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The 20 Best Reality TV Shows That Were Truly Groundbreaking

These series transformed the genre and made a major impact on popular culture.

It's not an overstatement to say that reality TV has changed, well, reality. Across the past several decades, reality TV shows have revolutionized the TV industry, created a whole new kind of celebrity, and changed audiences' habits.

Reality has a longer history than you might assume, however. Back in the late '40s, Candid Camera delighted viewers with pranks and gags that were recorded using hidden cameras. (The scenarios were staged, but the bystanders' reactions were very real.) However, when the average viewer thinks about reality TV, chances are they're thinking about the wave of true-life series that took off in the '90s and has yet to crest to this day. Read on for the 20 best reality shows are among the most groundbreaking the genre has to offer.

RELATED: 16 Classic Reality Shows Now Streaming.

The Real World

Still from The Real World

MTV's iconic series The Real World gets credit for launching the modern era of reality shows. You know the premise: Seven strangers get picked "to live in a house and have their lives taped to find out what happens when people stop being polite… and start getting real." Audiences were riveted just watching young people from different backgrounds co-exist, and the early years especially yielded plenty of cultural touchstones (Pedro Zamora putting a face to the AIDS crisis) and unforgettable moments (Stephen slapping Irene in Seattle).

Back in 1992 when the show began, this setup, devoid of any gimmicks or challenges, was novel, and The Real World's use of confessionals—when contestants would talk directly to the camera about the events viewers had just seen—helped establish a mold for much of the reality TV that would follow.

Big Brother

Still from Big Brother

Named for the evil, omnipresent ruler of the dystopian society in 1984, Big Brother is one of the earliest and most important reality shows of the modern era. (The U.S. version premiered in 1997.) A group of contestants, whose actions are constantly monitored by cameras, live in a house together—but, where Big Brother pushes things forward compared to The Real World is the addition of a competition element. Houseguests compete in challenges, form alliances, and vote each other out as the season unfolds, making machinations and gameplay incredibly important—and juicy to watch.


Still from Survivor

Arguably the greatest and most influential reality show of all time, Survivor began in 2000. And here we are almost a quarter-century and 45 seasons later, still watching a group of people rough it out on a remote island in the hopes of being the last contestant standing. The way that Survivor blends strategy, gameplay, and personality remains the envy of many other reality shows, and the franchise has created several stars over the years.

The Bachelor

Still from The Bachelor ABC

How many TV franchises can boast that they founded an entire nation? Premiering in 2002, The Bachelor was not the first dating reality show. It is, however, the most enduring, along with its equally important spinoff, The Bachelorette, and several other offshoots. Part of this is because of its consistency and its simplicity. Compared to a lot of other dating reality shows, like 2003's Joe Millionaire, there isn't really a gimmick to The Bachelor shows. There's a hot guy (or girl) and a host of hot women (or men) vying for their affection. Only one gets the final rose. With that, Bachelor Nation has been going strong for two decades and counting.

American Idol

Kelly Clarkson performing on American Idol

The performance-based reality competition shows that have debuted since American Idol in 2002, including The Voice and America's Got Talent, have gimmicks and twists that the O.G. singing contest didn't need in its heyday. Instead, the premise was excitingly straightforward: Hopeful singers would belt their hearts out on national TV, get a reaction from a trio of judges (including Simon Cowell and his infamously cutting critiques), and hope that votes from the viewing public would keep them in the game through the finale.

American Idol sparked a new wave of competition shows and created lots of new stars—though, to be honest, if it had only given us first winner Kelly Clarkson, it would still be one of the most important TV shows in human history.

RELATED: The 30 Most Successful Reality TV Personalities of the Last 30 Years.

America's Next Top Model

Still from America's Next Top Model
The CW

Making its debut in 2003, America's Next Top Model can be seen as a major evolutionary step between the early way of reality shows, where the novel concept of real people being real was the point, and a later wave of shows that added professional skills to the mix. This competition series proved that modeling is a real job—one that is demanding and hard to excel at.

