Generally speaking, we’re firm believers that reality programming has dumbed down television, celebrated some of the worst aspects of our culture and further melted the collective brain of our nation. But we also recognize that not all reality shows are Jersey Shore. Hidden among Wife Swap and The Swan are programs with a more documentary sensibility or competition shows that manage to be gripping. Here are seven worth watching:
1. The First 48, A&E
So many reality programs rely on putting people in competitive situations or finding unique individuals with the intention of documenting their lives and actually end up altering their lifestyles. The First 48 instead offers an unprecedented look into the inner workings of various police departments during the first 48 hours of an investigation. Its viewers quickly realize that law doesn’t actually work like it does on dramas like CSI and Law & Order.
2. Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, Travel Channel
Fusing travel and food shows, Bourdain focuses on eating like a local. The best-selling author, magazine columnist and executive chef always has a strong opinion. Above all, he tproves we’ve been missing out by dining in fancy restaurants and not at that dusty food truck we passed a highway.
3. Full Metal Jousting, History Channel
This is the most absurd thing on television, but that may just be a good thing. A group of aspiring jousters were rounded up and placed in a training facility to face off in a competition to find the next great American jouster. Sometimes it’s painful to watch, but it brings out the inner warrior. It blends your typical competition, but because it’s such an off-the-wall subject matter it also educates the viewers on the history of a sport that dates back to the medieval era.
4. Survivor, CBS
While another CBS competition (The Amazing Race) consistently wins the Emmy for best reality programming, Survivor is the challenge that spawned a phenomenon. It has outlasted so many similar shows and has provided drama in the most basic form. It’s one of the few competitions that genuinely showcases endurance, intelligence, will power, dexterity and, of course, political skills.
5. American Pickers, History Channel
Where you see junk, Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz see history. The duo travels the back roads of the country seeking historical artifacts that have a great story and will be able to make them a little bit of cash. Unlike other antique hunting shows, this one relies on the historical aspect of their finds more than the drama of the hunt.
6. The Voice, NBC
While another singing competition may reign supreme, this show, led by Christina Aguilera, has hit a nerve with fans who’ve grown tired of the regularity of other competition shows. Instead of the usual format where judges pass judgment and allow a person’s entire package to sway the vote, NBC’s show is based on the premise if you’ve got the voice, you’ve got the chance to be a star. Bonus: Cee Lo Green and his ridiculous cat.
7. Who Do You Think You Are?, NBC
We all want to know where we come from. Not just in the existentialist way, but in a historical one. We’re able to follow celebrities tracing their family tree back as far as they can as they discover shocking secrets and ancestors they never knew they had. The famous participants are brought back down to earth as they search for something we all want: a sense of history.