Reality TV often gets a bad rap—how many times have you been embarrassed to admit you spent an entire weekend catching up on your fave "trashy" reality show? But as 2020 and 2021 has proven, the form is evolving. These new reality shows aren't just vehicles for you to feel good about your life choices, although there are some shows on here that do just that. They're ways to get inspired, educated, and involved, too.
Some of the classics of the genre are saying goodbye, like Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and others are making some long-overdue changes—looking at you, The Bachelor franchise. And some are new and exciting, like Legendary and The Big Day. Below, some of the best reality TV shows to watch as you look for new content, or comb through the back catalog of your newest binge-watch. And stay tuned, because we're also waiting on confirmation for some equally incredible shows (come on, The Circle; please give me more Love Is Blind, always; Million Dollar Beach House??). We'll update this list when we get renewal announcements and new shows. It's going to be a good year.
'RuPaul's Drag Race'
From the Rusicals to puppets to the legendary RuMixes, RuPaul's Drag Race is an entire world of pageantry and performance, all headed by iconic Mama Ru. If you don't happen to have the encyclopedic knowledge of the show, and are intimidated to watch it for the first time, Drag Race UK is apparently a little less intensely self-referential. Or you could watch the show from the beginning to catch up, so why not do that? Also, get in on the ground floor of spinoff We're Here, which just got renewed for season two.
'The Real Housewives of New Jersey'
What's not to love about The Real Housewives of Jersey? The drama continues with Teresa Giudice, Melissa Gorga, Dolores Catania, Margaret Josephs, Jennifer Aydin, and Jackie Goldschneider.
'Too Hot to Handle'
I didn't realize watching horny adults try NOT to have sex would be so fun and funny, but here we are. It's basically the meta version of every other sexy-adults-on-a-beach show out there: Aggressively honest about its intentions, and never above poking fun at the contestants.
It's like Bachelor in Paradise, but longer and more ridiculous. There are Love Island versions all over the world, but the UK show is essentially required viewing. Ratings for the US equivalent have been bad, but the show's Instagram account promises a season three in Hawaii. Great news, if you're interested: The show is currently casting.
Season 23 of Big Brother officially kicked off on July 7. One contestant already had to drop out after testing positive for COVID-19, but you can learn more about the rest of the contestants here. Expect another exciting season!
Bling Empire follows the wild lives of wealthy Asian families based in L.A., and was recently renewed for a second season. We're not comparing it to Crazy Rich Asians, but if you loved that movie you'll probably love this series, too.
'Million Dollar Listing New York'
Season nine of Million Dollar Listing New York premiered this year, and it truly never gets old—even as the agents do (kidding, kinda!). This season stars Fredrik Eklund, Ryan Serhant, Steve Gold, Tyler Whitman, and newbie Kirsten Jordan.
Chris Harrison's out as host, and one of the frontrunners has been taken to task for racially insensitive behavior. This is exactly why you should be watching, because you're looking at what was once considered the reality dating show (slowly, painfully) contend with its long and troubling history. If nothing else, the Women Tell All/After the Final Rose was very...interesting.
'Keeping Up With the Kardashians'
The most classic example of the genre, the show that basically defined reality TV for over a decade, is finally going off the air after 20 seasons on E! (only to reappear on Hulu). So give this the sendoff it deserves. It premiered on E! March 18.
'The Big Day'
Reality TV shows about the one percent can often skew problematic, both for their OTT depictions of limitless spending (which feels especially crummy mid-pandemic) and their clumsiness around elitism and classism. But The Big Day makes a solid effort to address issues of culture, race, sexual orientation, and gender roles. It's also revelatory about Indian weddings if you're unfamiliar, so you'll learn a lot while ogling the absolutely gorgeous ceremonies.
'90 Day Diaries'
If the prospect of the 90 Day Fiancé finale has you bummed out, there are MANY spinoffs to appreciate from this bonkers show (come for the awkwardness, stay for the horrors of the immigration system). One is 90 Day Diaries about the couples in the pandemic, 90 Days Bares All with uncensored stories, the 90 Day Journey miniseries, and the spinoff The Other Way Strikes Back! Also just announced: 90 Days: The Single Life. You could basically spend all your TV bandwidth just on this.
