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Pirate Master, we hardly knew ye: 24 short-lived reality competition series

A salute to the games that ended too soon (and to some that should’ve never aired)

Because unscripted programming is relatively inexpensive—and because networks never know which crazy reality competition concept will catch on—TV has seen a steady stream of elaborate game shows, many of which stumble along for a season or two before disappearing with little fanfare. The cancellation of just about any scripted series generates headlines, even if hardly anyone watched. But when a cooking contest, grueling race, or sing-off gets the ax, it just… stops. As a result, over the past decade-plus, the list of any given network’s canceled shows is littered with half-forgotten reality series… forgotten, that is, except by those of us who watched every weird minute of them. Below are some shows that are hard to believe ever existed, as well as a few genuinely good ones that might’ve been ahead of their time—or just on the wrong channel.

1. Pirate Master (2007, CBS, one season)

Once any reality competition format gets established as viable and popular, TV producers enter the “But what if we put a clock in it?” phase of invention, where they essentially repeat or combine concepts, with kludgy alterations. Survivor/The Apprentice producer Mark Burnett fused his two biggest successes—and then shoved a peg-leg onto the resulting freak—to make Pirate Master, a game so goofy that it could’ve aired as a Joe Schmo Show-like parody of reality TV without anyone batting an eye. A bunch of goofily costumed contestants were herded aboard a ship and then given various maritime and treasure-hunting assignments, with one of them each episode parlaying his or her success into being named the leader—and thus set up either to hoard power and wealth or to share it equitably enough to avoid mutiny. The “what makes a good boss” component of Pirate Master was genuinely interesting, but the lack of exciting challenges and the overall silliness of everyone being dressed like pirates ultimately sank this boat. Halfway through its run, CBS banished it to online-only. (And this was in 2007, before the streaming revolution.)

Rebootability factor: Nonexistent. But who’d want a revival anyway? Isn’t Pirate Master much better as something we can hardly believe was ever on TV? [Noel Murray]

2. The Quest (2014, ABC, one season)

Arriving a decade after the cultural peak of Lord Of The Rings, and long past the point where LARPing could be considered part of the zeitgeist, The Quest was at first glance a reality competition format out of time. The idea of regular people traveling through a series of underground tunnels that transported them to the fictional land of “Everealm”—where one of them would be named the one true hero and defeat the evil Verlox—was a lot to take in, and the uncertain chemistry of performers acting out scripted scenarios while contestants played along was a disaster waiting to happen. But The Quest’s smartest decision was designing a competition where there was no prize, and where the people who signed up were people who legitimately loved the idea of being a part of this fantasy world. The challenges were well designed and the storyline well executed (if a bit straightforward), but the show could only have worked if the “Paladins” were completely invested in saving Everealm. They were; and it did.

Rebootability factor: High. As long as the new cast is game, this format is (somewhat surprisingly) timeless. [Myles McNutt]

3. Who Wants To Be A Superhero? (2006-7, Sci Fi, two seasons)

Made back when Syfy was still Sci Fi, the Stan Lee-produced (and narrated!) Who Wants To Be A Superhero? gathered a bunch of ordinary schmoes, gave then costumes to fit their self-designed characters, and then put them in contrived situations where they were supposed to “act heroic.” After they’d completed their tasks—enhanced in post-production by cheesy special effects—Lee’s head would pop up a TV monitor and assess their performance in a halting voice. Merely saving the day wasn’t enough; the contestants would be dinged if they failed to be cooperative, or were dismissive to pre-planted “bystanders.” A better title for this show might’ve been Who Wants To Be Arbitrarily Criticized By The Guy Who Co-Created The Hulk?

