After a breakout decade in the aughts, the last ten years have been decidedly more low key for reality television. While it has remained ubiquitous, few new franchises made major inroads, with most of the successful series from the previous decade sticking around. We kept on Keeping Up with Kardashians and twirling with the Real Housewives. On the competition side, mainstays like The Amazing Race and Project Runway kept cranking out new seasons. But the Trump presidency nonwithstanding, it does seem like the cultural fascination with reality TV has passed. Which is a shame, because this decade saw some truly excellent reality TV seasons.
With the caveats that I haven't watched every reality TV show, and I limited myself to one season of each show (including just one of the many deserving seasons from multiple Real Housewives cities), I've assembled 10 exemplary installments from the decade. Here are the 10 best reality TV seasons of the '10s.
Of Nailed It!'s five American seasons so far, it's the first holiday edition that stands head-and-shoulders above the rest. This was the season of guest judge Jason Mantzoukas' deranged, repetitive New Year's Eve countdowns, contestant Joe Cogshell's inability to bake a cookie (much to host Nicole Byer's repulsed dismay), and the corny-but-perfect '80s movie slow clap for episode 2 winner Tanya Eby. Byer and head judge Jacques Torres were at their comic best in this season, and production punching bag Wes (“HWHEEEEES!") became an invaluable part of the series. Nailed It! may be a light confection, but when it's at its best, there's nothing sweeter.
The best years of Fox's once-behemoth singing competition were in the 2000s, but that didn't stop 2012's Season 11 from surprising us. Judges Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez, and Randy Jackson were never the best at offering constructive criticism on live shows, but what they did do well — better than any set of judges in show history, in fact — was cast the season. Every member of this top 10, from 10th-place jazzy songstress Erika Van Pelt all the way to eventual winner and gruff folk rocker Phillip Phillips, had something to offer the competition. We got groovy rock numbers from Elise Testone, belty brilliance from young powerhouse Jessica Sanchez, and soulful style from Joshua Ledet. In the spring of 2012, there was no better music on TV than on American Idol. It's a shame that subsequent Fox seasons and the ABC revival couldn't live up to this standard.
Project Runway on Lifetime was largely a show focused on drama over fashion, often to the series' detriment. But Season 8 managed to strike a rare balance between the two, thanks to smart, creative designers like Mondo Guerra, Valerie Mayen, and April Johnston, and compelling characters like Casanova and Ivy Higa. At the exact intersection of design and drama was Gretchen Jones, an earthy designer (fashion bloggers Tom & Lorenzo once called her aesthetic “Lady of the Canyons") who was one of the series' most watchable villains ever. Remember her leadership in one group challenge, followed by leading a group effort to throw designer Michael Costello under the bus, only to be damned publicly by mentor Tim Gunn afterward? Thrilling TV. That Gretchen won over fan-favorite Mondo, after an extensive and gripping debate between the judges (with Michael Kors and Nina Garcia favoring Gretchen, while Heidi Klum and Jessica Simpson favored Mondo), only made the season even more of a ride.
Top Chef's first All Stars season was an unmitigated success for the first 12 episodes. It was a clash of titans from across seven seasons, making up one of the absolute best veteran casts ever assembled on a reality competition series. The challenges were dynamic and well-executed, from the expected staples (Restaurant Wars) to tasks specifically designed to trip up master chefs (rushed dim sum service for contestants who care deeply about presentation). And then the four-part finale happened: a rushed, frustrating affair that saw three female fan favorites eliminated back-to-back-to-back in favor of Richard Blais and Mike Isabella, two macho chefs whose victories felt preordained. Still, those first dozen weeks of the season were inarguably stellar, earning this season a spot on the list.
While the US edition of Big Brother has been much rockier this decade than last, the newer Big Brother Canada has thrived. Borrowing the competitive US format (as opposed to the home-voting one used internationally), BBCAN has become a fan favorite series for its fun, game casts and smart challenge design. Season 5 was the best version of the show yet, as eight alumni came back to battle it out with eight new players. On other reality shows, this rookies vs. vets formula tends to lead to a vet steamroll, but thanks to dynamic players like Season 2's Ika Wong and newbie Dre Gwenaelle, power never settled into just one group's hands for long. The pinnacle of the season was a shocking double eviction that saw Season 3's Sindy Nguyen, manipulated by Ika, target and take out BBCAN Season 2 legend Neda Kalantar. For new Big Brother viewers and old US fans alike, I highly recommend Season 5 — it's the best season of the series you haven't yet seen.
