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Champions and Contenders: Eight Great Reality TV Final Twos

From Drag Race to Idol to Top Chef, these are the combos we’ve loved most.
  • Adam Lambert and Kris Allen in American Idol (FOX); Colby Donaldson and Tina Wesson in Survivor (CBS); Brooke Lynn Hytes and Yvie Oddly in RuPaul's Drag Race (VH1)
    Adam Lambert and Kris Allen in American Idol (FOX); Colby Donaldson and Tina Wesson in Survivor (CBS); Brooke Lynn Hytes and Yvie Oddly in RuPaul's Drag Race (VH1)

    A reality competition can go on for weeks — months! — only to land with a thud if the conclusion isn't satisfying. More often than not, it all comes down to the final two contestants and the journeys that brought them there.  This week's finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race is a prime example of how a great head-to-head final showdown can place a season in the reality show history books. The pairing of Brooke Lynn Hytes and Yvie Oddly made for a compelling narrative, having faced off earlier this season in a dynamite lip sync battle in which the queens tied, while individual strengths powered each to the end. Brooke Lynn was the practically perfect technician; Yvie was the weird-and-wonderful oddball. Either would have made for a tremendous champion.

    Brooke Lynn and Evie join the ranks of other fabulous final twos — not just for Drag Race, but across all reality competition TV.  Here are our picks for the best final matchups from eight classic series:

    American Idol: Kris Allen and Adam Lambert (Season 8)

    A huge part of a compelling final two is about the narrative: How seismic is it that these two are battling it out? In Kris and Adam’s case, it was huge; the two had been best friends all season, and represented a kind of Red State-Blue State union we were all really into in early 2009, circa Barack Obama’s first 100 days. The pair couldn’t have been more different musically, with Kris preferring intimate, acoustic arrangements and Adam going for glam rock. Fans on both sides of the divide were beyond passionate, and Kris’ win inspired all sorts of intense debates online. This was arguably the last year American Idol was culturally relevant in a big way, but what a terrific final note.

    Honorable mentions: Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken (Season 2), Candice Glover and Kree Harrison (Season 12)

    America’s Next Top Model: Eva Pigford and Yaya DaCosta (Cycle 3)

    What’s so impressive about Eva and Yaya is, if you scan the other final two pairings in ANTM history, at least one of each — if not both — has faded into obscurity. Not these two. Eva, who now goes by the last name Marcille, is a politician’s wife and the latest mainstay on The Real Housewives of Atlanta. Meanwhile, Yaya is enjoying a strong acting career, with appearances in movies like The Kids Are All Right and Lee Daniels’ The Butler. She’s currently a series regular on Chicago Med. This alone would likely make them the best final two in show history, but the fact that they were so iconic during their cycle only further earns them our “respeito.”

    Honorable mention: Jaslene Gonzalez and Natasha Galkina (Cycle 8)

    Danielle Reyes, Lisa Donahue on Big Brother 3 (CBS)

    Big Brother: Lisa Donahue and Danielle Reyes (Season 3)

    The thing about Big Brother is that its format rarely gets the best players to the end. Strong players are targeted and evicted, while the best who do make it to the end often do so by bringing along a significantly weaker player to beat. So the great final twos are few and far between. Lisa and Danielle were the rare match where each girl had what the other lacked (to quote ANTM). Danielle was the cunning strategist who took no prisoners in the game or in her confessionals. Her ally Lisa was the socially savvy player who nonetheless made difficult choices, including not voting to let her showmance Eric back in the game so as to not be distracted from her goals. In a fairer world, Danielle, the better player, would have won. But there’s no shame in her losing to Lisa. And hey, Danielle got to come back and play hard on All Stars a few seasons later!

