The Best 20 Reality Shows of All Time, Ranked

Real Housewives American Idol Project Runway
Real Housewives: Bravo; American Idol: ABC/Fox; Project Runway: Lifetime

For a genre that’s so often been defined (often by its detractors) as cheap and easy, reality television sure has had to work hard to make it through its adolescence.

There were those tough toddler years spent eating scorpions and lying in tarantula tanks; a coming of age obsessed with the home lives of wayward celebrities; and that phase where it kept wanting to get married to millionaires, multi-millionaires and big, fat fiancees.

We the reality TV audience have been through a lot, and with that came the scorn of people who dismissed reality TV as the dumb, venal spiraling downward of American culture. (It didn’t help when it turned out that the most disastrous and threatening national figure of our lifetimes was reborn into prominence via a reality show.)

While reality already had its roots in the ground by the time “Survivor” premiered in the summer of 2000, it was the big bang of that show that sent the stardust of strategy games, candid celebrity vehicles, talent contests and competitive romance into the far reaches of network and cable TV (and significantly later, streaming). Despite the deep resistance in Hollywood to the idea of excellence in reality TV, the genre has produced some inarguable gems: shows that thrilled, amused or captivated the American public the same as any scripted series.

Here, Variety ranks the 20 best reality shows of all time by featuring a few legacy selections as well as the best, most important and/or most frivolously addictive shows of the era.