Pop Culture

The worst (and best)reality TV moments

Wondering about how a certain reality show pulled something off? Have a question about a certain contestant?

Whether it's "Survivor," "American Idol," "The Apprentice," "Real World" or another show, . Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, MSNBC.com's Television Editor, and Andy Dehnart, creator of the ,will try to answer them.

Q: Occasionally, the Experts will throw in a question of our own. Here's one from Gael: "What's the most cringeworthy moment you've ever witnessed on a reality show, the moment where you said 'I feel like I shouldn't be seeing this.'? And the reverse: Is there a moment when watching a reality show made you feel proud and hopeful about humanity?"

Andy says: With 14 years of reality television to draw from, there have certainly been plenty of moments when I was shocked by what I saw on my TV screen. However, most of those times, I couldn't look away. One of those moments hooked me on reality TV: the aftermath of David pulling the sheet off of Tami in "The Real World Los Angeles."

Yet there are some moments that are just don't belong in our living rooms. I felt that way during "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance." The situation degraded with each episode. The final episode was by far the worst; first, the entire family appeared to have been run over by an 18-wheeler as they finally all showed up to the ceremony, emotionally spent from the producers' wicked little game. After the fake fat fiance refused to say "I do," Randi Coy's family truly flipped out and bailed on the wedding ceremony.  Since they didn't know they were being manipulated but we did, it was wrenching to watch them suffer real pain — all just to get some cash once after the deception was revealed.

On the positive side, most seasons of "The Amazing Race" have at least one team that makes me a proud reality TV watcher. They defeat the obnoxious American stereotype as they follow local customs and respect t he cultures of the communities where they find themselves. The reveals on "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" are also heartwarming and completely fun to watch.

But my favorite moment came on a relatively obscure MTV reality series called It sent a group of five strangers into an allegedly haunted place, which they had to explore in the dark. After two female contestants opted to quit during the second episode, three men were left to complete the "dares" inside an abandoned mental hospital. They nearly instantly became a team of friends, even though they'd just met. Black and white and Asian, thin and fat, masculine and feminine — they bonded and united together, offering genuine words of encouragement over the radio as one of them explored the darkened corridors, terrified. It was a reminder that, at our cores, we're all just scared people roaming through the dark, and we survive with help from one another.

Gael says: Lots of cringing, but I think the rawest moment recently was on the second season of "America's Next Top Model" (an addictive show, by the way). Walgreen's clerk-turned model Shandi was all elbows and uncertainty, and it was a little encouraging to see her turn into a sleek model, growing up before our eyes. But then, while in Italy, she cheated on her hometown boyfriend. That's bad enough, but then the cameras followed her, miking both sides of the conversation as she called and confessed to him. Admittedly, her boyfriend's shrill, womanly voice added to the bizarre sense of things, but his anguish was real, and it felt like watching someone being tortured. I hope the camerapeople look back on filming that moment and feel ashamed.

One of my all-time favorite moments came when Pedro Zamora "married" boyfriend Sean on "Real World San Francisco." Pedro was perhaps one of the most genuine Real Worlders back in a time when it was possible for Real Worlders to be genuine. He found out he had AIDS as a teen, and tried to turn what was then a death sentence into a positive, speaking to schools and groups across the nation about the disease. He loved his big Cuban family in Miami, but also relished starting his own adult life in San Francisco, and was obviously torn between the two cities. When he and Sean stood in the living room of the "Real World" house and pledged their love, both knowing that illness and decline probably waited for the young Pedro, love, even if only for a moment, defied death. Pedro died in 1994 at the age of just 22, perhaps the first gay man that many young MTV viewers ever felt they knew.

Q: How can the contestants on “Fear Factor” ingest those disgusting insects, maggots and rotten flesh without getting diseases or poisoned?    —Dennis, Alabama

A: The things people put in their mouths on "Fear Factor" are certainly disgusting. If the creatures contestants eat aren't alive and clawing for their lives as they get mashed around in players' mouths, then the food appears to be rotten or just unconsumable. The atmosphere where they dine certainly contributes to the horror, as the contestants eat worms in dark basements or cockroaches in abandoned warehouses.

Often, the animals and products the contestants consume are actual delicacies from other countries. Cultural differences make them appear horrific, but many people would find themselves at home with the "Fear Factor" menu. Further, producers say the food consumed is all USDA/FDA approved, and bugs and other animals are tested in laboratories. Even better, the show pays interns and others to test the stunts first to make sure that contestants won't get sick. And if by chance there's any problem, the contestants — who get medical checks before appearing on the show — see a doctor right away.

Thus, the only thing to fear is, well, fear. That, or getting a cow's eyeball caught in your throat, which happened to a contestant on the Norwegian version of "Fear Factor."    —A.D.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's Television Editor. Andy Dehnart is a writer and teacher who publishes , a daily summary of reality-TV news.