At the same time, the models who competed (and were occasionally yelled at by host Tyra Banks) to win each season were judged on their personalities and work ethic along with their looks and posing prowess—all qualities that make for great reality stars.

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy

Jai Rodriguez, Thom Filicia, Carson Kressley, Ted Allen and Kyan Douglas in 2003
Scott Gries/Getty Images

In addition to being a necessary positive bit of mainstream queer representation in the early '00s, the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy also offered a change of pace from the rest of the popular reality shows of the era when it premiered in 2003. Rather than being a competition where one contestant would be the last one standing, it involved the Fab Five bettering the life of a different straight guy in every episode. The life makeover was a winning formula, which was revived to critical acclaim by Netflix in 2018.

Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica

Still from Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica

Although his wife Jessica Simpson wasn't as famous as 98 Degrees frontman Nick Lachey at the start of the show, Newlyweds' big reality invention was giving audiences an inside look into the lives (and relationship) of established celebrities rather than just normal people. It was a nifty self-perpetuating cycle, as the show, which ran from 2003 to 2005, made them bigger stars—especially Simpson, who became famous (or possibly infamous) for "dumb blonde" moments like when she asked if tuna was made of chicken or fish.

The Simple Life

Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton in 2003
Doug Benc/Getty Images

The Simple Life was perhaps the first reality show to turn the comings and goings of wealthy, essentially unemployed socialites into must-see TV. Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie—two major nepo babies, even though the term had yet to be coined back in 2003 when the show premiered—left the glitz of Beverly Hills and headed to rural America with cameras in tow. The humor of the series and its stars turned the pair into household names—and they definitely would not be the last socialites to become famous for being on television.

The Apprentice

Still from The Apprentice

Though now remembered more, understandably so, for helping Donald Trump achieve the public profile he needed to help become the President of the United States, The Apprentice was a novel reality show when it debuted in early 2004. At the time a well-known businessman with a flair for drama, Trump oversaw a competition of business instincts and skill. The Apprentice is also a testament to the importance of a good catchphrase, as "you're fired" was a ubiquitous quote throughout the '00s.

RELATED: The 26 Best TV Shows on Netflix Right Now.

Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County

Still from Laguna Beach

By 2004, as the new wave of reality TV was booming, it was clear that audiences enjoyed watching rich Californians have drama. It was also clear that high school dramas, including The O.C., were still wildly popular. What Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County asked was "Why not both?"

The series followed real students attending Laguna Beach High School, going deeper into their personal lives than, perhaps, is healthy for a teenager. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, the show was a hit and made cast members including Lauren Conrad and Kristin Cavallari into stars.

Project Runway

Still from Project Runway

Project Runway's big innovation was to combine the character-based drama of a reality show with a skilled competition—one that many reality TV viewers would appreciate. Premiering in late 2004, the fashion design competition had supermodel Heidi Klum and fashion icon Tim Gunn guiding a group of contestants as they competed to make gorgeous looks within the strictures of the challenge of the week. To paraphrase Gunn, Project Runway makes it work, and launched the careers of several designers, Christian Siriano perhaps the most famous among them.

The Real Housewives of Orange County

braunwyn and tamra on the real housewives of orange county

Talk about influence: The Real Housewives of Orange Country has spawned 27 spinoff series. You could say the franchise had humble beginnings, but there's really nothing humble about RHOC, which debuted in 2006 and follows a group of wealthy wives about their drama-filled days.

Members of the various Housewives casts have become celebrities, founded corporate empires, started unions, gone to prison, and been fodder for countless memes. RHOC also arguably launched the Bravoverse, which would go on to yield more franchises, a nightly talk show, and even an official convention. It's all because viewers want to see the lifestyles of the rich and the famous and get a little catharsis out of their oversized—and yet still relatable—problems.

RELATED: The Most Famous Real Housewives, Then and Now.

