Much ado has been made, lately, of Sarah Palin’s debut on the frontiers of reality television. The handful of heavily edited hour-long segments showing the Palins in the Alaskan wilderness have been analyzed for everything from parenting tips to secret political strategies. But sometimes — and often, in reality television-land — drivel is just drivel. That’s the joy of some shows: sheer brain-rotting entertainment, drama-coated little nuggets of sugar that occupy you for 46 minutes minus commercials, and then you go on with your day. And then there are other reality programs where you accidentally learn something about rainbow swiss chard or the process of alligator hunting. Our picks for the best reality shows on TV — shored up by extensive research while in a turkey coma all Friday — from total trash to bizarrely educational series, are below.
The Millionaire Matchmaker, Bravo
Patti Stanger may be one of the most infuriating women on television. As the head of The Millionaire’s Club, she makes it her life’s work to match up the rich, sort-of famous, and socially awkward with their trophy wife or husband to-be. When women come in to her casting calls, she dismisses them for a litany of perceived sins: short hair, big thighs, unwillingness to pop out children, too much cleavage, not enough cleavage. But what’s fascinating is watching Patti dole out anachronistic advice for women to keep their hair long and their cheeks rosy while simultaneously running a (one assumes) profitable business singlehandedly as a single woman. Despite herself, Patti begins to grapple with the thorny issues surrounding feminism and relationships in the 21 century. As Emily Gould points out in her great essay on the subject, “This is why MM is important, and compelling, and infuriating: because Patti sometimes seems on the verge of engaging with, or even answering, some of these questions. And then inevitably she backs away from the verge and starts shrieking about getting a spray-tan…”
On the Trashy to Educational Scale: Fairly trashy, with flashes of post-feminist theory.
Swamp People, The History Channel
The premise of Swamp People is not what we thought when we were cruising through the channel guide: It is, literally, about people who live in the Louisiana swamps. The show traces a group of alligator hunters, men who make most of their yearly income from a brutal schedule setting traps with rotting chicken, attempting to shoot a thrashing gator, and then hauling the 300 plus pound beast into a rickety boat to collect money for its carcass. It’s a show that you can become quickly engrossed in, whatever your feelings about hunting: the men, and their families, have deep Cajun drawls, and patiently explain to the camera in the ins and outs of trapping, selling, and even cooking gators. At times the show almost feels anthropological, capturing the remnants of an old culture now fraying at the seams. Thanks to the devastation wrought by the Deepwater Horizon spill, the swamp people’s livelihood is in even more jeopardy.
On the Trashy to Educational Scale: Educational, but entertainingly so.
Married to Rock, E!
For those of us out there who miss Rock of Love‘s heyday, there’s never quite enough trashy groupie love on television. Luckily, Married to Rock came around, E!’s answer to The Real Housewives series over at Bravo. There’s very little educational about it — unless you count the rather eye-opening choices some of the girlfriends and wives make with regard to personal taste (in the last episode, a bride decked out her wedding party in pink feathers before ascending to the roof to get dressed). But inside the world of lower-tier alternative rockers is a pretty fascinating place to be, just on the cultural assumptions alone (of course the groom is required to wear eyeliner).
On the Trashy to Educational Scale: Empty calories, all the way. Unless you’re studying up on how to be a rock star groupie.
Brew Masters, The Discovery Channel
Brew Masters is Discovery Channel’s recent foray into what has been traditionally Food Network’s turf: the crazy world of brewing. The show focuses on the operations of the Dogfish Head brewery in Delaware, following brewmaster Sam Calagione as he concocts bizarre craft brews for his “off-centered” fans. Calagione has a sort of Henry Rollins-esque appeal to him: he’s broad-shouldered, clean-cut, and totally ripped for a guy who drinks beers all day. But what’s really interesting is watching the process of making these one-of-a-kind drafts, from sourcing spices in Peru to incorporating New Zealand tomatoes. It’s a beer nerd’s dream show.
