It is impossible not to be bombarded with reality shows and their stars at every turn these days. From Snooki and her Jersey Shore cohorts to the multiplying Kardashians and whoever is going to win American Idol this year, we know more about most reality stars than we do about our best friends. Frankly, it can get tiresome and totally boring. But, there are some bright spots in the reality doldrums. It just so happens that no one seems to remember them. Yes, there have been funny, sweet, interesting, unique, fun-to-watch reality shows out there that didn’t keep replaying the same old story lines for 20 seasons or depict nothing but overly tanned people having drunken cat fights — and I am here to remind you of them.
Rich Girls (2003-3004)
In my humble opinion, this remains the greatest reality show ever made, and probably the greatest show MTV has ever aired… it’s that good. Featuring famed designer Tommy Hilfiger’s daughter Ally and her best friend Jamie, the show follows the girls through the final weeks of their senior year in high school and the summer after.
The show includes such transcendent moments as Jamie attempting to lose her virginity on prom night, Ally having a panic attack about her wasted youth when she can’t buy paint at her local art store, Jamie’s mom talking about receiving a “blow job” from her hairdresser, Ally’s friend burning her hair with a straightening iron and the girls trying to live through the massive 2003 New York City blackout. It also brought us the classic “Jamie Face” which I still ask my sister to mimic to this day.
While there is no way to avoid the frivolity and privilege that the show depicts (Jamie memorably states that most people need to buy cargo pants not for fashion, like she and her friends do, but because they work in “the fields” and need a lot of pockets) that disconnect from the real world is part of what makes the show so interesting and, of course, utterly hilarious. But, we also see some tender and totally relatable moments, too, especially concerning Ally and Jamie’s trepidation about leaving high school — and each other — behind as they set off down their own paths (Jamie to her “Ivy League School” and Ally to work at her father’s brand.) Who didn’t have the same fears after high school? Of course, we just had them without closets full of designer clothes and a driver.
The Paper (2008)
As someone who worked for almost three years as an editor on her college’s newspaper, I can tell you that this reality show is the real deal. Following the lives of the Cypress Bay High School newspaper staff, the show explores the tensions that arise when senior editors Amanda Lorber and Alex Angert compete for the coveted role of Editor-in-Chief.
Amanda, a born leader and overachiever, wins the race after she stays home all weekend to finish her essay, and Alex, who is more well-liked among the newspaper staff, is voted into the second in command Managing Editor position. Alex and a majority of the staff don’t agree with the results of the race, setting up a year full of mutiny, trash talking, and more drama than can fill the front page.
From an ill-fated ice cream social to a hotly contested humor column and many an angry editor’s meeting, we get to see behind the scenes of running a student newspaper —but more importantly, we see friends and colleagues trying to navigate the always murky waters of mixing business with pleasure and deciding whether personal relationships or success and ambition are more important.
Seeing intelligent, motivated and hardworking teenagers on reality television is practically unheard of these days, but you’re in luck! You can relive a little piece of 2008 (some of the editors go to a Dave Matthews Band concert in one episode, you will be pleased to know) and catch up on The Paper right now on MTV’s website, where the series is still streaming.
My Life as Liz (2010-2011)
What was originally supposed to be the second season of The Paper, this time set in a high school in Texas, My Life as Liz is a pseudo-documentary that follows Liz Lee, former popular girl and current awesome nerd, as she navigates her senior year of high school with her dutiful best friends Sully, Miles and Troy by her side.
As the series opens, Liz is still struggling with her former mean girl identity, tussling with queen of the popular girl clique, Cori Cooper, and harboring a massive crush on semi-nerdy, semi-cool kid Bryson Gilreath (who, despite massive flirting and obvious feels for Liz, has a serious girlfriend.) Liz soon makes friends with another popular girl, Taylor Terry, tries out for the school’s talent show to get one up on Cori and blows everyone out of the water with her stellar singing voice, goes hunting with her crazy Uncle for a failed school project, and falls into and out of like with Bryson.
After graduation Liz heads to New York City to attend art school for the second season of the series, and this is where we start to blatantly see that the show is mostly, if not entirely, scripted. I am partial to the first season, where the struggles of being less than cool and getting your heart broken for the first time is so real and familiar to so many of us. Although the show is more sitcom than reality, you’ll find yourself rooting for Liz, and for her friends, and remembering exactly what it’s like to feel a little awkward and unsure in high school.
Girls vs. Boys (2003-2005)
In The N’s (the network that broadcasts Degrassi, if you didn’t know) first reality show, a group of three girls and three boys compete in various tasks and obstacles to attempt to answer the age-old question: are girls better than boys or are boys better than girls? The group, along with two adult coaches, camp out on an island in seasons one, two and four (in Florida, Hawaii and Puerto Rico, respectively) and in season three in Montana, living together while also competing against one another in physical competitions. The show depicts the games and the various internal dramas and real world debacles the group faces, like the inevitable crushes, grocery shopping, sharing a bathroom and conflicting sleeping schedules.
The various tasks both mental and physical, included dressing as the opposite gender and seeing who could fool the most people into believing the costumes, literally collecting bull crap, baking a pie and entering it in a pie eating contest, rowing while answering trivia questions about the other cast members, diving and swimming, hog tying etc.
Special guest competitors like Jake Epstein and Lauren Collins of Degrassi fame shakes things up, but the underlying focus is a serious one — gender relations. Dealt with in a forthright but fun way, what the show really attempts to disprove that boys and girls are only good at certain things, having a small part in breaking down gender stereotypes — all while competing for various kick ass prizes. Hey, if Craig Manning and an entertainment system are all it takes to get the conversation going, I’m all for it.
This self-improvement reality series is one of the most moving and inspiring I have ever seen. Made follows various teenagers who would like to be “made” into things like singers, extreme sports athletes, models, and even more down-to-earth goals like class president, homecoming queen and simply a healthier person. Assigned a coach that is an expert in the various fields the teens want to join, we get to see the process each person goes through as they change their way of life, move out of their comfort zone and transform themselves into the person they’ve always dreamed of being.
Seeing a shy girl become a cheerleader, a nerdy guy become a football player, a preppy girl become a skateboarder or an overweight teen learn to take care of and appreciate their body proves that it’s never too late to change, to try something new, or to push yourself to be better than you ever imagined you could be. Most, if not all, of the contestants get frustrated and tired, wishing they could revert back to their old ways and quit the process altogether — but, most also finish, and many win prizes or awards, make new friends, and surprise others and themselves by pushing through some of the most trying weeks of their lives.
We’re all constantly seeking to better ourselves and take on a new challenge, but many of us scared to try, either for fear of failure or reluctance to step out of our routine. Go watch an episode of Made, any episode, and tell me that you aren’t inspired to make a big change this year. What else could you ask for in a reality show?
Now, it’s your turn. What are some of your favorite reality shows that will just never get the attention they deserve? We’d love to hear all about it in the comments or on Twitter @lydiamag!
Images Via 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Kerri Jarema is the creator and editor of Lydia Magazine. She was born and raised in New York City and still calls it home. When she isn’t busy writing and editing she can usually be found with her nose in a book, watching way too much TV, fangirling on Tumblr, singing very loud when no one is around, obsessing over everything British and exploring her favorite neighborhoods. Find her on Twitter@kerrajar.