The 50 Most Surreal Premises in Reality-TV History


From Discovery Life’s ‘Outrageous Births: Tales from the Crib’

Reality TV now walks a fine between being weirdly complicated and utterly basic — yesterday, on Discovery Life, for example, 50 Ways to Kill Your Mother and Outrageous Births: Tales From the Crib debuted! And just last weekend, you’ll recall, it was My Husband’s Not Gaythe show about Mormons keeping their marriages together despite the male component being, er, “not gay.” With spinoffs of spinoffs and ripoffs of ripoffs, no matter how many syllables it takes to describe a new subculture a show’s seeming to invent or the byzantine rules the show’s imposing, as long as reality TV focuses on “real people” but eschews their real problems, which it notoriously does, it remains nauseatingly simple. Because sometimes it’s not even what’s being portrayed, so much as the exploitative way it’s portrayed, that leaves you with the dizzied sense of living in a reality that’s crumbling due to the sheer fact that such shows exist.

Remember when concept-twin films The Truman Show and Ed TV were released a mere year apart? Those were the good old days when people were worried enough about the imminent cultural imposition of reality TV to make mainstream movies about it. The concepts behind these shows-within-a-movie were relatively straightforward: watch a dude live. Reality TV has come a long way since: never satisfied with reality, it evolves in its desperation to mine and embellish obscurer and obscurer realities. In competing with other shows, it plunges into the depths of mind-numbing surrealism. Here are the strangest, most convoluted, yet somehow the most (beguilingly) reduced realities the genre has presented on television:

Armed and Famous, CBS

How would you feel if, totally unexpectedly, your home got raided by a group of armed police officers, and those officers began an antagonistic interrogation, and midway through, after noting how weird it was that these obvious rookies were followed by a camera crew, you realized the cops were La Toya Jackson and Jack Osbourne? Not just a show about celebrities or cops, this was a show about (D-list) celebrities becoming cops. As far as crushing the sanctity of something America prides itself on (these shows might even seem radical if I didn’t know better!) — here, law-enforcement — this certainly did it. So was it, in fact, a searing satire of the American police state and the corruptibility of law-enforcing institutions? Obviously not. But the very fact that this show happened calls into question both our subordination to police and celebrity culture — two forces central to the control of American existence.

Bikini Barbershop, AXS TV

A show about a barbershop alone couldn’t cut it anymore. Bikini Barbershop‘s concept — of a barbershop where the barbers are svelte women in bikinis — seemed to underscore Hollywood’s desire to make breasteses everyone’s breakfast, and seemed to be reality TV’s most arbitrary appendage of boobs onto a nonsexual thing. But, for those of you, like me, who didn’t actually watch this acclaimed series, it turns out that Bikini Barbers was a real place in Jersey, the boobs therein being real boobs you experienced while getting your sideburns trimmed, combining the fraternal barbershop setting with the fraternal tendency to make everything about boobs. The shop closed after Hurricane Sandy, but fear not, former patrons: boobs still exist.

Dog and Beth on the Hunt, CMT

This is a spinoff of the original Dog the Bounty Hunter, which followed a certain Dog Chapman as he chased down criminals. Dog and Beth combines the original with the trappings of family drama-based reality TV shows, as Dog, his wife Beth, their son Leland, and grandson Dakota chase criminals in Hawaii and offer their consulting skills to bail bond businesses.

The Will, CBS

In order for this show to exist, someone had to die. That person was Arizona multimillionaire Bill Long. As is usually the case when someone dies, a family feud erupted as members had to compete for the inheritance of his property; the show was pulled after one episode.

He’s a Lady, TBS

You probably already guessed the basic premise of this one. The show’s bro contestants thought they’d be competing for the title of “All-American Man” through challenges in which they’d display their ability to match whatever reality TV thought American hypermasculinity might be; the prize: $250,000. The money part was real, but it turned out that the true competition was seeing which manly man could pass as a woman by participating in beauty pageants, planning weddings, and acting as bridesmaids — you know, the fundamentals of womanhood. The show assumed that simultaneously emasculating men and egregiously stereotyping women would be amusing to the American public; it seems to have only lasted one season.

