Unearthing the Best Forgotten Reality TV Shows

With today’s lineup of reality TV shows, it seems that just about everyone is qualified to have cameras follow his or her life. In fact, you can practically take any occupation (plumbers), put a city in front of it (Brooklyn) and you’ll have a hit reality series on your hands. (Meet the biggest potty mouths in the business — Brooklyn Plumbers, coming this fall!)

But there was a time when the formulas for irresistible reality television were still evolving, and popular shows tended to center around either celebrity couples (Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, anyone?), celebrities being pranked (Watch out for ol’ Ashton!) or looking for love in all the wrong places (any reality TV show on VH1). If you’re not satisfied with the current state of reality television, here are a few of the forgotten gems of reality TV to unearth for your viewing pleasure:

Joe Millionaire

Although The Bachelor and its spin-offs now all but completely control the dating contestant reality TV format, in the early 2000s this genre was all over the place. Major networks tried out endless varieties of dating shows that tried to bring people together in ways that are entirely laughable in hindsight (FOX’s 2003 hit Married by America, where YOU decide which total strangers should elope!).

Out of all these infinite “looking for love” reality shows, none were more painstakingly watchable than FOX’s 2003 series Joe Millionaire. The plot had the perfect blend of fascinating reality show elements. First, you had 20 beautiful women competing for the companionship of a seemingly handsome bachelor who was extremely wealthy. However, the reality was that Evan Marriott was a blue collar, non-millionaire construction worker.

But money shouldn’t get in the way of true love, right? The show featured the awkward, often-mumbling Marriott lying to every girl’s face about his background, but after he ultimately revealed the truth to the chosen girl, the show’s producers wound up giving them $1 million to split. You might scoff at this show now, but Joe Millionaire was a total ratings success, with more than 34 million Americans tuning in to watch the “jaw-dropping” finale.

Flavor of Love

During the mid- to late 2000s, VH1 produced one utterly bizarre reality show after another. Out of all of the station’s celebrity-oriented programming, it was VH1’s celebrity dating shows that continued to spawn multiple spin-offs and introduced the world to contestants you could never imagine yourself bringing home to Mom.

The pinnacle of these shows was Flavor of Love, featuring the eccentric, outlandish charm of clock-wearing Viking helmet enthusiast Public Enemy hype man Flavor Flav. Going off the basic Bachelorformula, Flavor of Love featured 20 female contestants, most of them more unconventional than Flav himself, vying for his heart through various competitions in hopes of receiving a coveted gold clock by the end of the episode.

Three seasons of Flavor of Love were produced, and Flav coined some outrageous contestant nicknames during that time, including Toasteee, Nibblz, Saaphyri, Buckwild and, of course, fan favorite New York.

Kid Nation

Anyone who has read the classic novel Lord of the Flies knows that kids should never be left alone to govern themselves. Obviously the producers at CBS had never heard of the book when they greenlighted the 2007 reality show Kid Nation.

The premise was fascinating: Round up 40 kids ages 8-15, stick them in the ghost town of Bonanza City, New Mexico, make them complete random tasks and ultimately see if they can assemble a sturdy branch of government and a functioning society.

The critical backlash was harsh, and questions of child labor violations were raised. Nonetheless, millions of viewers tuned in every week to watch children make tough societal decisions, such as whether to build a library or a mini-golf course or whether having a town microwave would be more efficient than receiving pizza for a day.