This summer marks eight years since "Survivor" debuted on CBS, and six since Fox's "American Idol" took its first steps toward its eventual domination of television. Reality TV rose to prominence thanks to the originality of those shows and others, and because they were born into a TV landscape that was largely growing stale.
Less than a decade ago, cloned sit-coms weren't offering laughs, and few dramas had any punch. With notable exceptions, TV seemed content to sit on its butt and fester until "Survivor" delivered a wake-up call during the summer, when most networks broadcast nothing but reruns.
The proliferation of reality TV since then has led some to fear for civilization, but besides providing hours of raw, original entertainment, it has had an exceptionally positive effect on TV. Competition has worked, as unscripted programming has spurred innovation in scripted TV; "Lost," for example, was initially conceived in part as a fictional version of "Survivor."
Now, though, a number of reality series have fallen into the same ruts as the scripted shows that came before them. Along with those awful shows that result when networks race to copy each others' successes or just bang out shows to fill time, there are also series that are aging rapidly.
Reality TV still offers innovation (like VH1's equally compelling and horrifying "Celebrity Rehab"), gives birth to new sub-genres ("Deadliest Catch" brought a more documentary approach), and delivers ratings and entertainment even from older shows (such as "Survivor," which remains a top-20 show and just came off its best season yet.
But some are stale and ready for retirement — or at the very least, need to be re-imagined. Five of the worst offenders:
"The Amazing Race"For a long time, when someone would ask what my favorite reality show was, I'd say "The Amazing Race." It was unequivocally superior to most other shows, with its simple but distinct combination of a travelogue, adventure series, and reality competition. Host Phil Keoghan's wry comments, the spectacular locations, the inevitable cultural clashes — never mind personality conflicts between the teams of two people who already knew each other — all contributed to a show that won a well-deserved Emmy.
But the Emmys it has won since then seem gratuitous. That's because, sometime after the wretched family season, which largely stayed confined to the United States, the show started to get predictable. The cast members blend together from season to season, as do the spectacular locations. Perhaps most frustrating is the editing, which works too hard to maintain a breakneck speed and never-ending tension, but is increasingly just annoying.
It's time for the "Race" to reinvent itself, perhaps by softening and slowing the editing, or perhaps by doing something more dramatic, like changing up the team structure (Teams of three? People who don't know each other?). At the very least, as it has already started to do, CBS needs to pull back and air just one season a year, so the show seems special, not like a never-ending sprint to nowhere.
"The Real World"MTV apparently keeps "The Real World" on the air only to give people in their 30s something to be nostalgic about, or to give them a reason to say, "In my day..." While the show has younger viewers, that new generation is more compelled by the cast of "The Hills" and Tila Tequila than the drunks on "Real World," so why bother? The days of Puck and Pedro, Irene and Stephen, and even Ruthie are long gone.
Some viewers have found the current Hollywood-set season to be a bit more of a return to the show's roots than other recent seasons. But the now-relentless focus on drinking and hooking up, never mind the way "The Real World"'s self-selecting cast lack pre-existing lives and jobs, seems impossible to avoid, so it's time to retire reality TV's grandparent for good.
"Hell's Kitchen"The first of Gordon Ramsay's two Fox series never really had any redeeming value. The prize awarded to the last contestants tended to change after the show ended and thus seemed irrelevant, but the alleged chefs were always the series' biggest jokes. Watching them try to run a kitchen while being screamed at and insulted required no intellectual or emotional engagement, but was still endlessly entertaining.
While Ramsay continues to throw things and yell every word and insult he can think of, his shtick is as stale as Simon Cowell's alleged insults, and the increasingly incompetent chefs have stripped the show of any cooking competition credibility it may have had. A fifth season of "Hell's Kitchen" has already been taped, but after it airs, it's time to shut it down for good.
"America's Next Top Model"That "America's Next Top Model" hasn't managed to produce a top model isn't really to blame for its decline, because the show has always been more about Tyra Banks mentoring and yelling at her "girls" than about producing real models.
In recent seasons, though, Tyra's heart doesn't seem to be in it as it once was, perhaps because she's distracted by her talk show and other reality projects. But combine that with how virtually identical the models, challenges, and episodes seem from season to season, and it's just become a bore.
"Big Brother"The winter edition of "Big Brother" proved one thing: a group of idiots locked in a house for three months isn't necessarily entertaining. Also, a winter edition of "Big Brother" was a bad idea, in no small part because tracking the houseguests' antics can be a full-time job, and obsessive viewers need nine months to recover.
For season 10, executive producer Allison Grodner is promising a return to the show's original format, with none of the houseguests having pre-existing relationships, which hasn't happened since the show's third season. Maybe that will help, but if not, it's time for some innovation, perhaps in the form of new producers, not ones who produce the show as if they're trapped in a bubble with no outside world contact.
At the very least, the show needs to keep itself in the summer, where the heat and humidity is so oppressive we have no choice but to stay inside and spend time with a group of narcissistic, stupid jerkfaces.
is a writer who publishes , a daily summary of reality TV news. Find him on Facebook.