Rebootability factor: Low. Superheroes are more popular than ever, but movies and TV shows about costume do-gooders have long since stopped looking so cheap or taking such a basic approach to what it means to be a good guy. [Noel Murray]

4. Paradise Hotel (2003, Fox, one season)

Paradise Hotel started out with a sleazy but seemingly benign premise: Throw a bunch of hot guys and gals who don’t know each other into a luxurious resort. Everybody needed to pick an opposite-sex roommate for the week, and whoever didn’t get picked would be sent home, to be replaced by a member from an off-site studio audience. Fortunately or unfortunately, the vast majority of the “hotties” cast for this show turned out to be the very worst people in the whole wide world. Instead of spending all their time partying in the hot tub, like they were supposed to, they fought nastily and endlessly, setting up misbegotten alliances and backstabbing. All the contestants said they were there to “win the game” and “play the game” (what game?) as hostess Amanda Byram taunted them with “the ultimate prize.” True love? Eternal life? No, the ultimate prize was of course cash money: a measly $250,000 that the two winners could share with their final roommate or keep it all. Keith and Tara split the prize, which was sweet, but calculating Charla shut out Dave, who had single-handedly kept her on the show and was rewarded with nothing. Ha ha, Dave.

Rebootability factor: High. But the show would need to cast actual humans, not backstabbing mutants. [Gwen Ihnat]

5. Kid Nation (2007, CBS, one season)

Before a single frame of Kid Nation aired on CBS, the show secured the gold star for the most controversial premiere of the 2007-08 broadcast season. As posited in the show’s hysterical sizzle reel, 40 children between the ages of 8 and 15 were dumped in the New Mexico desert, tasked with bringing civilization to the remains of a ghost town—with no adult assistance or supervision. Alarm bells rang among child advocacy groups and medical professionals, but the truth was less sensational than reality: Grown-ups populated the un-photographed corners of Bonanza City (itself a film set, not an actual ghost town), so it wasn’t like the Tiffany Network was about to drop a televised Lord Of The Flies on its audience. Still, even those safety measures couldn’t prevent every accident, like when four of the pint-sized “pioneers” downed some bleach off-camera, thinking it was soda. Over-complicating the premise with a weekly cash prize, Survivor-esque teams and group challenges, and rewards from the outside world, the show was more successful in building engaging characters than a functioning town, cannily banking on Kids Say The Darnedest Things precociousness and school-age lack of self-awareness. While “the first ever Kid Nation” (and the only ever Kid Nation, thanks to cancellation) coalesced around them, preternaturally world-weary Sophia, eccentric Jared, one-toothed baby genius Alex, drama queen Taylor, and peacemaker Michael stole the show. The pioneers would eventually have to go home, but they’ll always have Bonanza City.

Rebootability factor: High. Kiddie reality fare is all the rage thanks to MasterChef Junior, and at the very least, the popularity of Michael’s Reddit AMA demonstrates that viewers are still curious about what happens to the Kids after the Nation. [Erik Adams]

6. Whodunnit? (2013, ABC, one season)

As a competitive game, Whodunnit? was basically just The Mole: Groups of people solved puzzles and competed with one another to discover which of them was secretly the villain. But what set Whodunnit? apart was that it all took place under the guise of a real-life murder mystery, as contestants were ritually “murdered” by the serial killer among them when they failed to solve each episode’s puzzle. Although the show was apparently realistic enough to convince some Twitter users ABC was actually killing people, its best moments came when the guests at Rue Manor met their maker in increasingly absurd ways. While all immersive reality competition concepts require the commitment of the contestants (here forcing them to pretend people were actually dying), few have asked them to participate in scenarios as bonkers as death by mountain lion, or brought them back as corpses to assist with a final challenge. Although not reality television’s most memorable cast, they—along with the great Gildart Jackson as Giles the butler—were able to bring the absurd trappings of this murderous summer pleasure to life (and death).

Rebootability factor: High. Sure, it was silly, but there are many more animals begging to be framed for murder. (The mountain lion was innocent.) [Myles McNutt]

7. Murder In Small Town X (2001, Fox, one season)

Fox’s head of alternative programming, Mike Darnell, dubbed the “dark prince of reality television” by the paper of record, swung a big stick in his time at the network. Murder In Small Town X—in which ten “investigators” gathered to solve a fictional murder in a Maine fishing community—was one of his first swings in the post-Survivor era, when reality television was starting to be big business and Darnell wanted to reassert his authority. Perhaps that explains why the show was trying to do everything at once, combining an immersive live-action roleplay environment, a Survivor-esque elimination voting structure, and an elaborate plot tied to an official website. All of that helped Murder In Small Town X stand out, but also kept it from achieving the simple pleasures of Survivor’s human struggle. Self-serious where more recent immersive reality competitions (Whodunnit?, The Quest) were playful, and aged by the Blair Witch Project-ripoff found-footage elimination sequences, its generic play still spoke to Darnell’s ambition, and the genre’s early quest for innovation.

