been snakebitten from the break, filming in the middle of the COVID pandemic, and in fact, cast member Eric Nies tested positive and had to be quarantined in a hotel and limited to video visits with his old loftmates.

    The vibes between this particular set of roommates have remained remarkably familial over the years, a closeness that suffused most of the season. But that closeness was punctured by the season's most headline-worthy moment, when the cast was shown footage from some of the original season's arguments about race. They had to know a reckoning about that season's racial arguments would resurface, especially given the current sociopolitical environment. Some cast members, like Julie, were prepared with self-reflection, generosity, and humility. And then there was Becky, who … wasn't. After an episode spent describing her nouveau relationship to medical quackery and theoretical physics (not to mention her contention that she'd been communing with the ghost of John Lennon during her original stay), Becky proceeded to get her back up with Kevin about systemic racism and why she considers herself exempt from white privilege because she took some Brazilian dance classes. It was a train wreck, it was deeply sad, but it also, in that moment, it recaptured the charge that the original Real World season had brought to our TV sets decades ago. —Joe Reid

    Keeping Up with the Kardashians Ends After 20 Seasons

    Say what you will about the show's titular stars — everyone has — but there’s no denying that E!’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians forever altered the reality television and pop culture landscape. The June finale marked the end of an era for the world’s most famous reality TV family, and while the actual sendoff was slightly underwhelming, their Housewives-style reunion with Andy Cohen was anything but. For the first time, the Kardashian-Jenners were forced to answer tough questions about their relationship with Caitlyn Jenner, the supposed “Kardashian Kurse” on men who get involved with the family, and the things they fought to keep out of the E! show over the course of its 14-year run.

    The Kardashians are taking a break from reality TV for the moment, exploring Pete Davidson’s native New York and wedding planning, but they’ll be back on the small screen in 2022 with a new Hulu series that’s being billed as “an entirely different concept” from Keeping Up with the Kardashians. —Claire Spellberg Lustig

    Below Deck Sailing Yacht Serves Up Maury-Style Baby Drama

    2021 wasn’t the most memorable year for Below Deck, but franchise newcomer Below Deck Sailing Yacht attempted to carry the load with its Dani-Jean-Luc baby storyline. The second stew and deckhand coupled up early in the season, and when Dani announced that she had a baby nine months after leaving the boat, viewers (rightly) suspected that Jean-Luc was the father. When it came time for the reunion, JL was nowhere to be found, prompting Dani to explain that her ex “thinks it’s not his child” and that he “doesn’t want to have anything to do with it.” However, in a last-minute twist, JL agreed to speak with Andy Cohen about the controversy (“Five days after the reunion was recorded, Jean-Luc found time in his work schedule to speak with Andy,” read a shady title card) but his attempt to launder his image went awry as he repeatedly insisted he has a right to “question” whether he’s the father, despite seemingly making little effort to take a paternity test — or do anything else to help Dani. When all was said and done, viewers were left with little sympathy for JL and plenty of praise for Andy Cohen, who managed to turn what could have been a salacious Maury-like storyline into an emotional and thoughtful reunion. —CSL

    RuPaul's Drag Race: Laganja Drops In, Turns It Out

    Back in Drag Race's sixth season, Laganja Estranja was something of a punching bag, both for fans and the other queens. Her aggressive affect and ability to take all slights incredibly personally made her an easy choice for top villain (in a season that was full of them). Seven years later, however, she returned to the Drag Race runway as a lip-sync assassin in the third episode of All-Stars 6, where she faced her season six castmate Trinity K. Bonet. Laganja's entrance alone would have made highlight reels, as the entranceway stood empty for several long seconds before Ms. Estranja leapt from on high, landing in a split, and causing judges and competitors alike to nearly fall out of their chairs.

    But it was the performance that followed that forever changed Laganja's Drag Race legacy, as she proceeded to turn it out with an intricately choreographed routine to Dua Lipa's "Physical," serving body, flexibility, athleticism, and most crucially of all, confidence. For a queen who'd seemed so beaten down by this show seven years earlier, Laganja took to that stage and held the entire room in her hand for two minutes of drag excellence. Redemption arcs on reality TV are a dime a dozen, but without even being a contestant, Laganja stepped into All-Stars 6 and emerged as the one thing everyone on that show seeks to be: a queen. —JR

    My Unorthodox Life: Miriam Haart Mixes Business with Pleasure

    Julia Haart may be the fashion mogul at the center of My Unorthodox Life, but her youngest daughter and new intern Miriam was the true star of the breakout Netflix reality show. In the third episode, Miriam brings a date to a party with her co-workers, and the two proceed to make out on a couch in the center of the room for… a very long time. When Miriam’s older sister Batsheva tells her to be “mindful” of her surroundings, Miriam accuses her of being a homophobic prude, a reaction that completely ignores the fact that, once again, she’s at a work party with her bosses. —CSL

