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  • Writer's pictureJack Vita

10 seasons of reality TV to watch during COVID

I can still remember where I was in the summer of 2000, watching Sue Hawk deliver her iconic "snakes and rats" speech in the final tribal council of Survivor's premier season, enabling Richard Hatch win a million dollars, and paving the way for an entirely new genre of network television.

In the immediate aftermath of Survivor's unprecedented success, networks would turn to reality TV as an instant cash cow. The shows were relatively inexpensive to produce, the drama was real, and the genre was in high demand.

While the popularity and viewership of competition reality television has significantly diminished since its heyday, its overall impact continues to be felt, and many reality TV junkies such as myself remain hooked.

If you find yourself bored during this temporary period of social distancing, allow me to help. In honor of Survivor's 20th anniversary, here are my picks for the "10 reality TV seasons to watch during quarantine".

Please note that my selections only consist of reality *competition* shows. So, my apologies to The Real World, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Real Housewives, and many others. Better luck next time. It's also important to note that I haven't seen every season of reality TV. I can only speak from my own viewing experiences.

10) Madden Nation, Season One (2005), ESPN

In an effort to cash in on the reality TV boom of the early 2000s, ESPN would create two of my all-time favorite reality shows, Dream Job and Madden Nation. In Dream Job, people from all over the United States would audition and compete to become a real-life SportsCenter anchor. Sadly, this show cannot be found anywhere online. If anyone can somehow find it, tweet me! On another note, is there any way ESPN can throw all these classic shows up onto ESPN+? The people pay enough for it!

With Dream Job out of the question, try Madden Nation! In Madden Nation, the best Madden players in America travel via bus across the country, visiting one NFL stadium after another, playing the popular sports video game. Competitors were eliminated in each episode, and at the end of the trip, the last Madden player standing takes home $100,000.

I'm one of "eSports"' biggest critics ("eSports" are NOT sports!), and even I enjoy this fun, silly show. Reality TV shouldn't be taken too seriously. This show understands its goofiness and embraces it. It also serves as a fun time capsule for the sports world. Watching Jake Plummer throw touchdowns and Willis McGahee break off long runs is a true nostalgia trip.

Each season is just eight episodes, with episodes running no longer than a half hour. It's a quick watch. Very enjoyable, but if you don’t like sports, this one may be worth skipping. Season one is far and away the show's best. Season two, not so much.

Where to watch: YouTube

9) The Celebrity Apprentice, Season Four (2011), NBC

Please remove all political bias while reading this list. Before Donald Trump was the president of the United States, he hosted and produced one of the most successful reality shows on the planet. After six seasons of The Apprentice, the Donald decided to freshen up the format, having B and C-list celebrities compete to win money for charity, instead of vying for a job working under Trump. The result was glorious. A wonderful mish-mash of flamboyant characters graced our TV screens with regularly hilarious interactions and unsurprisingly poor business ideas, followed by weak execution (with several exceptions).

Season four has one of my all-time favorite reality TV cast lists. Where else can you see Richard Hatch and Jose Canseco going toe-to-toe in the boardroom? Or Gary Busey throwing slices of pepperoni on the streets of New York, labeling himself "the pepperoni prophet"?

One of the perks of watching any season of The Apprentice is that it can easily be seen for free! Check out the Tubi app on your smart TV, or go to the Tubi website. Every season of the show is on there; you don't even need to set up an account.

Cast (in alphabetical order): Gary Busey, Jose Canseco, David Cassidy, Hope Dworaczyzk, Richard Hatch, LaToya Jackson, Star Jones, NeNe Leakes, Lil Jon, Marlee Matlin, Mark McGrath, John Rich, Lisa Rinna, Niki Taylor, Dionne Warwick, Meat Loaf.

Where to watch: Tubi

8)Survivor: Marquesas(Season Four, 2002), CBS 

Our first Survivor entry on this list comes in the form of its fourth season. Taking place in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia, it features the debut of one of reality television's most iconic personalities, Boston Rob Mariano.

This season doesn't get nearly the amount of credit it deserves. I won't spoil or give anything away; just watch this season and trust me!

Where to watch: Paramount Plus

7) The Amazing Race, Season 7 (2005), CBS

After watching Boston Rob's first stint on Survivor, check him and his wife Amber (of Survivor: Australian Outback fame) out on The Amazing Race! One of the coolest things about The Amazing Race is that while shows such as Survivor, The Challenge, and Big Brother take place in a tight, confined space, perfectly apt for filming, The Amazing Race takes place in the world. The race requires its contestants to interact with locals and experience rich cultural traditions firsthand as they travel the world, one country at a time.