Rebootability factor: Low. The self-seriousness would be a problem, but throw zombies in there and AMC has a new reality show. [Myles McNutt]

8. Treasure Hunters (2006, NBC, one season)

NBC has had a hard time launching any reality competition series that doesn’t involve singing, dieting, or Donald Trump. On a different network, this National Treasure-inspired summer series might’ve become a perennial, because the concept is easy to understand and the gameplay was fairly compelling. Essentially, teams of three traveled across the United States and Europe solving history-themed puzzles, while collecting clues that ultimately led an unusually generous prize of $3,000,000. The fun of the show came from watching the trios piece together not just the puzzles, but how to get to them, and what their objective actually was. As with Amazing Race, the players were cast for their personality types, but any predetermined narrative about who they were went out the window when they were down in dark tunnels, racing the clock to figure out what the hell they were supposed to be doing.

Rebootability factor: High. The National Treasure movies may not be a hot item any more, but this show’s ingenious twist on the basic Amazing Race format could easily be tweaked a bit and made into something with staying power. [Noel Murray]

9. The Great American Road Trip (2009, NBC, one season)

Given that the worst-ever season of The Amazing Race was the one where the contestants were families, NBC may have been overly optimistic when it green-lit a show about ordinary Americans piling into RVs and competing in region-specific challenges, while driving from one tourist-trap to the next. Because The Great American Road Trip wasn’t a race—something emphasized over and over—the series relied more than usual on the personalities of the competitors, who’d been cast to represent the producers’ clichéd notions of “Alabama,” “New York,” etc. But because the competition was weak and the reality suspect, it was hard for viewers to come up with too many reasons to take this trip.

Rebootability factor: Nonexistent. Reality competitions that take more than a sentence to explain are always going to have a tough time catching on. [Noel Murray]

10. 72 Hours (2013, TNT, one season)

One of the most fascinating aspects of shows like Survivor is watching people slowly come to realize how much they’ve taken for granted luxuries like food, shelter, and not being sore and itchy all the damn time. TNT’s 72 Hours combined intense physical discomfort with a single clearly defined goal, giving three three-person teams three days to traverse the wilderness and orienteer their way to a briefcase full of money. Though they were periodically provided with fresh supplies, and the option to get emergency rations (in exchange for an extended time-out), the racers still struggled with weak, whiny teammates, and nagging injuries that only got worse with each slow step up and down steep hills. In other words: This was a legitimately hard game, with a higher percentage of drop-outs than on similar shows.

Rebootability factor: High. 72 Hours debuted just a couple of weeks before Naked And Afraid, and given that the popularity of the latter has proven the possibilities of the “extreme survival” show, a second crack at cross-breeding that genre with cross-country race seems like a clear winner. [Noel Murray]

11. Bands On The Run (2001, VH1, one season)

A full year before Fox Americanized the popular British singing competition Pop Idol, reality über-producers Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz presented their own cross-country quest for recording-industry glory. Though it was a more grassroots endeavor than American Idol, the Emmy-nominated battle of the bands staged by Bands On The Run still hinged on popularity: Each week, four (then three, then two) unsigned groups pull into a new town to promote and perform a concert, with the winner determined by the number of people they get through the door and the amount of merch those people buy. The rolling cash tallies gave Bands On The Run its spine, but the heart of the show was an unvarnished look at life with a touring band, the Behind The Music antics mingling with artistic ambitions, commercial realities, and the fact that college professors don’t take kindly to So-Cal rockers playing a guerrilla gig in the middle of a school day. Perhaps a second season never materialized because the trials of Soulcracker, Harlow, The Josh Dodes Band, and eventual champion Flickerstick so thoroughly de-glamorized the rock ’n’ roll fantasy sold by VH1 during its “Music First” era.