On the Trashy to Educational Scale: Educational, but about beer, so we all win.
16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, MTV
We admit to having mixed feelings about these shows because, well, exploiting teenagers is pretty uncool and the number of tabloid headlines generated from these ladies is boggling. But it’s hard to look away from the struggles of Maci, Amber, and Farrah because unlike the quest-to-end-grenades on the Jersey Shore, their difficulties are familiar and sometimes heartbreaking. When Catelynn, after she gave up her daughter for adoption, gets in pitched arguments with her mother about her decision, it’s almost heartbreaking. All of the moms have different situations, but their efforts to support themselves and their new family while growing up are the stuff of novels and newspaper headlines. And it’s refreshing to see something actually real on reality TV — not just millionaire teenagers with ridiculous insta-jobs at fashion magazines and women vying for boob jobs.
On the Trashy to Educational Scale: Toward the trashy end of the spectrum, but it certainly has some educational moments.
The Next Iron Chef, Food Network
Though we love Top Chef and all its scallop-filled glory, The Next Iron Chef has a place in our hearts. For one thing, all of the challenges are as serious and interesting as the last six ones on Top Chef. For another, it has foodie and dork icon Alton Brown as its Colicchio figure, a man who attempts just from looking at a dish weather you are oil-poaching or sauteing or deep-frying or umpteen other preparations. The challenges are fiercely fought, and the other chefs weigh in as judges, which makes for an interesting twist. Food fight lovers would be remiss to skip over this one — plus who can resist a guest spot from Mario Batali?
On the Trashy to Educational Scale: Pretty much smack in the middle. Watching chefs gossip about each others sauces is pretty entrancing, but you also might learn about some weird ingredients.
The Fashion Show, Bravo
We’ve mentioned before that you should dump Project Runway for The Fashion Show, but really, after that whole Mondo debacle? You really should. Iman’s ice queen fashion sense is spot on, and the warring houses have produced a number of interesting (plus plenty of hideous) designs this season. Watching designers collaborate is often a far more interesting prospect than having them go totally off the hinges alone.
On the Trashy to Educational Scale: Closer to trashy than not, but still within the realm of possibility that you’ll get some tips on fashion.
IRT Deadliest Roads, The History Channel
Though it can be unbelievably stress-inducing IRT Deadliest Roads is a pretty badass look at the infrastructure of Southeast Asian countries. It’s an accidentally culturally aware show: many of the difficulties that the drivers encounter are more to do with local customs and national restrictions than mechanical problems, though those happen plenty too. Learning about a mountain road in India so deadly that someone dies there every 15 minutes (or so the narrator informs us) or the precise transportation requirements of Buddhist statues is pretty esoteric stuff for an upper-echelon cable show. Though after watching it, you many never want to risk driving again.
On the Trashy to Educational Scale: Educational-leaning.
Pitbulls and Parolees, Animal Planet
Tia Torres is the owner and manager of a pitbull rescue center, which she staffs almost entirely with parolees. Both animals and people are in need of a second chance, and, believe us, there’s nothing more heartwarming than watching the two find each other. Getting the message out that pitbulls are often just as sweet as lap poodles is a noble cause, and seeing Tia and her family work with ex-cons and former fighting dogs provides drama but without feeling like you’re destroying your soul by watching (ahem, Bridalplasty). It’s well edited and well shot for a reality show, and it also makes you feel good for watching.
On the Trashy to Educational Scale: In the middle, but more towards the educational end.
True Life, MTV
This long-running docu-series is less trashy than most of MTV’s reality TV fare, and its also much more interesting on a regular basis. Form teenagers with money problems to over-zealous parents to young people on the verge of divorce, True Life is a satisfying one hour bite of reality television that shows the lives of real people dealing with problems in relatively sane ways. It also has that voyeurism factor that all the best reality shows have: I mean, who doesn’t want to know how the girl with clown-dressing parents reacts when they pick her up from school?
On the Trashy to Educational Scale: Trashy, but in a gentle way.