I couldn’t bear to call this list the The 20 Best Reality Shows on TV, because so much “Reality” programming represents the lowest common denominator of our culture. (Spoiler alert: You won’t find Jersey Shore on this list). But while Reality programming has given us Wife Swap, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? and The Swan (shudder), the current abundance of non-fiction programming right now has also produced some surprisingly great TV. With a lower cost of entry, even the smallest cable and Internet channels can be laboratories for all kinds of original programming.
We’ve included all sorts of non-fiction TV, from talk shows to game shows to music shows to those fully embracing the R word. With so many channels and so many programs, we wanted to highlight the best. As always, let us know what we missed in the comments section below.We considered documentary TV, game-shows and yes, even “reality” programming and came up 10 TV shows from 2010 that prove truth can be as entertaining as fiction.
20. Survivor (CBS)
This list wouldn’t exist without Survivor—the well crafted desert-island competition started the whole reality TV craze, and 21 seasons later, it’s still going strong. Jeff Probst is the perfect host—knowledgeable and entertaining but never intrusive. In Nicaragua, it was the young’uns vs. the geezers with the winner revealed this weekend.
19. The Buried Life (MTV)
It’s been a long time since we looked to MTV to discover music—or anything redeeming whatsoever. In fact, we once had an intern watch MTV for 24 hours straight, and he’s still muttering to himself in a corner. But amid some of the worst reality programming on TV is this little gem, where four friends tackle their bucket list, while helping strangers live out their own dreams. Sure, the pilot involved a Trojan horse entry into the Playboy mansion, but subsequent episodes have seen them help deliver a baby, help reunite a father and son and provide a new computer for a classroom in need.
18. Work of Art: The Next Great Artist (Bravo)
As Project Runway has started losing some of its magic, Bravo has turned to visual artists to revive its focus on creatives. And it’s a winning formula, as we get a glimpse at another kind of creative process—particular that of a gifted art teacher.
17. Food Party (IFC)
Mix one part Rachael Ray’s boundless enthusiasm with two parts Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and that comes somewhere close to approximating the delicious weirdness of Food Party, masterminded and hosted by art student Thu Tran and friends. Most of their creations aren’t quite edible—kitten pie, anyone?—but it’ll feed your appetite for unbridled weirdness, that’s for certain.
16. Conan (TBS)
Take that, NBC! While the audience for Conan O’Brien’s TBS talk show has settled to half of its 4.2 million-viewer premiere, it’s beating Leno and Letterman among the under-50 crowd. With Andy Richter back on the Team Coco couch, we can see why.
15. Ace Of Cakes (Food Network)
Baltimore’s Charm City makes some of the coolest cakes-that-don’t-look-like-cakes that I’ve ever seen. Working in a custom cake shop must be a dream job, even though it’s frantic at times. Though the series occasionally edges uncomfortably into product over-promotion territory, it’s Duff Goldman and his merry cakesters’ sheer creativity, talent and endless good-humor that makes the show endlessly watchable.
14. Subterranean (MTV2)
The spiritual descendent of 120 Minutes, MTV2’s Subterranean has supplied videos for indie-starved insomniacs since 2003. Longtime hosts Dave Kendall, Matt Pinfield and Jim Shearer have all moved on, but the show still catches up with underground noisemakers while broadcasting the latest videos from the likes of The XX, Blitzen Trapper and Junip. Last week featured both Radiohead and Atlanta upstarts The Constellations. If this sounds better than the MTV or MTV2 you’re used to, it’s probably because you’re not watching Wednesday mornings at 5am (ET).
13. The Amazing Race (CBS)
The family-friendly show’s got it all—competition, culture, relationship drama and action. And it wins an Emmy every single year (except this one).
12. Top Chef (Bravo)
The premise is simple—innovative chefs and restaurateurs compete each week to make the best meal—but Bravo’s finest show has created a whole new generation of foodies. With every episode, we find ourselves passionately invested in food we can’t even taste.
11. Brew Masters (The Discovery Channel)
In launching its new craft-beer centric reality show, The Discovery Channel has scored a double coup: First, Brew Masters is the first high-production-value show that captures the growing passion Americans have for craft beer. Secondly, they landed craft beer’s most affable emissary, Sam Calagione of Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery to both narrate and star. Nick Purdy