Rebootability factor: High. Touring has only gotten harder and weirder in the time since Bands On The Run left the air, so there’s still plenty of drama to be wrought from this concept. [Erik Adams]

12. Platinum Hit (2011, Bravo, one season)

Like a lot of the craft-oriented competitions—and the music-based ones, for that matter—Platinum Hit made all kinds of sense on paper. Get songwriters to work together and endure a series of challenges to make some music, and at the end of each episode not only would there would be a set of songs that the home audience could experience for themselves, but if all went well, the producers could then sell those songs online. But no matter how many times the judges mentioned that they cared more about the quality of the songwriting than the performance of the demo—or what went into the creation—the nature of the reality format meant that behind-the-scenes conflict and the richness of the final recordings mattered more than they were supposed to. Meanwhile, with just a day (or less) to write whole songs, the contestants fell back on clichés and corny messages, over and over.

Rebootability factor: Low. It’s always going to be interesting to peek behind the curtain at how creative people do their work, but the inspiration it takes to write a song is hard to generate on command. [Noel Murray]

13. Rock Star (2005-2006, CBS, two seasons)

Three years after American Idol proved reality TV could launch the careers of young singers, and six years before Mark Burnett would bring The Voice to America and demonstrate the value of reality TV for established singers looking for a career boost as judges or mentors, Rock Star—also produced by Burnett— tried to do both. Equal parts competition series for would-be rock vocalists and promotional outlet for established (INXS in 2005) or nascent (supergroup Supernova—later renamed Rock Star Supernova (seriously) for legal reasons—in 2006) recording artists looking for lead singers, the series embodied peak reality boom. Initially scheduled over three nights (a behind-the-scenes song selection/rehearsal episode, a performance show, and a results show), Rock Star captured that utopian moment when Dave Navarro and Brooke Burke could say they were making music history with a straight face. But except in Canada—home to season-one winner J.D. Fortune and season-two winner Lukas Rossi, and where the resulting albums over-performed—Rock Star never lived up to its name, demonstrating the extremely short window in which successful artists would be discovered through reality music competitions.

Rebootability factor: Low. Has no chance on TV, but a webseries auditioning YouTube cover singers—see: Journey—might play. [Myles McNutt]

14. The Next Great American Band (2007, Fox, one season)

A year before American Idol allowed its contestants to play instruments on stage, the show’s producers tried to address concerns that focusing only on vocalists had become too limiting, by launching a competition for bands, open to all genres. It didn’t take long though for the problems with The Next Great American Band to become apparent, as judges and viewers alike were asked to compare apples to oranges—or, more accurately, generic metal-heads to generic bluegrass acts. The homogenization factor of American Idol was even more depressing in The Next Great American Band, in part because so many of the contestants had so clearly spent years within the industry sanding off any edges, and—more importantly—because the judges kept encouraging them to fortify their brands rather than striving to be original. The show was valuable as a look inside of a soulless industry, but not so much as musical entertainment.

Rebootability factor: Low. The reason why American Idol and The Voice have had such long runs is because they funnel all of their contestants through the same narrow pop/country/R&B corridors, really asking America only to judge how well they sing. A publicly judged “battle of the bands” naturally favors the broadly inoffensive and mediocre. [Noel Murray]

15. The Next Knuckler (2013, MLB Network, one season)

Multiple major league baseball players have extended their careers by mastering the arcane art of the knuckleball, a pitch that—when it work as it supposed to—is hard to hit and easy to throw, limiting wear and tear on the athlete. That was the impetus behind MLB Network’s The Next Knuckler, which gathered a few retired professional and/or college athletes under the tutelage of retired knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, to see if they could learn the pitch well enough to earn an invitation to the Arizona Diamondbacks’ spring training camp. And… well, no one really could. The show declared a winner anyway—former LSU quarterback and Florida Marlins farmhand John Booty—but it turns out that corny reality competition challenges aren’t the best way to determine whether a person is ready for the majors. Also there was a real “what if we gave a reality show and nobody came?” quality to The Next Knuckler, which had a half-dozen contestants and just a few judges and mentors, working out in empty stadiums in the middle of nowhere. It was all very eerie… and more than a little sad.