    Big Brother: The Cookout Ate Well

    The 23rd season of Big Brother may have represented the culmination of the longest learning curve in reality TV history. After CBS's edict to cast their reality shows with at least 50% people of color, the show that's been running since the summer of 2000 finally began to give their Black contestants a real chance at this game of social politics that all too often had worked to exclude minority contestants. Given the chance, the BB23 cast members ran with it, with the six Black houseguests forming an alliance called The Cookout in the very first week, and through shrewd game management — most of it from a strategy devised by 40-year-old phlebotomist Tiffany Mitchell — they ended up as the final six players in the game. It was, in their estimation, the only way they could ensure a Black Big Brother winner, something that hadn't happened in theshow's 22 previous seasons. Besides the landmark nature of The Cookout's success, no alliance in the history of the show has ever done better, and while some may have wanted certain members of The Cookout to finish better than others (ahem, justice for Tiffany and Hannah), watching this band of rivals celebrate what their collective was able to accomplish was nothing short of inspiring. —JR

    The Great British Baking Show: Paul Hands It to Crystelle

    For the first several weeks of this year's Great British Baking Show, the Brits and their baked goods were besieged by a pair of dominating contestants from the old Axis Powers: friendly German tinkerer Jurgen and Italian maestro Giuseppe. It seemed for a while like nobody else under the tent could touch them. Which is why it came as such a surprise — and a delightful one at that — when Pastry Week came along and Crystelle, the 26-year-old Londoner, not only won her first ever Star Baker designation, but she earned her first "Hollywood Handshake" in a most unexpected way. Now, fans and critics alike have all sorts of opinions on the role that Paul Hollywood has taken on in the post-Mary Berry years, his domination of the judging, and the ascendance of the Hollywood Handshake as a concrete marker of success. Is the Handshake too much of a thing? Almost certainly? Was it a thrill to watch Crystelle finally get one? Absolutely. Particularly in the manner in which it went down, coming at the showstopper phase; 95% of all Hollywood Handshakes are delivered during signature bakes, when the baker is in close proximity and Paul can play it all cool and be like "I got something in my pocket for you surprise! it's a manual show of respect." Paul did manage to maintain that element of surprise, as he called Crystelle up under the guise that something was wrong, only to spring the Handshake on her. Crystelle's honest astonishment and pride was the single best reaction of a very good season. —JR

    Survivor: Xander Pulls a Fake One

    Reactions to the new season of Survivor have been mixedto say the least, with a sizeable portion of its loudest online fans hollering about all the new twists and turns that make strategizing more challenging, and threw some chaos and luck into the mix. Love the new advantages or hate them, though, they absolutely contributed to the most exciting tribal council of the season. Three advantages were played in total, including Liana attempting to use her Knowledge Is Power to steal Xander's idol, only for him to reveal it as a fake via a flashback to earlier in the episode. If Survivor is going to advantage-wild, at least make the outcomes this unhinged and thrilling. This moment sure did. —JR

    The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City: Panic In the Beauty Lab Parking Lot

    It’s no exaggeration to say Jen Shah’s arrest was the Bravo moment of the year. When news of Shah’s arrest first broke in late March, fans learned that The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City was filming that day, although it wouldn’t be until November that we found out just how much Bravo’s cameras captured — and just how incriminating it would look. As the ladies waited aboard a luxury van destined for Vail, Colorado, Jen received a phone call, after which she quickly removed her mic pack (red flag) and insisted she had to leave, as her husband Sharrief was in the hospital with “internal bleeding.” A few hours later, the Housewives received a breaking news alert: Jen Shah had been charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering for her alleged role in a telemarketing scheme that specifically targeted the elderly (she has since denied the charges). While RHOSLC didn’t film the actual arrest — that seems to have taken place along the highway, shortly after Jen left the van — the Shahs’ home security footage captured the moment when her home was raided and her children were escorted outside by heavily armed officers. Producers also taped the chaos outside both the van and her house as authorities from various jurisdictions, including the NYPD, tried to locate Jen.

    Subsequent episodes of RHOSLC have focused on the aftermath of Jen’s arrest and her efforts to clear her name, but nothing has matched the intensity and drama of the moment itself. As Jen says in the show’s opening credits, “The only thing I’m guilty of is being Shah-mazing!” —CSL

    Selling Sunset: This One's For the Dogs

    Brett Oppenheim reads a terribly embarrassing poem to his dogs, Niko and Zelda, at their birthday party. (Photo: Netflix)

    Lest we needed any more proof that Selling Sunset takes place in an alternate reality, Season 4 saw Jason and Mary throw a birthday party for their two dogs (it’s a joint-custody-type situation), Niko and Zelda. In one of the most embarrassing moments committed to film in the 21st century, Jason, completely unironically, recites a poem he wrote to his dogs that rhymes “grown up” with “pup.” Some really high-level thinking going on at the Oppenheim Group!

    Sadly, the good vibes didn’t last long because Christine and Emma got into a fight about their mutual boyfriend from eight years ago that Christine has decided she’s now mad about. Selling Sunset, you crazy for this one. —CSL

    TOPICS: 2021 In Review, Below Deck Sailing Yacht, Big Brother, The Great British Baking Show, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, My Unorthodox Life, The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, The Real World Homecoming, RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars, Selling Sunset, Survivor