Amish Mafia, Discovery

What do you do with the Amish when you’re tired of seeing them go to the city, tired of seeing these rosy-cheeked innocents looking misplaced in the dark corners of an outside world of grime and smut? You find the the dark corners at the very heart of the Amish community. Amish Mafia follows Lebanon Levy, Amish mafioso, and his cronies as they “keep the peace” in Lancaster, PA.

There’s Something About Miriam, Sky1

With a title like that, coupled with the knowledge of how boorishly mid-2000s reality TV approached gender, I’m sure you can imagine the premise of this show. Like most other dating shows, men competed for the affection of a Mexican model named Miriam; they’d also get a 10,000-pound (the show was British) prize and a dream vacation with her. The big reveal for contestants at the end — that little “something about Miriam,” if you will — was that she was trans. The show repulsively exploited trans identity for a “gotcha” moment — and of course contestants reacted rather poorly. The contestant Miriam chose accepted her on camera, but later reneged, and joined other contestants in a lawsuit.

Kid Nation, CBS

For all the sick fucks who didn’t find reading Lord of the Flies to be enough of a harrowing experience, there’s Kid Nation , wherein children between the ages of eight and 15 took over and governed an entire town all on their own. Of course, if any of them try to kill Piggy, a nice cameraman could intervene, or an off-camera parent could punish them by taking away their right to later appear on, say, Bikini Barbershop.

Orgasm Wars, a channel in Japan that I cannot find

Orgasm Wars is absolutely as tawdry as it sounds, and is the real-life equivalent of “Dick in a Box.” On this show, a gay man must attempt, via fellatio or perhaps other stuff, to make a straight male porn star climax, while said male porn star tries, at the same time, not to climax. I smell drama! The gay man has 40 minutes (as does the straight man, of course). BTW, the dick is in a box. That’s why I made that comparison.

30 Days, FX

After Orgasm Wars, I feel it’s necessary, if we’re going to live through 50 of these, to dial it back for a minute. 30 Days is on here mostly because it’s bizarre that Morgan Spurlock, the respected documentarian, bridged the gap between documentary film and reality TV, which are superficially similar yet couldn’t be farther apart in their aims. Yet Spurlock decided to make a reality show out of the 30-day premise behind his self-destructive streak of eating only at McDonald’s in Supersize Me. This show is a surprising example of the ways in which reality TV, if given just a little more care outside of being the televised equivalent of clickbait (which makes it such an interesting, morally complex topic for a listicle, dont’cha know?), could indeed be a little more meaningful (just a little bit). In it, characters step inside the shoes of people who lead lifestyles counter to their beliefs, and try to develop an understanding of one-another. What’s most baffling about this show is that, while still clearly following a reality TV formula, it might have something resembling a heart.

American Stuffers, Animal Planet

This show could have made it onto this list by virtue of its title alone — but alas, there’s more to it than the mere word “stuffers” and the fact that you can put anything after the word “American” and somehow make it sound both zeitgeist-y and relevant. The show follows the owners of Xtreme Taxidermy, a shop in Romance, Arkansas, in their preservation of other people’s dead pets (including a chihuahua who was kept in a freezer for four years!).

My Husband’s Not Gay, TLC

This GLAAD-angering special focuses on an insular community of Mormon families whose patriarchs can’t stop ogling other men. They call themselves “same sex attracted” — the catchphrase is “SSA, not gay.” These characters speak openly about the fantasies they’re preventing themselves from having, and claim said discursive openness (i.e. having a game they play with their “SSA” friends and wives where they rate the men they’d want to bang if they weren’t so damn married and so damn Mormon) creates an emotional balance. Of course, what the show fails to reveal is that it’s quite likely — if not entirely certain — that they’re actually emotional prisoners in their forced heterosexuality, and that their wives are similarly prisoners to their husbands’ desires to lead normative lives without actually desiring their wives.

Please Marry My Boy, Seven Network

A seemingly innocuous concept from Australia: mothers vouch for their sons in real life, so why should this be any stranger? But Please Marry My Boy follows men who’ve had bad luck — or are just inept romantically — and their mothers who’ve decided to take matters into their own hands and help hand-select their son’s bride. But very soon, this show was said to seem like a pimping platform — and then purely an Oedipal platform — on which these mothers may or may not have been living vicariously through these young women’s potential sex lives with their sons. If the likes of The Bachelor marked the dawn of the end of the institution of marriage, is this the dawn of the end of motherhood? Well, no. But it’s still really uncomfortable.

