1. Top Chef/Project Runway (Bravo, 2006-present/Bravo & Lifetime, 2004-present)
After America’s Next Top Model showed that there was an audience for a TV show about the fashion industry, Project Runway proved that ANTM fans weren’t just looking at the pretty girls, but also the clothes. The basic Project Runway formula—sleep-deprived, half-drunk professionals competing in impossible challenges and displaying remarkable creativity—has remained durable even when the designers aren’t the most talented. Yet in terms of quality competition and heated drama, Project Runway has been outpaced by the similar Top Chef, which replaces struggling fashion designers with promising young cooks. Maybe it’s that the judging of fashion seems so capricious, while food is more pass/fail (either it tastes good or it doesn’t), or maybe it’s that Top Chef has become so prestigious in the culinary community that the contestant pool has become phenomenal. But for people who tune into reality competitions to watch gifted folks show their skills, Top Chef is now the genre standard.
2. Survivor/The Amazing Race (CBS, 2000-present/2001-present)
When the American version of Survivor debuted on CBS in the summer of 2000, it seemed more likely to be a catastrophe than a phenomenon. What possible long-term entertainment value could there be in watching a bunch of wannabe TV stars slowly starve to death on a remote beach? But from the moment the shamelessly devious Richard Hatch strolled naked across the sand (or more significantly, the moment he introduced the concept of the voting “alliance”), it was clear that with the right cast of characters and the right set of challenges, Survivor could be addictive—almost like a soap opera crossed with a game show crossed with a psychological experiment. Meanwhile, for those who prefer crazy stunts and intense competition to raw voyeurism, The Amazing Race has been serving as Survivor’s classy cousin since 2001. Though Race has been rightly criticized for breezing through other cultures, and for gameplay that artificially bunches up the contestants, the relentlessness of any given episode (and the stress on the players) makes The Amazing Race edge-of-the-seat TV, and has won every Outstanding Reality-Competition Program Emmy ever awarded.
3. American Idol/So You Think You Can Dance (Fox, 2002-present/2005-present)
Every season, American Idol tests the patience of even its most devoted fans, exhausting us with the vanity of the judges, the undue cruelty to the untalented, and the tedium of hearing the same overplayed pop songs covered in the same beauty-pageant-ready way. And yet every season, a few genuinely talented singers emerge—often people who might not have otherwise gotten a second look in the industry—and a few times a season, one of those singers delivers the kind of stirring, high-wire performance that makes live TV such a thrill. American Idol remains one of the few communal “Did you see that last night?” shows remaining in a fragmented TV landscape. Quality-wise, though, American Idol could stand to learn a few things from its sister show So You Think You Can Dance. While roughly 75 percent of AI’s performances—and 95 percent of the judges’ comments—are dull, predictable and amateurish, SYTYCD has been consistently showcasing amazing young dancers performing in a variety of difficult, highly specialized styles. Nearly every week on the show, the dancers do something astonishing, and the judges educate the viewers about it without becoming unduly condescending, mean, or inscrutable. American Idol built the model for these kinds of shows, but So You Think You Can Dance has been perfecting it.
4. Airline/Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations (A&E, 2004-05; Travel, 2005-present)
Being stuck in an airport? Hellish. Watching people stuck at an airport? Oddly compelling. Whether it’s because anyone can identify with the frustration of dealing with intractable airline employees, or because anyone can identify with the difficulty of placating angry customers, during its two-year run, Airline made familiar conflicts into gripping television. On the flipside, Anthony Bourdain’s travel/food show No Reservations has been dedicated to showing audiences people, places, and consumables that are largely unfamiliar, at least to the common American couch-dweller. Anchored by the irascible host’s love of street food and the seedy side of history—as well as his disdain for touristy kitsch and corporate franchises—No Reservations has redefined two genres of docu-television simultaneously, bringing an offbeat magazine writer’s sensibility to a medium usually dominated by bland, chirpy broadcast-journalism students.
5. I Bet You/televised poker (MOJO HD, 2007-08/every channel ever, all decade long)
In 2003, a Knoxville accountant named Chris Moneymaker parlayed a World Series Of Poker buy-in (won in an Internet tournament) into one of the most significant victories in the history of the game. His remarkable run at the WSOP—replayed incessantly on the ESPN family of networks—spurred a boom in online poker players and a flood of amateurs into major televised tournaments. It also spurred a glut of poker shows, and made household names out of dozens of previously obscure weirdoes, degenerates, and social misfits. It’s because of the success of televised poker (for a few years, anyway) that card-playing buddies Phil “The Unabomber” Laak and Antonio “The Magician” Esfandiari were able to land a deal for one of the damnedest, most delightful reality series of all time, the quasi-game-show I Bet You. In each half-hour episode, Laak and Esfandiari roam the streets of Las Vegas (or their other haunts), making ridiculous wagers and ragging on each other. Two seasons’ worth of this glorious nothingness aired on MOJO HD before the channel went under. A third season is reportedly in the can. C’mon, cable programmers! Don’t let the declining interest in poker keep you from putting I Bet You back on the air.
Runners-up: Cash Cab, The Deadliest Catch, Good Eats, Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares (the UK version), Man V. Food, Mythbusters