Best Reality TV Shows Of All Time: Top 5 Drama Series Most Recommended By Fans

Admit it, we all have our guilty pleasure of indulging in the occasional dose of reality TV. In an era marked by an insatiable appetite for unscripted drama, reality television has emerged as a captivating and sometimes controversial force in the realm of entertainment. It has shaped the way we consume TV, drawing us into the lives of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. From heart-pounding competitions to intimate glimpses into the lives of celebrities, the best reality TV shows have become a cultural phenomenon, dominating both our screens and conversations. 

Despite the urge to want to sit and watch a “Project Runway” marathon, a study shows that binge-watching actually leads to poor sleep quality and insomnia. Researchers from the University of Michigan and Leuven School for Mass Communication Research in Belgium surveyed 423 participants ages 18 to 25 for the study. About three-quarters of the participants were students. The survey questioned the individuals on their television-watching habits and how frequently they binge-watched shows, along with their sleep routine and quality. They were also assessed for levels of fatigue and any sleeping disorders they dealt with. The researchers defined binge-watching as “watching multiple consecutive episodes of the same television show in one sitting on a screen, whether it be a television, laptop, computer or tablet.”  They found that the average binge-watching session lasted three hours and eight minutes.

If you want to delve deeper, a study finds that there are certain personality traits that explain why people binge-watch TV shows. In the study of 645 respondents ages 18-30 who reported viewing more than two episodes of a TV program in a single sitting, 20 percent confessed to watching between six and 20 episodes in one session. When investigators tested their impulsive behavior, emotional maturity, and incentives for binge-watching, impulsivity and poor planning were found to be strong indicators of excessive TV watching. Motivation also stems from short attention spans and the need to be amused, according to experts at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. The number of shows watched in a given session was shown to be most closely correlated with viewers’ empathy and emotional clarity and desire to be amused, according to the study. Researchers say having little response inhibition and foresight may both be important indicators of excessive binge-watching.

Either way, we probably won’t be stopping our binge-watching anytime soon. While reality TV shows have often been dismissed as mere guilty pleasures, they have transcended their initial perception to become a thriving genre that offers diverse narratives, gripping storylines, and unfiltered human emotions. So, StudyFinds has checked in with 10 expert websites to find the best reality TV shows of all time among the vast landscape of the genre nowadays. Drop us a comment below on your ultimate favorite in case we missed it.

"Survivor" host, Jeff Probst at the 2010 People's Choice Awards
“Survivor” host, Jeff Probst at the 2010 People’s Choice Awards (Photo by Featureflash Photo Agency on Shutterstock)

The List: Best Reality TV Shows, According to Expert Reviews

1. “Survivor” (2000- Present)

Since its first season, “Survivor” has become an international phenomenon, with different versions made around the world. History by Day describes the popular reality show, “Believe it or not, ‘Survivor’, the Emmy-winning reality competition, is still on the air. The basis of the show is to get a group of strangers together on a deserted island to, as the title suggests, survive. The winner gets a million dollars and the title of Sole Survivor.”

Viewers have been keenly watching survival of the fittest scenarios through the reality show since 2000. And it brought reality TV back to prominence. The Richest gives us a breakdown of how much money this popular show grossed. “Stranded on an island, the last person standing wins the coveted prize worth millions. Survivor averages grossing $80 million per season, but during its peak edition in 2004, the show managed to make $166.6 million for CBS Network.”

This was the first reality show after a dry spell in the reality TV industry, and people were here for it. “This show is amazing. The host Jeff Probst is absolutely gold. Makes me laugh every time. I love the immunity challenges because there is so much competition between the two tribes. I love everyone and have learned so many of their best sayings. The suspense at Tribal Council is so thrilling – you never know who’s going home. Sometimes a little disappointed by the winner, but that’s part of the fun. Thank you so much CBS for this great show,” adds The Top Tens.

2.The Amazing Race” (2001- Present)

“The Amazing Race” was a show that people watched wishing they had the guts to be a part of it. It received 15 Emmys, 26 other wins, and 138 nominations. “Yes! ‘The Amazing Race‘ is as absorbing and entertaining as it gets. Traveling the world, and doing all kinds of challenges to reach a million-dollar jackpot is a surefire way to get people watching. Mosquito-filled jungles and shark-filled ponds are just an obstacle for these unbelievably motivated contestants,” says History by Day.

The Amazing Race is an excellent series for those dreaming of traveling the world. It is also great for those who love to solve puzzles, or at least watch other people solve them. “Contestants are grouped into teams of two and given clues on how to proceed in their journey. They then maneuver their way into foreign countries, complete challenges, and work with locals to get to their next destination. While other reality shows remain sedentary, focusing on isolation as a key factor in how the participants interact, there’s a propulsive quality to ‘The Amazing Race’ that keeps you invested until reaching the finish line,” states Looper.

Not only is the show entertaining with beautiful cinematography, but it takes us across the world to experience different cultures. TV Line expands on the iconic series, “The Race gives us a peek inside pre-existing relationships in a way that few reality shows do, challenging the players’ patience with language barriers, foreign city streets, and even each other. The lows are low, the highs are high and we can’t help but find the casts’ wanderlust and excitement to be contagious.”