    Honorable mentions: Hayden Moss and Lane Elenburg (Season 12), Kaycee Clark and Tyler Crispen (Season 20)

    Jay McCarroll and Kara Saun on Project Runway (Bravo)

    Project Runway: Jay McCarroll and Kara Saun (Season 1)

    Sometimes, you get it right on the first take. Jay McCarroll and Kara Saun were utter opposites in the competition, with the former being a perpetual bridesmaid (often close, but never winning), and the latter racking up an impressive four wins in just nine episodes. You’d be almost certainly making a losing gamble to bet on Jay. And then he produced one of the most jaw-droppingly great collections in show history, a colorful winter line that told a story from front to back. Kara Saun’s collection — somewhat bafflingly inspired by The Aviator — was full of gorgeous pieces, but couldn’t compare to Jay’s. The underdog story makes this Project Runway’s most memorable final showdown.

    Honorable mentions: Christian Siriano and Rami Kashou (Season 4), Leanne Marshall and Korto Momulu (Season 5), Dom Streater and Alexandria von Bromssen (Season 12)

    RuPaul’s Drag Race: Raja and Manila Luzon (Season 3)

    Fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race will often cite track records when arguing for their favorites in the finale — it’s why a large portion of the fanbase wanted Brooke Lynn to win this year, for instance. Only once have the finalists been statistically tied: Raja and Manila in Season 3. The two dominated all season, with Raja’s wins coming throughout the competition, while Manila came in strong near the end to ace the last few challenges. Crowning either would’ve been fair, judging simply by scorecard, making this the tightest matchup ever. That they were friends and part of the same clique all season, the Heathers, only made their pairing at the end more meaningful.

    Honorable mentions: Sasha Velour and Peppermint (Season 9), Brooke Lynn Hytes and Yvie Oddly (Season 11)

    So You Think You Can Dance: Benji Schwimmer and Travis Wall (Season 2)

    Season 1 of So You Think You Can Dance was a beta of sorts for the program, with a wonky voting system that saw the by-a-mile best Blake McGrath cut just before the finale. Season 2 saw the FOX reality program introduce a new system and a new host — superstar Cat Deeley — while the contestants brought their collective A-game. None were better, though, than Benji and Travis. The swing-dancer and contemporary mover inspired fan pandemonium; rather impressively, the guys never let the supposed rivalry interfere with them, and instead elevated each other every step of the way. Benji won, while Travis has gone on to be one of Hollywood’s preeminent choreographers. A happy ending for both!

    Honorable mention: Melanie Moore and Sasha Mallory (Season 8)

    Survivor: Tina Wesson and Colby Donaldson (Season 2)

    Tina and Colby represented two divergent ways to make it to the end: Colby was a friendly golden boy whose athletic prowess won him a string of immunity challenges, while Tina was the unassuming mom who pulled in allies with one arm and knifed them with the other. That the jury ended up recognizing the skill in Tina's game over Colby's was a good omen for Survivor's long-term longevity as a strategy game.

    Honorable mention: James "J.T." Thomas Jr. and Stephen Fishbach (Season 18)

    Top Chef: Brooke Williamson and Shirley Chung (Season 14)

    Top Chef: Charleston was something of a miracle. The central twist of the season — rookies vs. veterans — flopped hard, with the returning cheftestants utterly bulldozing the newbies. (Not one made it to the final four.) Despite this, the season remained compelling throughout, on the back of some of the best cooking the judges had ever tasted and the audience had ever seen. Chief among the best chefs were Brooke, a runner-up from Season 10, and Season 11 third-placer Shirley. Like many pairs on this list, the two were stylistic opposites: Brooke was a technician, while Shirley was emotionally driven in her food. Though it was easy to admire Shirley’s tremendous heart, Brooke’s terrific final meal plus a comeback narrative (she’d been eliminated, but let back in through the spin-off web program Last Chance Kitchen) proved overpowering. Still, watching Shirley break through emotionally with her mom on the strength of her final meal, you truly got the feeling that each won in the way most important to them.

    Honorable mention: Michael Voltaggio and Bryan Voltaggio (Season 6)

    Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles.

    TOPICS: RuPaul’s Drag Race, American Idol, America's Next Top Model, Big Brother, Project Runway, So You Think You Can Dance, Survivor, Top Chef, Reality TV