Any such list has to start with Survivor: Original Recipe. It created the mold into which so much which followed was poured, not just by bringing the reality competition genre to the States but by lucking into a narrator/protagonist as brilliant as Richard Hatch in both playing the game strategically and explaining to viewers what he was doing. We didn't know what we were getting into -- and neither did the Pagong tribe, which turned its name into a verb along with creating so much of the other language we now use across the genre, from alliances to "immunity" to I'm Not Here To Make Friends to -- and this doesn't get noted often enough -- putting an out gay man front and center of the show.
Yeah, okay, so they may have messed with Stacey Stillman's chances in order to keep Rudy in the game artificially, and it was a shame Gervase couldn't swim ... but it really was important for Burnett to show that this wasn't just going to be a game for the young and fit. In the end, as Chuck Klosterman discusses in his new book, "Those first voters made a critical distinction. They decided that the ability to succeed at Survivor without natural skills was more impressive than succeeding with one's own aptitude and work ethic. They decided that that the ability to drag everyone down to the middle required more strategy than transcending the group alone. They invented what success at Survivor was supposed to signify."
And it was only by one vote. The other Survivor seasons which I have to add to any top ten list are Palau and Guatemala, one after the other in 2005. Palau had the demolition of the Ulongs, Janu's quitting followed by the Tom-Ian showdown for which we had waited all season; Guatemala was one of the best strategic games we've seen, with Stephenie, Danni, Rafe, Gary
You know that The Amazing Race will get several slots on any list I'm preparing, and I don't need to like the winner to love the season, as long as the ride is fun. That's why Season 3, with FloZac, Teri-Ian, Team FireCop and the model twins tops this chart. Here's what I wrote in 2002 after the finale, and especially this: "[G]ood reality tv reveals character, and TAR does it better than any other show by placing characters in familiar settings, and not hermetically sealed bubbles. Many of us know what it's like to travel while fatigued, to have to deal with foreign cultures . . . to find a cab in an American downtown.... Plain and simple, this was television at its best -- a great travelogue, plus a great study of human emotions. Surprising, thrilling, revealing, and most of all, entertaining, and there's nothing wrong with a little entertainment now and then." Joining it on my top ten list, because I'm clearly not limiting myself to one-season-per-show, are Seasons 2 and 5 -- the first dominated by TaraWil and Team Cha Cha Cha, the latter by Colin/Christie, Chip/Kim and Mirna/Schmirna -- also make the cut as well. We've never seen racing as smart as we have in the latter, or oxen which were as broken.
No surprise to regular readers of this site that America's Next Top Model: Cycle 2 gets a mention here. It had the talent (Yoanna/Shandi/Mercedes/April/Xiomara/TinyJenascia) and the drama (Shandi), and it was back when Janice Dickinson was still on the show as, as I noted back then, "America's favorite she's-a-man-baby-uberbitch [with] a heart of gold as Mercedes' biggest champion."
As I told Alan, I put American Idol 7 (David, David, Clifford the Crunchy Muppet, Michael Johns and Carly Smithson) atop any list of best Idol seasons. The level of talent was great, and the underlying narrative of scrappy, sincere Cook versus The Young David Archuleta Machine was satisfying to watch. Also, that Jason Castro meltdown is one of the most bizarre things I've ever seen. (Last season is a close runner-up; the talent level seems to keep rising on the show even when you'd think they'd have somewhat drained the swamp by now.)
Two slots remain. I originally put Top Chef Masters here to recognize its sustained, drama-free excellence, but in the end I can't leave out Project Runway 2, from back when everyone was watching the show that pioneered that "let's give professionals a shot at being awesome in their craft" subgenre. Santino, Nick, Andrae and the rest of that deep cast delivered both on the fashion and drama, and even if the show displayed entirely too much tootie at times, it was a joy to watch. Also: Tim Gunn, the mentor we all wish we had in our careers.
The final spot -- and this is pure entertainment value -- has to go to Joe Millionaire. This was the series that made clear just how much of a role editors played in the process, turning something which the competitors thought was a Bachelor-type show into one of the best comedies on television. Mmm, (slurp) (slurp) (gulp) indeed.
Other Runners-Up (not in any order): Nashville Star (season one); MTV's Sorority Life (season one); The Apprentice (season one); Rock Star: Supernova; Bachelorettes in Alaska; WWF Tough Enough (season one); The Contender (season one); Grease: You're The One That I Want.
Ruled out on eligibility grounds, but nonetheless compelling: Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Baltimore Ravens was marketed as reality tv, but really was a documentary that filmed an aspect of life which itself functions like reality tv. But nonetheless great. Similarly on Project Greenlight, which certainly had reality/elimination elements at the start but was much more of a documentary. Real World: Hawaii, the last great season, was in 1999. Finally, both Joe Schmo seasons ruled, but they're more improv comedy with reality elements than pure reality.
That's it. That's the list.