Bridalplasty, E!

Remember when a woman had to make her husband 300 sandwiches in order to wrench a proposal out of him? That culinary/matrimonial hostage situation caused quite a stir. Bridalplasty was similar — just ever so much more fucked. Soon-to-be-brides went to soon-to-be-bride camp in a McMansion, where they competed in cutesy soon-to-be-bride challenges, such as flower arrangement… and flower arrangement (the actual challenges were so inconsequential that that’s really all I can recall). When one soon-to-be-bride won a challenge, she’d get a prize — a plastic surgery of her choosing! And, of course, if said bride won in a subsequent episode, she could get another plastic surgery. This show is a conceptual supervillain — more calculatedly ugly than most. The first three-quarters of the episodes would bathe viewers in florid bridal minutiae, then in the last 15 minutes, we’d see a doctor slicing one such bride open and sucking cellulite out of her arm. She’d return to the McMansion mummified, swollen, and declaring how excited she was that now she’d get to be the bride she always wanted to be.

Alaskan Women Looking for Love, TLC

Reality television seems to be having quite an extended romance with Alaska. With its dramatic setting — dramatically set apart from the rest of the continental United States — it’s the most foreign place American reality TV can make fun of without making fun of an actual foreign country. There have been so many shows about Alaska (see Slednecks, for example) that now shows about Alaska don’t even take place in Alaska: Alaskan Women Looking for Love brings its stars off of their respective sexless mountaintops and sends them to Miami to find their beautiful, be-thonged boyfriends.

The Surreal Life, WB/VH1

The Real World was weird enough: keep any set of strangers in a house for a long enough time and relationships — and the human psyche — are bound to unravel in weird ways. So when all of those unraveling human psyches belong to D-list celebrities, it is, of course, all the stranger, and everyone is, of course, all the more desperate for attention. Season 2 was noteworthy for its inclusion of Ron Jeremy.

Opposite Worlds, Syfy

Opposite Worlds may just prove that this world is running out of ideas. Reality TV shows like Big Brother have put people in antiseptic, futuristic environments; shows like Frontier House put people in amenity-devoid pasts. After many such shows, clearly there was nothing left to do but to mash the past and future into one show: thus Opposite Worlds — which features two “teams” in one split house, divided between a stone-age lifestyle and a space-age lifestyle — came into existence. Amusingly, the future mostly looks like it was bought at an Ikea clearance sale (do they have those? I hope they do), and is evoked through champagne and angular furniture, while the past is evoked through loin cloths and no champagne. To emphasize the opposition (in case you didn’t catch on), there’s a large window in the dividing wall through which the prisoners of the times gaze at and contemplate the alternate existence. Don’t watch this one without your thinking cap.

All My Babies’ Mamas, Oxygen Network

Rapper Shawty Lo has 11 babies by ten different women. Together, these women therefore comprise “all [his] babies’ mamas.” The show never aired.

Double Divas, Lifetime

One thing you can’t say reality TV fails at is wordplay. Get this: this show’s title is a double entendre! For while you might think its central characters — two besties from Kennesaw, Georgia — would be so diva-ish as to be considered “double divas,” they’re actually just in the lingerie business, fitting women for the proper bra sizes, such as that which you may have picked up on in the title.

Celebracadabra, VH1

If Hal Sparks or Carnie Wilson ever try to saw you in half, know that they’re not being creepy: they’re simply using skills they learned on Celebracadabra, in which “celebrities” learned to be magicians. Unfortunately, few of the magactors/musgicians managed to magic their careers back to vitality, but worry not: surely there’s a quarter behind their ear whenever they need it.

Sex Sent Me to the ER, TLC

A “documentary” TV show in which actors reenact “true stories” of occasions in which the titular terror came to pass (the show includes tales of two-hour orgasms, and while I haven’t watched the episode titled “Knee Deep,” I can only imagine what it entails).

