What makes a great reality TV competition even better? How about an all-stars season that gathers the best competitors — or at least the most dramatic — to take another crack at the win? At their best, all-star seasons can take the thrill of the original show and crank it up several degrees. Not only are the players competing at a higher level, but they've all come back a bit more aware of how to play the game and how to redeem themselves from their previous failings.
While a bunch of reality shows have gone the all-stars route — several of them many times — only a handful can be the best of the best. Note: we're only counting American reality series (sorry, Big Brother Canada), and we're only counting full all-stars seasons, not seasons where there was a combination of new players and veterans (sorry, Survivor: Micronesia). These ten pure all-stars seasons are the cream of the crop:
After fourteen seasons getting a mainstream network TV audience into ballroom dancing via the prism of C-List celebrities, Dancing with the Stars brought back 13 of its former contestants — including six former champions — to rumba again for the American public. And while the cast did have a few filler contestants there to grab headlines (Pamela Anderson, Bristol Palin, likely the last time those two names will be placed in context together), the high level of competition was pretty thrilling. Even maligned Season 1 winner Kelly Monaco returned, having upped her dance game several levels.
The only all-star installment of the long-running America's Next Top Model had all the makings of a thrilling season full of some of the show's most memorable personalities, but it ended up mired in controversy when finalist Angelea Preston was disqualified (it was rumored that she'd initially won the season) after it was revealed that she'd once worked as an escort. Still, the season featured some great models (Allison Harvard; Lisa D'Amato; Bre Scullark) and the notoriously insane "Pot Ledom" (that's "Top Model" backwards) song challenge.
While last summer's second Big Brother all-stars season was an unmitigated disaster for reasons that had nothing to do with the pandemic, the first season of Big Brother All-Stars was … well, better. That season featured some of the best, most competitive, most strategic players to ever play the game, from diabolical doctor Will Kirby to Machiavellian Danielle Reyes to the merciless Alison Irwin and blonde bombshell Janelle Pierzina. The clash of personalities was delicious … until some of those legends started knocking each other out early. The over-dominance of the Season 6 alliance dampered the season a bit, but the real drawback, especially in retrospect, was the triumph of winner Mike "Boogie" Malin, who was later found guilty of felony stalking his former BB best pal Will.
The Challenge is kind of a gray area when it comes to reality-show all-stars seasons. After all, the concept and primary appeal of The Challenge is that cast members come back year after year, building long, complex relationships and rivalries, amassing track records and multi-season narratives. And yet when Paramount+ launched its own edition of the series, populated largely with old-school veterans of the show's first ten seasons or so, it was billed explicitly as an "All-Stars" affair, and indeed it behaved more like a classic all-stars reality season than any other season of The Challenge, with a bunch of middle-aged former partiers gathered back to compete in the kinds of extreme-sports and endurance challenges that they never had to face in the older, low-fi seasons of the show. The dissonance proved to be thrilling once we got past the fear that one of these old people was going to get killed by a competition, and the finale was one of the more satisfying outcomes of any season of The Challenge.
The "second chances" season of Survivor featured 20 former players who had a) never won before, and b) not been invited back yet, all of whom were selected for the show by a fan vote. The resulting cast of viewer favorites turned out to be the most strategically aggressive and competitively lively casts in show history. The season spotlighted both new-school faves as well as some original-seasons characters making good on long-ago promise. The results were some all-time great moments (Kelley Wentworth playing her immunity idol!) and a top-to-bottom great season of Survivor.
After a pair of strong seasons in All-Stars 3 and All-Stars 4 that began promisingly but ended with a lot of fan frustration, Drag Race aired its 5th all-stars season during the 2020 pandemic, giving fans in lockdown reason to cheer. The season was something of a rail-to-rail victory lap for season nine finalist Shea Coulee, but not for a lack of top-tier drag from the likes of Jujubee, Miz Cracker, and Alexis Mateo, as well as some great made-for-TV drama — Derrick Barry busting out the term "pig in a wig" in episode one really got the season off to a perfect start.
The first Top Chef all-star affair was one of the most impeccably cast all-star seasons in reality TV history, chock full of super talented chefs who came up just short in their original seasons. With a chef as talented as season two's Elia Aboumrad going out first, you knew the competition level was insane. Add to that the fact that Anthony Bourdain was added to the judging panel for the entire season and you have something epic on your hands. The only drawback with a cast this stacked is if your plentiful faves don't make it til the end. Hence #4.
Now here was a Top Chef all-stars season that ended with fist-pumping triumph, as Melissa King's victory capped one of the most unexpectedly dominant seasons of Top Chef ever. Which isn't to say that hers was the only storyline that mattered. We also got stuff from everyone from dull Voltaggio brother Bryan to comeback queen Stephanie Cmar to fan favorite Lee Anne Wong. We got redemption narratives from Jen Carroll and Lisa Fernandes and some compelling Last Chance Kitchen journeys for Karen Akunowicz and Nini Nguyen. But a huge part of this season's emotional component was a product of it airing during the pandemic, when we all desperately needed a glimpse of the normalcy of the Before Times.
After the disastrous first season of Drag Race All-Stars that was largely loathed by the fans, it's surprising that the show even attempted a second one. But attempt it they did, and to fantastic results. With a cast largely populated with alumni from the hugely successful season five — including fan faves Alaska, Detox, and Alyssa Edwards — along with the wildly popular Katya, the talent level on this season was sky high. Couple that with a most-improved glow up from season two's Tatiana and an epic doubling down on villainy from Phi Phi O'Hara and you have one of the most potent mixes for any Drag Race cast ever. The results were some top tier drag (between Detox's runway looks, Alaska's Snatch Game performance, and the Alyssa/Tatiana lip sync, the highlights kept on coming), and the final Alaska/Katya showdown had fan loyalties tied up in knots.
Twenty seasons in, Survivor reached its peak with a season that capitalized on some of its most memorable long-game narratives but with some fun twists. There was Boston Rob Mariano emerging as an unlikely hero; country boy J.T. succumbing to hubris (and a not inconsiderable amount of misogyny); and former bad-girl Jerri Mathey getting re-cast as an underdog we could all root for. From its very first episode, HvV delivered big moment after big moment, including the single greatest episode of Survivor ever (Parvati and her double idol play) and some truly unexpected narratives. The final three of Parvati (strategic flirt), Russell (aggressive troll), and Sandra (cool customer who gave no fucks) was a thrilling mix, and the eventual crowning of the show's first two-time champion made for a wildly satisfying end.
Of the four pure all-star seasons of Survivor, two seasons fell short of making our list of the best of the best. "Game Changers" (Season 34) had the misfortune of casting some of the show's biggest fan favorites (Sandra! Malcolm!) only to have the season's endgame come down to some of the most dubious casting decisions (Troyzan? Brad?).
Meanwhile, the long-awaited "Winners at War" (Season 40) was an astounding gathering of 20 of the show's former champions, a spectacle worth celebrating, but it was a season that often felt overstuffed, and ultimately one's appreciation of the season likely depended on how much you liked the show's cop-heavy endgame.
Finally there's Project Runway. First it needs to be said just how disappointing the MANY seasons of Project Runway All-Stars have been. From the absence of the flagship show's regular judges to outcomes that often seem predetermined, there's just a massive sense of lost potential when it comes to Project Runway All-Stars. The first season came closest to cracking this top ten, but even that season saw fan favorites Austin and Mondo return with off-putting senses of entitlement that made their triumphs feel slightly sour.
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, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.