3.RuPaul’s Drag Race” (2009- Present)

The Richest informs us of the millions of dollars this reality show made from its popularity. “Loosely based on America’s Next Top Model to celebrate drag, RuPaul’s Drag Race became a phenomenon since its release in 2009. With 9 Emmy wins, the show has been going strong for 14 seasons. Along with the viewership and ad revenue, the show makes millions from the live shows. As mentioned by BBC, the annual drag expo RuPaul’s DragCon brings in over $9 million in revenue and 40,000 attendees.” 

“RuPaul’s Drag Race” made straight America fall in love with the art of drag. The show is a hilarious, shade-filled, and often moving celebration of an art form more than deserving of a place in TV history. “Lots of reality TV will leave you feeling as if you rolled around in a thin layer of slime, but Drag Race hits that perfect spot between shows that are all about messy verbal fisticuffs and those soothingly pastoral British series where people compete to see who can be the friendliest while crafting bespoke birds’ nests. Drag Race contestants are true artists: people who create feats of fashion, makeup, and hairstyling beyond most imaginations. They also know their way around a withering put down, or an unforgettable reality TV face-off. It’s perfection,” states Esquire.

Imagine telling people before 2009, that in a dozen years, reality TV would be dominated by RuPaul and an ecosystem of drag queens that spans five continents, has multiple spinoffs, and at least three streaming platforms. People may not have believed it, but that is exactly what happened. “Bold, bright personalities bring this colorful iconic reality competition series to life. RuPaul’s Drag Race gathers together a talented group of drag queens to compete in various challenges like runway shows, fashion showdowns, and lip-sync battles in the hopes of winning a cash prize and the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar,” from Collider.

4. “American Idol” (2002- Present)

With Kelly Clarkson as the season one winner and Simon Cowell with his withering disdain, “American Idol” became not only reality TV excellence, but the dominant TV show of its era. “For five months out of every year, the show was what we were talking about. The success stories — Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson — are what everyone points to when comparing it to a show like ‘The Voice,’ which never produced any actual stars, but the enduring legacy of ‘Idol’ is how deeply it made us care about the singers in 11th place and how 15 or so years later, you can hear names like Allison Iraheta or Josh Gracin or Trenyce and still be as ready to argue their merits as you were the morning after Barry Manilow night,” explains Variety. 

The show hasn’t spawned mega superstars in years but in the old days, this was the place to be to gain a fast national audience. “With alumni including Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry, and Fantasia Barrino, Idol remains one of the most successful reality franchises in history. What made it so successful back in the day was the powerhouse combination of judges (were Simon and Paula actually hateful? sexually frustrated? We’ll never know!), a charismatic up-comer named Ryan Seacrest, and a fierce debate about whether Clay or Ruben should have won Season Two. It’s the voting drama we long for in 2020. Idol’s best years existed in a time when it doubled as two shows: a reality singing competition and a televised mockery of people who believed they were talented. We’ll never have that must-watch offensiveness again,” says Esquire.

While the series has evolved over the decades since its first premiere, “American Idol” is still one of the groundbreaking, influential singing competition series in reality TV history. “Faithfully hosted all these years by Ryan Seacrest, the series began with three judges Randy Jackson, Simon Cowell, and Paula Abdul. Past winners include music icons like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. Over the seasons, judges have changed, but the popularity of the series endures,” states Collider.

5. “The Real World” (1992-2017)

It surely isn’t a surprise that “The Real World” made the list is that it is the first reality TV show to start this trend. It set the stage for shows like “Big Brother” and “Survivor”.As the intro states, ‘This is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.’ The show did not shy away from frank conversations about racism, homophobia, and sex. It normalized discussions about those topics in a way that made the audience feel more comfortable and open to the idea of having those conversations themselves, and that’s how society progresses. Although later seasons cared more about fights and relationships, those first few seasons were a fascinating social experiment that changed television forever,” states Looper.

When seven strangers were picked to live together and stop being polite, the world was there to watch. Practically the pioneer of its genre, “The Real World” continued for 15 years keeping audiences on edge for the next season. “The first few seasons gave us a raw, unpolished look at youth culture in the early ’90s, and while later seasons got wilder (and trashier), they never lost that giddy, voyeuristic spark. Running for a solid quarter-century, The Real World now serves as a document for an entire generation and all the issues that faced it, from racism to AIDS to drug abuse and much, much more — and the vast cultural splash it made 30 years ago is still sending out ripples to this day,” says TV Line.

To truly appreciate the impact that MTV’s The Real World” had on the reality genre, you really did have to be there in the show’s first 10 seasons or so. Variety explains the show’s utter simplicity, “Throwing seven strangers into a hip downtown space, having them live together and filming them as their differing perspectives/life experiences/preconceptions begin to clash and combine was a deeply radical notion in the early ’90s, and while the show would end up devolving into over-complications and MTV’s descent into Spring Break culture, the ideal of ‘The Real World’ remains as pristine as ever. And the 30-plus years of reality TV that followed has only made the longing for the unadorned original seasons that much sharper.”

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