Reality’s year that was

In a year that gave Discovery's Deadliest Catch its first – and long overdue – Emmy for outstanding reality series, unscripted TV found a lot of life and realism in unexpected places and familiar formats.
November 1, 2011

In a year that gave Discovery’s Deadliest Catch its first – and long overdue – Emmy for outstanding reality series, unscripted TV found a lot of life and realism in unexpected places and familiar formats. Even as network TV seems to rely more on scripted from September to May, there’s some truly excellent work being done on cable. The budgets may be smaller, but the stories are powerful and compelling.

Oprah exited daytime TV this year, but all of the build-up over her departure wasn’t nearly as interesting as the documentary series on OWN chronicling the last year of her show. While OWN’s Your OWN Show, a competition series offering its winner a TV show on the network, failed to live up to the standards set by other similar shows, Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes took viewers places they’d never been. It introduced us to the people who helped make Oprah a success every day, the producers of her TV show, and they were this reality series’ true stars. The worst part about the show was that it only followed their work over a single season.

As the year began, it seemed like the singing competition format may have played itself out. But even though they presided over a show that hadn’t changed much, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler managed to inject life into American Idol.

NBC’s The Voice changed up the formula with its focus on raw talent and expert advice rather than manufactured drama – and there were swiveling chairs, too. By recruiting currently popular singers – Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine, and Blake Shelton – as judges, the show both attracted viewers and gave itself credibility, although it did that even more by avoiding the typical tropes of the genre, such as the parade of awful auditions.

But it was Oxygen’s The Glee Project that really surprised as it searched for a new cast member for the Fox musical drama. With its cast of exceptional teenagers and 20-somethings, all of who seemed to have come from an alternate universe where searching for fame via reality TV didn’t exist, the show had a surprising emotional center that made it easily one of the best competitions on cable. Ironically, watching them sing for their lives in front of Glee creator Ryan Murphy was more consistently entertaining than the show he was casting them for.

History’s Top Shot also proved that a familiar show structure can seem fresh. Hosted by former “Survivor’ Colby Donaldson, the competition gave marksmen the chance to hit targets with different kinds of weapons – from rocks to cannons – and was in many ways a throwback to old-school reality television. Its combination of talent and technique was what really made it succeed – especially the talent of the show’s crew, which assembles fun-to-watch challenges while capturing unbelievable slow-motion shots of bullets destroying targets.

Plenty of other series continued to offer great entertainment based in authentic reality, such as A&E’s Hoarders, Bravo’s Flipping Out, Discovery’s Dirty Jobs, and Animal Planet’s Whale Wars. And there were lots of competition series worth watching, from Syfy’s new Face-Off to Bravo’s Top Chef: All-Stars.

There’s still fight left in older formulas, too. Take CBS’ Survivor, which is having a creatively strong fall season, growing its ratings against tough competition. That it’s survived all these years tells us something about the power of high-quality production, a solid formula, and great storytelling.

Andy Dehnart edits and teaches writing and journalism at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla.

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