The summer TV season has barely started and already, there's been a flood of new reality TV shows, everything from Fox's fun “Bullseye,” which is basically a reboot of “Fear Factor” but without the gross stuff, to CBS' “The Briefcase,” which is just cruel.
There's a lot more to come, too. In two weeks, “Big Brother” returns for its three-episodes-a-week, 24/7-online-feeds onslaught of game play and ridiculous competitions. Later this month, ABC is resurrecting “Battlebots” (June 21), and a month after that, Caitlyn Jenner's series “I Am Cait” will debut on E! (July 26). Those are just a few of the dozens of other reality shows that will be airing on broadcast and cable networks this summer (here's my list of them all).
But over the past few weeks, several shows have offered unexpected moments and surprised us. Some of the shows are summer staples, and some are brand-new, but they've all managed to deliver reality TV worth watching.
America's Got Talent is worth watching again
Even the addition of Howard Stern to the judging panel of “America's Got Talent” a few years ago couldn't pull the summer show out of the rut it found its way into. Instead of big, surprising, entertaining, Las Vegas-worthy acts, the show became a parade of mediocre singers who never would have made it to the auditions on “American Idol” or “The Voice.” It wasn't a bad show, it just wasn't great, and the talent was certainly not always that great.
This year, though, in the show's 10th season, the acts have been phenomenal. The judges have barely used their buzzers so far because the acts have all been so strong; even the ones that seem ridiculous are amazing. In just two episodes so far, we've seen everything from choreographed dancers on treadmills to a singing puppet, a “technodelic” dance group to a hilariously droll magician dressed as a dragon. Someone even hypnotized Howie Mandel so that he was shaking peoples' hands and not caring–an incredible feat for someone who notoriously fist-bumps to avoid hand-to-hand contact.
Even better, the judging panel's chemistry has gelled so much that even the time-wasting segments of them goofing around backstage are amusing. There's also less of Nick Cannon's sideline showboating; instead, he's just being a great host who has fun interaction with the judges and the contestants.
Overall, “America's Got Talent” has really upped its game for its 10th anniversary, becoming the fun, constantly entertaining summer show it should be.
As cast members, camera operators are awesome
Here are two words to convince you to give NBC's “The Island” a try: turtle CPR. Yes, on the Bear Grylls-hosted show–on which Bear himself is mostly, mercifully absent, just occasionally narrating to lecture us on the dangers of what's happening–a camera operator brought a turtle back to life by giving it mouth to mouth. I am not making this up.
Also on the show, which strands a group of men on an island with minimal supplies, several people have been medically evacuated in just the first week. It's that brutal.
This is “Survivor” without the game, “Naked and Afraid” without the survival training. It's progressed from annoying bickering to a life-threatening dehydration that left one man deliriously threatening to kill others while a camera operator secretly filmed it, despite other people's desire to turn the cameras off. The camera operators are embedded with the cast, so they're just cast members with cameras; there are no other producers nor are there any kind of artificial anythings. No challenges, no Tribal Council.
Although the UK version of the show admitted to stocking the island with pigs and water to help the contestants survive, if they've done that here, it's not at all obvious, because this group is suffering. Yet they're also finding a way to survive, and that makes for surprisingly good summer TV.
CNBC has the most entertaining food reality show
For the best reality TV show about food this summer, you need to tune in to CNBC. Yes, CNBC, the financial news network. Not Food Network, not Bravo, not any of the big networks, though from “Hell's Kitchen” to “MasterChef” to “Food Fighters,” there are a lot of shows to choose from.
No, the surprise is that it's CNBC that's winning this game thanks to “Consumed: The Real Restaurant Business” (Wednesdays at 10). Along with its excellent series “The Profit” and repeats of “Shark Tank,” the network's prime-time lineup now includes the a documentary-style series about several restaurants in stages of transition.
It's completely fascinating and, while there is drama, it's not the staged, fake kind. We're just flies on the wall as New York City's famed The Meatball Shop struggles with expansion and the relationship between its founders. We watch as a woman, Melba, tries to grow her successful restaurant into an empire. And we see a family-run Italian restaurant struggling to stay relevant. They're compelling characters and their actions have real consequence. My only complaint is that the episodes aren't longer, because this is a world you want to stay immersed in.
A side note about one other food show: “Next Food Network Star” continues its sad decline, this time because Alton Brown is off the show. That leaves just Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis as the contestants' mentors, and it's just not as fun without Alton. That said, it hasn't been much fun at all since the three were actually mentors, coaching their own teams and advocating for them.
Hoarders was resuscitated and recovered from a disastrous live episode
A&E canceled “Hoarders” a few years ago, but the show is back – and it's just as great as always. That's a surprise for two reasons. One, it's now on Lifetime and has a new subtitle, “Family Secrets,” and that suggested that it might have shifted its focus somehow.
But no, what we've seen so far suggests it's very much the same series: a compassionate yet brutal look at a severe mental disorder. It's a show that helps its subjects, people who need resources and assistance (from both a therapist and an organizer) to dig themselves out, literally. It also helps its viewers understand this disorder, which for a long time wasn't well-known, and people thought they or their family members were alone.
The other major surprise is that “Hoarders: Family Secrets” quickly recovered from its premiere, which was a live episode. That, as it turns out, was a terrible idea. It looked cheap and felt amateurish, especially with one of its therapists acting as a host, awkwardly reading scripted questions. Worse, it dispensed with the usual care and compassion by trying to create drama about whether or not a hoarder–who'd already let cameras into his house – would accept help.
But that one-time experiment ended and the show returned last week just like it was on A&E.
Paula Abdul hasn't improved “So You Think You Can Dance”
Okay, this isn't a surprise. But letting go of Mary Murphy and her hot tamale train and hiring two names in Paula Abdul and Jason Derulo hasn't improved “So You Think You Can Dance.”
In fact, doing that made its premiere worse. The dancing is still spectacular, but the show drags with a relatively lifeless panel. Perhaps they'll gel more, or perhaps the show's major twist–separating the dancers into stage versus street teams–will bring some life back into this once-great summertime show.
The most real TV is Lifetime's scripted “UnREAL”
Lifetime's scripted drama “UnREAL” is far greater than its source material. While its creators pretend that it's not about “The Bachelor”, the ABC dating series, it is most definitely a brutal satire of the show. For starters, its co-creator was a producer on that series for nine seasons. The real surprise is that a fictional show does a better job of presenting reality than a reality show.
“UnREAL” (Mondays at 10) exposes how some reality TV shows are produced with a heavy, unethical hand. But it also explores what it's like to be the person doing that to other people. As a result, it ends up being both interesting and entertaining, a drama with something to say about how some of our entertainment is constructed.
If you don't believe me, trust Alan Sepinwall, who wrote in his positive review of “UnREAL” that it “is simultaneously a very dark satire of reality TV and a soap opera that breathes new life into old tropes by placing them in this very familiar, modern setting” and “works very, very well as an actual drama.”