Rebootability factor: Nonexistent. Reality shows about sports tryouts have been done—and could still be done better—but if The Next Knuckler proved anything, it’s that teaching an esoteric skill doesn’t make for compelling television. [Noel Murray]

16. The Pitch (2012-2013, AMC, two seasons)

This is how popular Mad Men was and how vital to the overall brand of AMC: The network actually created a reality program based solely on how advertising agencies win accounts. The Pitch, um, pitched, two ad agencies against each other as they brainstormed and grappled for the perfect idea to win over their prospective client. The best part was seeing where inspiration actually comes from: How do you fill that blank page, whiteboard, or screen? But the clients (a moving company, hair removal, garbage service) weren’t that compelling, and the actual advertising strategies made Don Draper and Peggy Olsen appear effervescent in comparison. Most real-life pitches are a far cry from Don’s carousel speech.

Rebootability factor: Low. Most people go to enough torturous meetings at work; they don’t want to see them on TV when they get home at night. [Gwen Ihnat]

17. American Inventor (2006-2007, ABC, two seasons)

A sort of dry run for ABC’s smash hit Shark Tank, this variation on the U.K.’s Dragon’s Den (itself a version of Japan’s Money Tigers) combined the “audition” format with the “narrowing the competition” model, and applied it to aspiring product-developers. A panel of judges picked from the best of a bunch of inventors—many of them outright kooks, unlike on Shark Tank—and then those same judges worked with the top contestants to refine the prototype, packaging, and pitch. As with the other spins on this concept, the fun of American Inventor came from watching business experts bicker with each other over the potential of the products, while giving some actual insight into what sells in the marketplace and what doesn’t (and why). The added bonus for AI was that for every higher-quality carseat or super-bra, the show trotted out someone selling fart-absorbing underpants or a smoke-gun that turns ordinary potato chips into a riot of hickory flavor. Once the wacky ideas had been culled though, viewers were left watching the same small handful of safe, dull products get refined and focus-tested. The episodes down the stretch of each season combined the repetitiveness of an infomercial with the sterility of a suburban office park conference room.

Rebootability factor: Low. The premise is still viable, but Shark Tank has pretty much usurped it. [Noel Murray]

18. Supermarket Superstar (2013, Lifetime, one season)

A cross between a cooking competition and Shark Tank, Supermarket Superstar aimed to create household food names like Chef Boyardee or Sara Lee out of everyday cooks with possibly marketable products. Every week, three contestants brought their own recipe in a culinary category—like sauces, cakes, or spreads and dips—and were judged on their future marketability by a panel that included a chef, a marketing executive, and Mrs. Fields herself. The show offered some occasional interesting food trivia, like finding out what A&P or PAM actually stood for. But the nuts and bolts of food marketing (per-price costs, nutritional breakdown) depicted on the show indicated why these processes are usually relegated to the backrooms of cooking competitions. Still, the show offered some interesting info for anyone who might have created the perfect cupcake or barbecue sauce and thought, “What if?”

Rebootability factor: High. While branding and marketing aren’t the most interesting aspects of the food world, there are still enough foodies with new products out there interested in seeing how they could get developed. [Gwen Ihnat]

19. America’s Next Great Restaurant (2011, NBC, one season)

Taking a Top Chef base and ladling in a healthy dollop of Shark Tank, this NBC series pitted would-be restaurateurs against each other for the chance to be the next Chipotle (with the blessing of Chipotle’s founder Steve Ells, who was one of the judges). At its best, America’s Next Great Restaurant offered some real insight into into what it takes to come up with a successful fast-casual concept, from picking menu items that are easy to assemble into customized dishes, to making sure they’re not too “foreign.” But the show could never figure out how to construct relevant challenges for the contestants that weren’t essentially just cook-offs—which wasn’t really adequate, given that the prize at stake was an actual multi-location franchise. No real surprise then that the winning concept, Soul Daddy, closed all three of its restaurants about a month after they opened.

Rebootability factor: Low. “Ability to launch a restaurant” is just too vague and costly a talent to test via game show. [Noel Murray]

20. Top Chef: Just Desserts (2010-11, Bravo, two seasons)

It’s strange that this Top Chef spinoff didn’t endure, because it combined two elements that TV viewers typically dig: the egotistical culinary wizards of Top Chef and the sight of stressed-out people assembling trays of cookies and cakes. Because pastry chefs and chocolatiers are a special brand of crazy, the contestants on this show were fun to watch, and the challenges tended to be more high-toned than the ones on the likes of Cupcake Wars. Plus, the judges—including super-cool dessert master Johnny Iuzzini—brought with them both expertise and wit, whether they were praising a complicated technique for molding fondant or they were sighing, “I can taste the sadness in this cookie.”