Flavor of Love

Still from Flavor of Love

There are entire ecosystems hidden in the way various reality shows connect to one another. Consider Flavor of Love, which aired the first of its three seasons in 2006. The show featured Public Enemy rapper Flavor Flav in a Bachelor-like setup and was a descendant of The Surreal Life (a VH1 series that was basically Big Brother with C-list and lower celebrities) and Strange Love, a spin-off about Flavor Flav's failed relationship with Surreal Life co-star, Brigitte Nielsen.

Flavor of Love is evidence of the way reality TV knows how to reinvent a good thing to keep it going, and indeed this dating show spawned its on spinoffs, including I Love New York, which centered Tiffany Pollard, a contestant who became the clear breakout star while vying for Flav's heart.

Top Chef

Still from Top Chef

A lot of reality TV is trashy. (To be clear, that's not always a bad thing. Guilty pleasures are pleasurable for a reason.) Top Chef, which debuted in 2006, is not that. Combining the character dynamics and challenges of reality shows like Survivor with the craft of cooking, Top Chef is an exciting, accessible, and impressive skill-based competition series. It's also yielded plenty of spinoffs and specials, including Top Chef Jr.

Keeping Up With the Kardashians

Still from Keeping Up With the Kardashians

There's a vast subgenre of reality shows that are about people who are famous for being famous, but none exploited and transcended that fame as magnificently as the Kardashian-Jenner family. The series followed the lives of Kim, Kourtney, Khloé, Kendall, Kylie, Kris, Caitlyn, and Rob from 2007 to 2021, transforming its subjects into some of the most well-known people in the country. (Hulu series The Kardashians debuted in 2022 to continue the family's story/media empire.)

RuPaul's Drag Race

Still from RuPaul's Drag Race

RuPaul's Drag Race took something that had been considered niche—drag culture—and thrust it into the mainstream with style and aplomb. Premiering in 2009, the competition series is as much a sport as it is subversive, and it's perhaps the best example of reality TV finding an untapped resource or an underserved audience and turning it into massive success.

Vanderpump Rules

Still from Vanderpump Rules

Vanderpump Rules merged the appeal of sexy young people (a stalwart reality show trope ever since The Real World) with the style of Real Housewives. The 2013 series is technically a spinoff of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, following a group of servers and bartenders who worked at Housewife Lisa Vanderpump's Los Angeles restaurants.

Over the 10+ years it's been on, Vanderpump Rules has transcended both the spinoff label and its own premise. (The cast are all so famous now, they don't have to be running plates or tending bar anymore.) In 2023, it was the topic on the lips of people who'd never even watched the show up to that point, as a shocking cheating scandal nicknamed #Scandoval was revealed and splashed across outlets including The New York Times.

Love Is Blind

The cast of "Love Is Blind" season 2
Patrick Wymore/Netflix

Love Is Blind is a dating show with a devilish twist, as the contestants initially aren't allowed to see what their potential paramours look like, only getting to meet face-to-face after the blind speed dating is over and they've accepted a marriage proposal. To be honest, though, the premise isn't what makes the series so groundbreaking, as much as it is that it's the first major reality show to be a hit on a streaming service. Love Is Blind premiere on Netflix in 2020 and became a pop culture phenomenon, due in no small part to the COVID lockdown.

The Traitors

Still from The Traitors

As this list has shown, reality TV has been a major cultural force for three decades. Over those many years, a new type of celebrity has emerged: The reality TV star. The Traitors, Peacock's hit 2023 series, brilliantly invites a mostly all-star cast of reality contestants to play the party game Mafia on a massive scale.

Sure, shows such as Survivor had done this before, and occasionally you'd get somebody known for one show to make an appearance on another, but The Traitors is a massive, multi-network crossover, bringing together alums from Housewives, Big Brother, Survivor, The Real World, Love Island, and more. Add Alan Cumming as the best-dressed host on TV, and you've got a hit that celebrates all the reality that's come before while delivering an entertaining experience each week.

James Grebey
James has been an entertainment journalist for more than a decade, writing and editing for outlets like Vulture, Inverse, Polygon, TIME, The Daily Beast, SPIN Magazine, Fatherly, and more. Read more
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