Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new column, Reality AF. Every Monday, Terry Terrones will check in and talk about the state of reality TV, plus provide a Top 5 list of what’s coming up this week that you should not miss.
If there was a Reality TV Mount Rushmore, Survivor and Top Chef would certainly deserve to have Jeff Probst and Padma Lakshmi’s faces carved into it, although without JP’s current mullet. The most recent seasons of both series perfectly illustrate this.
Survivor—Last Wednesday the Jeff Probst hosted series, which premiered in 2000, finished its 42nd season with a flourish. All of the adversity, determination, mental toughness, and fun challenges viewers would kill to participate in were on full display. It was an epic season. This didn’t happen by accident.
Survivor has evolved significantly over its 22-year run. Some of its tweaks have been brilliant (Hidden Immunity Idols first appeared in Season 11) while others have been duds (The Medallion of Power in Season 21). That said, over the last two seasons much of the fine-tuning applied to the game has worked.
The prisoner’s dilemma where contestants risk their vote, the game being shortened to 26 days, audience participation through puzzles, the Beware Hidden Immunity Idol which comes with serious consequences, and the winner reveal and post-show discussion immediately after are all big hits. However, the biggest reason for Survivor’s latest surge in relevance is how it embraced diversity.
In November of 2020, CBS announced that at least 50 percent of the contestants in its reality shows would be minorities. That commitment is bearing fruit in Survivor’s last two seasons, which have been diverse in race but also in age and gender. Last week’s final three contestants consisted of a 37-year old pageant coach, a 58-year-old retired firefighter, and a 24-year-old seminary student from Canada.
Embracing diversity has led to Seasons 41 and 42 of Survivor being some of the most memorable in its history, and has given the franchise a boost that could see it run well past 50 seasons, if Jeff Probst and his safari shirt collection is up for it.
Top Chef—Last Thursday the Padma Lakshmi-hosted series, which premiered in 2006, also hit a high note. After exploring Houston, Top Chef headed to Tucson, Arizona for its penultimate episode which celebrated Mexican cuisine. This season’s final four consisted of Buddha Lo (Asian), Damarr Brown (African-American), Sarah Welch (White), and Evelyn Garcia (Hispanic) in what was possibly the best Judges Table of the season.
While Top Chef never went through a “Look at our young, hot cast” phase like Survivor did for a few years, the series has also evolved over time. Initially, the series was much like the rest of the culinary industry: a boys club.
But in 2008, the Bravo franchise started becoming more inclusive, expanding its roster to include more women and minorities. That year Top Chef also had its first female winner, fan favorite Stephanie Izard. The last two seasons have been particularly diverse, with 22 of the 30 contestants minorities and 50% of the cast women.
Why is all this diversity a big deal? Because it means something to be represented on TV. To see people who look like you go through the same struggles but also share the same dreams as every other culture is unifying. It’s a reminder that no matter who we are, we have more in common than we think. On a personal note, it’s also inspiring. As a man in his 50s, it’s great to see a guy like Mike the retired firefighter have a legit shot to win Survivor. As a Mexican-American, it was so fun to see Evelyn, my favorite this season, take a dish as simple as chile rellenos and elevate it to a winning plate in Top Chef.
Diversity matters, and reality shows like Survivor and Top Chef illustrate how important it is but that it can also lead to creativity and fun.
5 Reality Shows to Watch This Week
1. Below Deck Sailing Yacht (Bravo, May 30)
Why you should watch it: Two words, one name: Gary King. I’ll be writing more about The Kissing Bandit in an upcoming Reality AF post, but you gotta trust me. This charming South African who looks like Tarzan is a guy you’ll love to hate or hate to love. Sometimes both in the same episode.
2. Chopped: Desperately Seeking Sous Chef (Food Network, Premieres May 31)
Why you should watch it: Aside from the cheesy name ripped straight from the title of a 1985 movie starring Madonna, you’ll want to watch this spinoff for its premise: a five-round tournament has 16 chefs competing for jobs with judges Maneet Chauhan, Scott Conant, and Chris Santos.
3. The Real Housewives of Dubai (Bravo, Premieres June 1)
Why you should watch it: The 57th iteration of the Housewives franchise premieres tonight. While there’s little chance any of the women on the show are actual wives, I’ll still watch for the drama and hope that someone falls into a bush, countess-style. I’ll settle for this while I PATIENTLY wait for The Real Housewives of Denver.
4. Top Chef (Bravo, Season Finale June 2)
Why you should watch it: Didn’t you read what I wrote above!? It’s the season finale, watch it for nothing else but to absorb Padma’s radiance, to try and figure out what the hell Gail is wearing (someone needs a stylist), and for Tom to say that a dish was under seasoned.
5. The Floor Is Lava (Netflix, Season Premiere June 3)
Why you should watch it: The second season of this obstacle course series is back. Look out for a huge and slippery volcano. So much fun!
Terry Terrones is a Television Critics Association and Critics Choice Association member, licensed drone pilot and aspiring hand model.
When he’s not applying for Survivor, you can find him hiking in the mountains of Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter @terryterrones.
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