Rebootability factor: High. While it’s true that roughly half the shows on Food Network are some variation on a bake-off, the Top Chef team handled the concept with more class and personality. [Noel Murray]

21. Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist (2010-11, Bravo, two seasons)

The best thing about Work Of Art was how bad of an idea it was. Art is subjective, and art is personal, and art does not fit into the rigid structures of Project Runway (which is already testing the creative dynamics of high fashion as it is). But while having artists design book covers for Penguin or create art inspired by a visit to an Audi dealership may have angered artists, it made for remarkably engrossing television. Watching season one’s Miles Mendenhall torment his fellow contestants with his performative approach to the “competition” perfectly captured the identity play at the heart of being a reality contestant. And every episode bristled with the tension of creative workers being forced to translate their point of view into not just commercial enterprise, but the most corrupt of commercial enterprises, reality television. And yet this tension yielded a considerable amount of interesting work, some fun blog posts from judge Jerry Saltz, two satisfying winners (Abdi Farah and Kymia Nawabi), and the feeling as a viewer that the real work of art was the producers knowing their terrible idea might just end up being great.

Rebootability factor: High. This idea is just as terrible as it was five years ago, and the result could be just as good. [Myles McNutt]

22. Top Design (2007-2008, Bravo, two seasons)

One of the most logistically complicated of the craft-driven competitions, Top Design pitted interior decorators against each other in what often amounted to a fight to see who could best use the resources of that week’s sponsor. The challenges were largely team-driven, and while it was fascinating to see how people with very different aesthetics worked together—and worked to serve their client—the level of effort varied widely, with little discernible difference in the outcome. Whether the contestants spent a day building shelves from scrap lumber or bought some pillows from Target and scattered them about, the finished spaces looked just as attractive.

Rebootability factor: Low. This is another craft competition where the challenges had too many moving pieces and the results were too hard to assess… although it’s worth noting that Syfy’s 2015 show Steampunk’d (a candidate for some future version of this list) is essentially Top Design with more pipes and faux-brass fittings. [Noel Murray]

23. Project Accessory (2011, Lifetime, one season)

Given that Project Runway is largely responsible for the popularity of the “watch folks make things” genre of reality competitions, no one can blame the producers for looking for aspects of the show that have been under-exploited. (Like: What’s life like for the models as their ranks dwindle each week?) It’s always seemed a little unfair that the designers on PR get credit for the shoes and jewelry they pluck off “the accessory wall,” so why not build an entire show around belts and such? The problem with Project Accessory though was that the guidelines for the challenges were too loose, meaning that in any given week the contestants were handed a pile of junk and asked to make it into… well, pretty much anything. It was hard to tell when designers were doing well, and when they were just going crazy with the hot-glue gun.

Rebootability factor: Nonexistent. The Project franchise is too classy for this kind of glorified crafts fair. [Noel Murray]

24. On The Lot (2007, Fox, one season)

No one’s ever going to do this—because only a handful of people would care enough to participate, as a background source or as a reader—but in 2017 some publication should do a 10th anniversary oral history of Fox’s On The Lot, and get to the bottom of just what happened. Produced during the heyday of reality, when studio and network executives were convinced that anything people did for a living could be turned into a competition, On The Lot was originally intended to pit aspiring filmmakers against each other in a series of tasks associated with actual directing. But the format kept changing on the fly with little explanation. Hosts dropped out, and announced episodes and challenges were unceremoniously canceled, until eventually the show became a weird American Idol clone where the contestants would screen their short films—nearly all of which were either cutesy or preachy or both—and then stand awkwardly on stage to get overpraised by the main judges Carrie Fisher and Garry Marshall. For anyone who stuck with On The Lot until the bitter end, the lack of behind-the-scenes coverage—and the obvious mortification of the participants—was more gripping than the competition itself.

Rebootability factor: Nonexistent. Some things can’t be effectively reality-ized. [Noel Murray]