By necessity, we spend a lot of time covering the reality shows that get the big Nielsen ratings and all the press attention — "American Idol," "Survivor," "Apprentice," "Amazing Race."
But we have to admit, both of us harbor fondness for some of the genre's smaller shows. Some of them are on cable networks with small audiences, some cover a very specialized topic, but all caught our interest in some way.
This week, instead of answering questions, we've each chosen five smaller reality shows to highlight. We'll get back to answering questions next week, so keep sending them in.
Want to mention a show we missed? Drop us a line.
ANDY'S FIVE"Airline," A&EWhen people dismiss reality TV because it isn’t “real,” my first instinct is to slam their fingers in a door repeatedly until they promise to come up with a more intelligent critique. But I usually just recommend they watch A&E’s “Airline.” Each half-hour episode follows two or three different stories at different airports, all of which involve Southwest Airlines crew and passengers. The cameras mostly eavesdrop on everyday conflicts — delayed or overbooked flights, luggage problems — and these are the most engaging stories because of their ordinariness. Sometimes we see the tough, unforgiving part of the crew members’ jobs, such as when they have to tell larger passengers they have to buy two seats, or remove passengers from a flight because they’re drunk or unruly. While there are plenty of idiot travelers, what we see isn’t always flattering to Southwest and its employees, which is part of what’s appealing. “Airline” is raw and unfiltered and honest.
“The Contender,” NBC
Mark Burnett has had hits (“The Apprentice” and “Survivor”) and misses (“The Casino” and “The Restaurant”). Despite its relatively low ratings, his new NBC series “The Contender” is a hit. If I had to pick a sport I’d want to watch a reality show about, boxing would come at the low end of the list, near table tennis. But with a theme song and score (composed by Hans Zimmer) that rivals epic Hollywood films, each episode of “The Contender” unfolds artfully. With “Survivor”-style challenges and an engaging cast, which includes the boxers’ family members, we’re pulled in to the looming conflict. And once the conflict has been set up, it gets resolved in the boxing ring. Forget Tribal Council and the boardroom; here, the contestants punch each other in the head, often in slow motion and with added sound effects, to see who stays and who goes.
"Project Greenlight," BravoIn its third season, the show moved to Bravo from HBO, but this series hasn’t lost a thing, except for unbleeped swear words. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s series is an incredible look into both the business of producing films and the logistics of shooting a movie. The competition is over after the first episode, so the series is about actually creating something, not pointless arguing. Certainly there’s conflict, often involving short-tempered producer Chris Moore, but everyone is ultimately working to produce the best film, and that makes for engaging, revealing television.
"The Starlet," The WBTyra Banks’ stilted and awkwardly phrased stock phrases aside, her introduction of professional reality TV shows opened the door to a string of great series. The latest airs on The WB and focuses on young female actors. While “The Starlet” too often seems like an excuse to promote the network’s lineup, watching the young women learn the craft of acting is riveting. And while judge Faye Dunaway’s dismissal catch-phrase—“don’t call us, we’ll call you”—is delivered with Tyra-style awkwardness, watching an Oscar winner judge a contest on a minor network is surreal.
"Project Runway," BravoBravo’s fashion design was a ratings hit for Bravo, but it deserves a massive audience — much bigger than the 2.5 million who watched the last 15 minutes of the finale. It has, thankfully, been renewed, and Bravo should make plans now to air episodes on sibling network NBC (like they did with “Queer Eye” in its early days) to increase its audience. While petty conflict and pseudodrama were definitely a big part of the appeal, the show also focused on the craft of designing clothing. Watch someone design and then construct a dress in hours only from supplies purchased in a grocery store, and then just try to turn the channel.
"Dog the Bounty Hunter," A&E
I didn't want to like "Dog the Bounty Hunter" when I first saw the commercials. It sounded like a cheap take-off on the fame Duane "Dog" Chapman acquired after he hunted down cosmetics heir Andrew Luster, who'd fled the country and been convicted in absentia of rape. But it's tough not to like the mulleted, muscled Dog and his goofy, fashion-clueless family, who chase down bad guys in scenic Hawaii. Dog himself was once on the wrong side of the law, and perhaps because of that he really tries to help the people he's chasing. He seems to have a heart twice the size of his massive biceps. It's a Dog's life indeed.
"Intervention," A&E"Intervention" is not a show for everyone The cameras follow addicts of all types — from meth to gambling to sex to cutting — who believe that they are being filmed for a documentary on addiction. Instead, the addict's family is meeting with an interventionist who's planning the confrontation with the addict. The moment when he or she realizes what's really happening is wrenching, but by then we've seen enough of the person's self-destructive behavior to realize that they really do have no way out. "We love you, we just realized we can't love you to death," choked the mother of a Minnesota meth addict. "Intervention" doesn't follow its subjects into treatment for privacy reasons; instead, captions tell viewers if the addict made it through treatment or not. And at least one addict refused to go along with her intervention and is still being supported by her desperate family. No laughs here, just ice-sharp reality.
"Starting Over," syndicated
Is "Starting Over" a daytime reality show or a real-life soap opera? I prefer to steal a phrase from of "Real World New Orleans," who calls the show "Old Lady Real World." "Starting Over" follows an ever-changing group of women who enter the show's Los Angeles mansion seeking to change their lives in different ways. Some seek to reunite with a family member, conquer a fear, or learn a skill. Each woman is assigned a life coach to guide her in her growth, which is where things start to get bizarre. While some of the information the women are given is solid, other times they participate in bizarre projects (a woman who committed adultery had to wear a letter A; a woman with low self-esteem had to cover herself with mud). And I wonder if single mom Josie couldn't have benefited from more parenting and community college classes rather than the exotic animal training that is doing her no good back home in Illinois. Still, the show is addictive and some of the women do seem to grow and learn from it.
"Tuner Transformation," Speed Channel
Think "Pimp My Ride" with less bling and more Canadians; or "The Swan" only with the surgery performed on cars. "Tuner Transformation" takes hold of a willing participant's car and secretly decks it out for free. But unlike "Trading Spaces," there's no hay glued on the walls here. These hosts know and love cars, and their speed-obsessed owners are usually thrilled with how their cars look and drive at the end of the show. And while on "The Swan" every woman seems to end up with breast implants, in the "Tuner Transformation" world, tires, speakers and engines are the things that end up enormous.
"Wickedly Perfect," CBSI doubt "Wickedly Perfect" will return, but elements of the show are likely to turn up in Martha Stewart's version of "The Apprentice." The show cast a bunch of Type A personalities, with talents ranging from gourmet cooking to complicated sewing to woodworking, and turned them loose on weekly projects. For those of us who have trouble throwing even a small dinner party, watching the contestants pull off these large-scale events, and be judged on every detail, was nerve-wracking and impressive. It made me want to dig that old shoebox out of the closet and start working again on my own half-finished projects. Except I won't be making any wire roses, Kimberly.
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's Television Editor. is a writer and teacher who publishes , a daily summary of reality TV news.