Big Giant Swords, Discovery

This man makes big, giant swords. This channel thinks a show about this man making big, giant swords is worth your (or, fine, at least someone’s) time. In a preview, swordsmith Irish Mike Craughwell offers up some wise words that we should all keep in mind: “Life is too short to do something you hate, so I’m going to try and make a living and support my family by making and selling giant swords.”

Vanilla Ice Goes Amish, DIY Network

Sometimes, the Amish go urban. Other times, Vanilla Ice goes Amish. Just depends on what time it is. From DIY Network’s description: “Pop icon and knock-out home renovator Vanilla Ice ditches his high tech power tools and moves to Amish country to learn the lost art of hand craftsmanship.”

Mr. Personality, Fox

With its premise of “It’s what’s inside that matters,” Mr. Personality saw a bachelorette choosing her man without ever getting to see his face. With a hoard of masked prospective partners, this mostly ended up resembling the cultic orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut.

Strange Love, VH1

Strange Love was a spinoff of a romance that arose on The Surreal Life, which, if you’ll recall, was loosely based on the premise of The Real World. The show focused on the “strange love” between the ever-fighting couple Brigitte Nielsen and Flavor Flav, whose relationship conveniently lasted just as long as the show’s first season. When things didn’t work out, Flavor Flav went on to create a new show about his search for new love, called Flavor of Love.

Megan Wants a Millionaire, VH1

Most people on reality television do. So why was this show at all surprising or abnormal? Funny you should ask: the show, which starred former Rock of Love: Charm School contestant Megan Hauserman, was just your typical reality show about chasing financial love until one of the contestants competing for Megan’s devotion (in exchange for his money) murdered his actual wife, then committed suicide. The whole season had been taped, but this news broke after the third episode, and it was taken off the air, though it was later divulged that the murderous contestant had ultimately won third place.

19 Kids and Counting, TLC

Let’s just say that when the series about the contraceptive-contrarian, no-skirts-above-the-knee-practicing, Independent Baptist Duggar family began, it was 17 Kids and Counting. Perhaps they should stop counting.

Whisker Wars, IFC

Far tamer than Orgasm Wars, this show about mustachioed rivals merely sees bristly men trying to look more like the above photo than their competitors. Still, it’s pretty surreal.

Dating Brad Garrett, Internet

Everybody Loves Raymond may or may not have caused you to have sex dreams about a man with a booming baritone. But simply dating Brad Garrett — which Brad Garrett’s show is simply called — was not something I ever would have thought of as something that could, or should, be turned into a public affair. However, in 2008, Garrett started online dating. Not using the Internet to find dates, necessarily, but posting the dates he went on on the Internet.

Psychic Matchmaker, TLC

She may not have as much exclusive access to eligible millionaires as Patti Stanger, but she probably can detect everything you’ve ever wanted Brad Garrett to do to your butt.

Roseanne’s Nuts, Lifetime

Roseanne Barr now lives on a farm in Hawaii. And on that farm, she has some macadamia nuts (ee-i-ee-i-o). And a reality TV show (ee-i-ee-you get it). Roseanne Barr picks nuts in real life; she picks nuts on the reality show. Allegedly, it’s not bad.

I Wanna Marry Harry, Fox

Prince Harry, son of Charles, Prince of Wales and Diana, Princess of Wales, was not the star of a dating show in May, 2014; Matthew Hicks, however, was. Without being told that they were “dating” Prince Harry, the eligible bachelorettes on this (canceled) show were led to surmise that such was the case, based on their opulent surroundings, the fact that Hicks was only referred to as “sir” by the hired help, and the fact that, when most people imagine Prince Harry’s face, they just think of a nondescriptly attractive mass of pasty features gilded in fire, which Hicks also possesses. Originally told they were merely participating in a show called Dream Date, contestants slowly began to think the producers had left some crucial information out for shock value, and that they’d actually been vying for a chance to become royalty the whole time. In actuality, they were just vying for the chance to become Mrs. Hicks. But who knows? Perhaps being married to someone who pretended to be Prince Harry on reality TV to embarrass a group of women is great!