I meditated for a good, long while on which season of Real Housewives deserved the honor of a spot on this list. With lots of love to New York Season 3 (Scary Island, “Money Can't Buy You Class"), Orange County Season 10 (Brooks' faked cancer), and Beverly Hills Season 2 (the entire gripping, devastating Taylor and Russell Armstrong saga), I kept coming back to Atlanta Season 9. This was the first season without so much as a guest appearance from OG Atlanta Housewife Nene Leakes, but the drama was hotter than ever without her. Songwriting mogul Kandi Burruss, a longtime cast member, suddenly found herself embroiled in an accusation of attempting to rape her fellow castmate, Porsha Williams — one that turned out to be entirely fabricated by Porsha's best friend, Housewife Phaedra Parks. The drama was seismic, and it all came to a head in the first, and so far only, four-part Housewives reunion. There are scripted prestige dramas that never deliver such satisfying storytelling as that reunion, which was positively volcanic as Phaedra's actions finally came to light. That this was the season that gave us “Who said that?" only makes it all the more iconic.
GBBS is a requirement for this list — its brand of gentle reality TV competition was the genre's greatest innovation this decade. But which season? You could make a great argument for Season 6, with lovable Tamal Ray and underdog-turned-champion Nadiya Hussain. But I'd go for Season 4, largely thanks to breakout star Ruby Tandoh's remarkable run on the show. An unconfident baker with a ton of raw talent, Ruby's slowly coming into her own made for one of the series' most compelling stories. Yet it was Frances Quinn, she of great skill but constantly put down by judge Paul Hollywood as being all “style over substance," who ultimately won the title. Both of their stories, plus the show's classic pleasures, make this the best season of the decade.
Call it recency bias, but Are You the One? Come One, Come All was undeniably great. MTV's dating show/memory game already had an interesting format on its hands, attaching a financial windfall to a group of horny strangers trying to find their perfect match. Season 8 added a wrinkle: Every one of the 16 castmates was sexually fluid, meaning they could all be attracted to each other. The queer twist allowed for some of the freshest, most necessary dialogues about LGBTQ+ issues on television, mixed with some good, old-fashioned, drunken sloppiness. Are You the One? presented an honest, fun depiction of queer people from all walks of life, and created must-see TV in the process. Who knows if MTV will do a fluid season again, but if this was our only one, I'll treasure it forever.
In many ways, RuPaul's Drag Race is the reality series of the 2010s. It breathed new life into the flagging reality-competition genre as shows like American Idol and Survivor lost their phenomenon status. It also put gay men (and, if too infrequently, trans women) front and center, telling their stories and letting them show their art. Season 5 was the apex of the series, with several strong stories: Underdog Jinkx Monsoon vs. three-headed hydra clique Rolaskatox! Previous season winner Sharon Needles' boyfriend Alaska coming into her own! Coco Montrese and Alyssa Edwards' pageant feud! The challenges helped advance these storylines, and gave the queens plenty of opportunities to show why they were the country's top drag artists. Most flatteringly, when the show was casting its second All Stars installment, production pulled half the cast from Season 5. That's how good it was — and how much each subsequent season lives in its shadow.
In my opinion, Vanderpump Rules's second season is the single best season Bravo has ever produced. And Bravo has produced a lot of really great reality television. Season 2 of this drinks-and-drama spinoff of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills starring Housewife Lisa Vanderpump and the sexy, unique employees of her West Hollywood restaurant SUR, took what worked about the first installment and ran with it. Queen bee Stassi Schroeder, one of reality TV's finest participants, struggled with whether to reunite with old flame Jax Taylor. Villainess Kristen Doute and her hangdog boyfriend Tom Sandoval spent the season fighting rumors of affairs, only to ultimately be broken up by the revelation that Kristen slept with Tom's best friend Jax — twice. Then there was “Rich People Annoy Me," a one-off crossover episode with RHOBH that made the cast of Vanderpump Rules a color-commentary crew on their boss' drama with her friends. It's an excellent season by any standard, and in my opinion the very best reality TV season of the 2010s.
Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles.
TOPICS: Reality TV, American Idol, Are You the One?, Big Brother Canada, The Great British Bake Off, The Great British Baking Show, Nailed It!, Project Runway, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Top Chef, Vanderpump Rules