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Exciting and Not-So-New: 8 Reality Series Inspired by Scripted TV Shows

The Real Love Boat is the latest reality competition to take its cues from notable scripted series.
  • Photos: VH1, Bravo, CBS
    Photos: VH1, Bravo, CBS

    With The Real Love Boat debuting this week, we're reminded that it's never too late to revive an old show within a new paradigm. Running from 1977-1986, The Love Boat epitomized a certain type of glossy 1970s network television, loaded with guest stars and episodic romance, corny in its way but also indelible to anyone who grew up watching it. Even in today's reboot-crazed TV culture, you wouldn't think The Love Boat would fit in all that well, but CBS found a way to marry its love-on-the-high-seas premise with the current trend of reality TV shows that place sexy singles in tropical locales and have them couple up for sport.

    This practice of adapting a scripted TV show into an opportunity for reality TV isn't exactly new, though credit due to CBS for making the most out of The Love Boat's iconic opening credits. TV shows have been borrowing ideas from one another for years, and reality TV in particular has taken plenty of inspiration from scripted series. There are of course the more well-established connections, like how Survivor was inspired in part by a desire to do a live-action Swiss Family Robinson or how The Amazing Race is basically Around the World in 80 Days but with real-life bickering couples who realize somewhere between Caracas and Barcelona that they should probably break up.

    But then there are connections that are far more overt, often made explicit in the titles of the shows themselves. The Real Love Boat is the latest show to pick up on the theme or vibe of a scripted show and turn it into reality gold (and/or trash). Some were dumb, some were great, some changed the course of an entire cable network's programming forever — and some introduced the world to a future Oscar winner. Let's take a tour!

    Reality Show: The Real Housewives
    Based On: Desperate Housewives
    When The Real Housewives of Orange County premiered in 2006, ABC's Desperate Housewives was on its second season and a timely inspiration for this new Bravo show that was also about five women who all lived near each other (a gated community in Fairview rather than a cul-de-sac in Fairview). When Bravo's then-president Lauren Zalaznick announced the Real Housewives premiere date, that inspiration was explicit: "From Peyton Place to Desperate Housewives, viewers have been riveted by the fictionalized versions of such lifestyles on television. Now, here is a series that depicts real-life 'desperate' housewives with an authentic look at their compelling day-to-day drama." Now, over 15 years later, Bravo is a network that stands on a foundation of desperate housewives, from Orange County to Dallas to Potomac to Salt Lake City, even as far as Dubai.

    Reality Show: Laguna Beach
    Based On: The O.C.
    If the inspiration for MTV's Laguna Beach wasn't already clear, it was made plain in the show's extended title: Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County. Hoping to cash in on the popularity of the Fox teen drama The O.C., MTV's docu-soap purported to be the "real" version, even if it was glossier and soapier than any of the network's reality programming up until that point. Laguna even tried to make a Ryan Atwood-style other-side-of-the-tracks thing happen, with brokedown-car-driving Kristin Cavillari pitted against beachside-house-dwelling Lauren Conrad, though that angle was abandoned pretty quickly in favor of love triangles and the tribulations of barely articulate Orange County teens.

    Reality Show: The Real Gilligan's Island
    Based On: Gilligan's Island
    The era of mid-aughts reality TV was a lot of throwing concepts against the wall to see what stuck. The success of Survivor, with its castaways marooned on an island, must've gotten someone's gears turning — in 2004, TBS decided to merge nostalgia for the classic Gilligan's Island sitcom with the new reality trend. The show had a rather fascinating structure, where contestants first battled to be "cast" as one of the seven Gilligan's Island archetypes (the millionaire, the professor, the skipper), with actual celebrities like Nicole Eggert and Rachel Hunter competing to play Ginger ("the movie star"). Once the cast was determined, the players then competed Survivor-style for the prize. It only lasted two seasons but it lasted two whole seasons!

    Reality Show: In Search of The Partridge Family
    Based On: The Partridge Family
    The humble beginnings of even the biggest movie stars will often surprise you, but Oscar-winning actress Emma Stone has probably the weirdest Hollywood breakthrough. She competed for the role of Laurie Partridge in this VH1 reality series that endeavored to cast a brand-new version of the 1970s sitcom about a family band. Then credited as "Emily Stone," she won the role and performed in what was ultimately a failed pilot for a Partridge reboot, before obviously having the last laugh in the form of a hugely successful and lucrative movie career.

    Reality Show: The Real L Word
    Based On: The L Word
    Shortly after Showtime's landmark lesbian drama series The L Word wrapped up its initial run in 2009 (it would later be revived as The L Word: Generation Q in 2019), creator Ilene Chaiken created the reality version of her hit show. With a cast that included 17 main cast members over the course of the show's three seasons, The Real L Word was a docuseries that followed a group of lesbians in L.A., heavily centering on the group's romantic entanglements. The show moved to Brooklyn in its third season before ending in 2012.

    Reality Show: The Glee Project
    Based On: Glee
    That Fox's mega-successful musical comedy series Glee spun off a reality competition to select new cast members felt perfectly in line with Glee's terrifyingly-competitive-musical-theater-kid vibe. Airing on Oxygen for two seasons, The Glee Project was pretty great at finding talent, spotlighting the likes of Blake Jenner, Broadway stars Alex Newell and Lindsay Pearce, and eventual Tony Award-winner Ali Stroker.

    Reality Show: The Real Love Boat
    Based On: The Love Boat
    And so we arrive at a real-life Love Boat. Hosts and real-life spouses Jerry O'Connell and Rebecca Romijn might have otherwise merely hosted yet another reality TV version of Love Island, which is the current reigning champion as far as defining the aesthetics of the reality dating genre (which includes shows like FBoy Island and Too Hot to Handle). It turns out, though, that "Love Island on a Boat" can be packaged pretty successfully as a modern-day reality TV version of The Love Boat. The campier touches, like featuring the Captain, Bartender, and Cruise Director of the ship as major characters, will strive to set the show apart from its dating-competition contemporaries, but it's doubtful any of the sexy young singles playing the Love Boat game ever even saw an episode of the original series.

    Reality Show: Squid Game: The Challenge
    Based On: Squid Game
    This one hasn't debuted yet, but Netflix's mega-successful, Emmy-winning Korean survival drama will reportedly soon spin off a reality competition. Which, yes, definitely sounds insane if you're familiar with what Squid Game is about. It's a bit like greenlighting a show called The Real Hunger Games. According to a recent casting call, the show will cast 456 contestants to compete for a $4.5 million prize, which if they carry it off and this isn't some bizarre and elaborate promotional stunt, would be the largest cash prize in reality TV history. "Strategy, alliances and character are crucial in order to survive," Netflix says, though they also make a point of saying that no one will actually die in this game. Good to know!

    The Real Love Boat premieres on CBS Wednesday October 5th at 9:00 PM ET.

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    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: The Real Love Boat, CBS, Desperate Housewives, Gilligan's Island, Glee, The Glee Project, Laguna Beach, The L Word, The O.C., The Partridge Family, The Real L Word, Squid Game, Squid Game: The Challenge, Emma Stone, Jerry O'Connell, Rebecca Romijn, The Real Housewives Franchise