My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé, Fox

This is another show whose main goal seemed a fascinating attack on the institution of marriage. Randi Coy, the female (alleged elementary school teacher, despite having a name that’s the porniest possible combination of adjectives) component of the, er, “relationship” was told that she and her soon-to-be-spouse (who she had yet to meet) would both earn $250,000 if in 12 days they could convince their families that they were getting married — and if their families all agreed without objecting. Ah, but of course there was more of a catch. Firstly, the blandly attractive woman’s fiancé turned out to be what reality TV might consider “unattractive.” This was immediately apparent to Randi. What wasn’t apparent was that he was an actor who’d been instructed to make it impossible for her family to like him. His family were also actors, likewise cast to make Randi’s life just a little harder.

Eaten Alive, Discovery

This is the infamous Discovery special that promised that a man would get eaten alive by an anaconda. When naturalist Paul Rosolie didn’t live up to his promise — and was unable to be eaten alive — people’s perturbed reactions showed just how desensitized we’d become. Yes, we’ve gotten to the point where nothing on reality TV can truly excite us anymore, unless a man voluntarily puts himself inside a snake. The snake refused to comment, and so the question of whether the “anaconda [didn’t] want none [because Rosolie didn’t] got buns, hun” remains unanswered.

The Naked Office, Channel 4

This English TV show documented Naked Fridays in offices around England; the Naked Friday concept was a “social experiment” meant to get workers in dysfunctional offices to rid themselves of the status issues that come with the divisiveness of clothing and not seeing coworkers’ gooches, or something.

Tommy Lee Goes to College, NBC

Mötley Crüe drümmer Tömmy Lee went tö cöllege.

Shipping Wars, A&E

Ever stopped whatever you were doing and thought to yourself, in a Eureka! moment, “My life would really change if I watched more TV shows about the world of shipping, and the battles therein”? No, me neither, but here’s a show about shipping, and the battles therein! Shipping Wars exposes all of the venom bubbling beneath the surface of the shipping community as shippers bid for the biggest loads. Yeah.

National Firewood Night, NRK

National Firewood Night wasn’t without its controversy in Norway. According to Huffington Post, the head of programming at Norwegian channel NRK as “slow but noble television”; the program’s opening four hours featured discussions of how to best chop and stack firewood. This was followed by eight hours of footage of a burning fire. But despite the utterly innocuous tranquility of the program — and despite the fact that 20 percent of Norway’s population watched — there was, as is often the case with reality TV (if you can call it that), some outrage. The channel allegedly received over 60 messages complaining about the placement of the bark in the fire. It’d be nice if American shows — instead of stirring controversy over, say, homophobia or condescending depictions of the working class — could take a cue from Norway’s “slow, noble” television and instead do something that’d merely garner complaints over the placement of wood.

Buying Naked, TLC

There are so many things you can do naked! From other shows, we’ve already learned you can date naked, work naked, and be naked while simultaneously being afraid. On Buying Naked, real estate agent Jackie Youngblood helps nudists find a nice home tailored to a clothing-optional lifestyle. Says TLC, “Jackie and her team must also bear in mind the hazards that are lurking for their clothing-optional clientele – everything from countertop height to sharp corners and flooring (rug burn hurts!).”

I Cloned My Pet, TLC

It seems there are many options, when on reality TV, for what you can do with your dead pet! You can get them stuffed on American Stuffers or, should you choose to go a more expensive (only $50,000 to $100,000) alternate route, you can get them cloned in a lab in South Korea! I Cloned My Pet includes such absurdities as a visit to a medium to tell one former pet owner whether or not she should clone her pet, a blanket covered in the leftover molecules of a basenji kept in a hermetically sealed bag, and someone who realized they couldn’t afford the cloning they’d gotten and wrote a song about it, hoping it’d go viral.

Who’s Your Daddy? Fox

The premise of Who’s Your Daddy? is kind of like the game Guess Who?, only with a delicate and even sometimes traumatic issue at its core. Hooray! On this show, one person who was adopted at a young age is placed in a room with 25 men. The adoptee gets to guess who their daddy is, and if they guess correctly, they win both a daddy and $100,000. If not, the show wasn’t so cruel as to deny them their actual daddy; however, the fake daddy they chose would get to walk off with the $100,000. So basically it was a room full of 24 men hoping an adoptee would embarrass him- or herself and lose the chance at $100,000. The show was meant to run for a whole season, but due to criticism, was aired merely as a 90-minute special.