There's no possible way for contestants of the race to be secluded. Random strangers in airports and local marketplaces can unintentionally wander into a game show and contribute guidance, conflict or comedy. On top of that, the race serves as an educational vehicle for its viewers to learn more about world history, geography, different cultures and wondrous places to travel to!

Like just about every other season of The Amazing Race, season 7 features great story-telling, an excellent cast of characters, and exotic locale. What makes this one a personal favorite of mine is watching Rob and Amber's Survivor-like strategic approach to a race around the world. Love or hate this dynamic duo, they certainly stir the pot and keep the show fresh and interesting the entire way through.

Where to watch: Hulu, Amazon Prime

6 )Survivor: Borneo, (Season 1, 2000), CBS 

The season that started it all is a must for any reality TV fanatic. There hasn't been a single more important or influential season of any reality competition show. If you've ever been curious as to how this whole genre got started and what the genesis of reality TV looked like, watch Borneo.

Borneo isn't like any other season of Survivor. It's more similar to a documentary about a reality show, than it is a reality/game show itself. And that's part of what makes this season so fascinating. There's something very charming about the sheer innocence of the contestants. In a game that asks the question, "How far will you go ethically to win a million dollars?", the castaways' reluctance to form alliances and stab their new friends in the back on national television is about as authentic as reality TV can get. I love it.

See how Survivor found its footing, established itself as a juggernaut, and laid the groundwork for the dozens of shows that would come after it.

Where to watch: Paramount Plus

5)The Apprentice, Season 2 (2004), NBC

While I view peak-Survivor as the gold standard of reality television, the early seasons of The Apprentice are pretty dang close to it. And it's really no wonder, considering executive producer Mark Burnett masterminded both projects, cementing his place as the GOAT of reality TV. The original version of The Apprentice focuses on a group of 16 highly qualified individuals pursuing a high-paying job working for billionaire businessman Donald Trump. Each week they must complete tasks and challenges, testing various businesses skills. The contestants that can't hack it are given the proverbial pink slip from the boss.

The Apprentice has Mark Burnett's fingerprints all over it, with many Survivor-like touches. Just as "the tribe has spoken" entered mainstream lexicon, the Donald's "You're fired!" quickly became one of America's favorite catchphrases in the mid-2000s. Each Survivor episode culminates in Tribal Council, but The Apprentice's climactic "Boardroom" is even more tense, and dare I say, better?

If you like Survivor, this show is 100% worth a watch, and season 2 is a great place to start. While season 1 holds a special place in my heart (it was my toughest omission from this list), season 2 is even better. Phenomenal cast and challenges.

Where to watch: Tubi

4) Survivor: The Amazon (Season 6, 2003), CBS 

Before the "battle of the sexes" twist became a fixture on The Apprentice, Mark Burnett would test the formula first on Survivor. The result was humorous, crazy, unpredictable and golden TV.

The Amazon is an excellent setting for a season of Survivor. None of the previous five seasons of the show were anywhere near as chaotic as this one. Strap yourself in a for a wild ride!

Where to watch: Paramount Plus

3) The Amazing Race, Season 31 (2019), CBS

The most recent entry on this list,Amazing Race 31 was an absolute treat for every reality TV fan. What made it so special? How about the fact that the 11 teams racing around the world were all made up of former Survivor, Big Brother and Amazing Race contestants!

While all-star seasons of other reality series have flopped hard, this reality clash was magnificent. Seeing reality TV hall of famers from different shows blended together was a dream come true for reality fans. Even if you have no idea who any of these people are, you still should love this season.

Where to watch: Prime

2) The Apprentice, Season 4 (2005), NBC 

I didn't think The Apprentice could get any better after season 2, until season 4 came around. Wow, what a season this one is! Featuring an outstanding story and a shocking twist. This one is must-see TV.

Where to watch: Tubi

1) Survivor: Pearl Islands (Season 7, 2003), CBS

One of the many reasons that I strongly favor classic Survivor over the show in its current form is that in the early days of Survivor, the show's production team put an incredible amount of care into every little detail, making the adventure of the show seem even bigger and more surreal. The stakes felt larger.

This season would follow its pirate theme to a tee. The tribes were named "Morgan" and "Drake", pirate-style music played in-between scenes, and other unexpected twists (that I won't spoil) along the way would follow the theme perfectly.

One contestant would boldly go where no reality contestant had gone before, and where no one has been since. Jonny Fairplay (who I had the great fortune of interviewing back in February) is an all-time reality TV great. Throw two other Survivor legends onto his tribe in Rupert Boneham and Sandra Diaz-Twine, and you already have an outstanding cast. If there's only one season from this list you are able to watch, make it this one. You can thank me later.

Where to watch: Paramount Plus

Hope everyone is making the best of this period of social distancing and staying safe. We will get through this time! God bless, and happy watching!

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