Spoiled Rotten Pets, National Geographic

People clearly got sick of Toddlers and Tiaras, so here’s this.

Sunset Tan, E!

Come for the celebrities, stay for the gorgeous skin tone (and possibility of melanoma)! Sunset Tan chronicles the tumultuous lives of the employees at a Los Angeles tanning salon which attracts a slew of B-rate celebrities with its A-grade tans.

Space Cadets, Channel 4

This British show was a very expensive hoax: a series of young people were convinced they were going to Russia to train for a trip to space. They were not in Russia, but Suffolk. Then, they went to space. They were not in space, but rather just… still in Suffolk. The show went so far as to require a five-million-pound budget, building an elaborate space simulator and training camp. Through elaborate trickery, and the employment of a team of dedicated actors manipulating the clueless non-actors (they were so cautious that they smoked Russian cigarettes around the set), they managed to convince this group of young people that they’d accomplished something rare and exciting, that their lives had purpose — they’d been to space! they were officially space tourists! — rather than that they’d merely taken a month-long vacation to Suffolk.

Married by America, Fox

Americans notoriously have trouble getting out to the polls to vote in elections — and when they do, they make some silly choices (or perhaps Jeb Bush helps make those choices for them). So it’s questionable that someone would let the American public decide on their engagement. But questionable has never been a question with reality TV. So, in Married by America, voters could determine, out of five men and five women who’d never met, who would become engaged to whom. After the votes were in, these new couples (and just-acquainted people) were officially engaged! They were then each put in seclusion while three alleged relationship experts (two of them doctors, even!) determined which couples were the most functional, and which would get eliminated week by week. The two final couples could, if they wanted, get married. Neither of them did. America’s clearly a shitty yenta.

Boy Meets Boy, Bravo

Ah, the binary. Reality TV loves it. And for Bravo, a station known to be queer-friendly (or perhaps just queer-pandering), this show in many ways cruelly banked on the tyranny of the binary over many non-hetero men’s attractions. Most queer people can attest to the frustrations of liking someone who won’t like you back because, understandably, they’re attracted to the opposite gender. And Bravo likewise understood this irksome aspect of gay life and made a TV show out of exacerbating it! While structurally it was the same as most elimination-based dating shows, Boy Meets Boy‘s catch was that some of the sexually ambiguous men who one gay man might be falling for might have been straight. At the end, if the gay guy ultimately picked another gay guy to be his mate, he’d win $25,000; if the man was straight, too bad, brah! All was for naught!

The Virgin Diaries, TLC

Watch people embarrass themselves (as usual) by kissing like this!

Hole in the Wall, Fox

Clearly (though it was never outwardly stated by the network) more of a hybrid reenactment of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Pink Floyd’s The Wall than a game, on this show players must contort themselves to be the same shape as an asymmetrical void. As a wall speeds toward them, if they’re skilled, they’ll simply sink into the void, for, as Sartre put it “nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being — like a worm”; here, as contestants transcend the wall, we see how nothing becomes being, and being becomes nothing. Pink Floyd once sang, “All in all you’re just another brick in the wall” — here, similarly, man becomes wall, and wall becomes man.

Parking Wars, A&E

Feast on a smorgasbord of schadenfreude as you watch some of the most disliked people on the planet — traffic enforcement employees — become further disliked while car owners endure the pains these power-hungerers inflict through parking tickets and god knows what other kinds of wicked sorcery.

Sarah Palin’s Alaska, TLC

This one’s a convoluted premise insomuch as its entire foundation boils down to such a strange chapter in American election history; it’s the closest — because of Palin’s involvement — an election has ever, itself, seemed to a reality TV show. Of course, Palin didn’t have a reality TV show until after her run for Vice President — her life and persona just seemed to already exist in that realm. And in order for us to care about Sarah Palin’s Alaska, she first had to say dumb shit about “her Alaska” like “as Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where – where do they go? It’s Alaska. It’s just right over the border.” SNL would then spoof it, turning Palin into everyone’s favorite example of the farcical nature of US elections… ultimately, this earned her the grimacing “popularity” needed to merit a reality TV show. And a reality TV show she received! The New York Times best described it as “observ[ing] Ms. Palin observing nature.”