'Worst Cooks in America'
Do I watch this to feel better about my cooking skills? Yes. Do I sometimes come away from the show realizing I've been cooking something wrong my entire life? Uh huh. Do I occasionally learn a new cooking technique? Absolutely. The reason this show is in its 21st(!) season is because all of that—plus watching someone slowly become not-the-worst at something—never gets old.
This might be the most lavishly gorgeous reality show of all time? The series follows modern ball culture, as eight voguing houses try to outdo each other and compete for $100,000. Contestants have nine total balls to demonstrate their many modeling/dancing/lip-syncing/performance talents. HBO Max has confirmed a second season with returning MC Dashaun Wesley and judges Leiomy Maldonado, Jameela Jamil, Law Roach, and Megan Thee Stallion, so absolutely brush up on the first before that happens.
'When Disaster Strikes'
A different kind of "reality TV," you owe it to yourself to watch this docuseries about real-time responses to catastrophes around the world—from drought to cyclone to hurricane—and the frontline workers who try to save lives. This isn't for when you're just hoping for a light watch, but it is important viewing.
'Married at First Sight'
Season 12 of the very bingeable series takes place in Atlanta and promises to be characteristically messy (do we really watch for the occasional couple who stays married forever? Like Marie Kondo, I came for the mess.) Next up, the show's casting for a season in Boston, so get ready for some delightfully terrible accents and incomprehensible discussions about sports.
'Painting With John'
John Lurie wants to make it clear at the very front of this series: None of his trees are happy. Obvious dig at Bob Ross aside, this is a hypnotic look at the painter at work, while he dispenses words of both wisdom and nonsense—"I was hoping this show would be educational, but I really don’t know what the f*ck I’m doing," he says. And yet, his work, and temperament, prove otherwise.
My love for Nicole Byer is endless, and this is (one of) the perfect vehicles for her. Her reactions alone—"I teeheeheed"—are worth the watch, but so are the horrible horrible cakes that will haunt your dreams, maybe forever.And it was just announced that we're getting a season five on March 26, which is the news my quarantine-weary soul needs right now.
'Inside the World's Toughest Prisons'
Season five of the compelling show just hit Netflix, as we travel the globe looking at the prison system in different countries. Our guide is UK journalist Raphael Rowe (who served time before being ultimately acquitted of the crime he was accused of). This would be a good companion piece to 13th as an eye-opening look of the horrors of incarceration around the world.
If you love glitter as much as these kids (and if you don't, we probably shouldn't be friends), get excited for Craftopia. It features one of my favorite YouTubers, Lauren Riihimaki—a.k.a. LaurDIY. The crafty kiddo contestants, who are way, way more talented than I am, compete to make the most creative and complicated creations (alliteration definitely intended). The show's been renewed for a second season, so get those glue sticks out now.
It's the opposite of Nailed It, with Lego bricks. Watching these artists compete to make the most gorgeous sculptures is both fascinating and heartbreaking, especially when one of the meticulous creations accidentally crashes into a million pieces. It's confirmed for a season two, so get ready to be mesmerized all over again.
In a similar fashion to The Bachelor, this one's worth the watch for the people bringing change to the franchise. If you're not caught up, skip straight to Tayshia Adams's episodes to watch her take charge of the season with grace and wisdom—and give us one of the best love stories the franchise has ever seen. A lot of people were mad that we didn't get a Bachelor in Paradise last year, but there are plenty of reality shows with beaches and bikinis at this point. It's unclear who the next Bachelorette will be, but the fact that it's still up in the air is hopefully a sign that producers are listening to audience members, who want more of what we saw with Adams.
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Katherine’s a Boston-based contributor at Marie Claire who covers fashion, culture, and lifestyle—from “Clueless” to Everlane to news about Lizzo. She’s been a freelancer for 11 years and has had roles with Cosmopolitan and Bustle, with bylines in Parents, Seventeen, and elsewhere. It’s “I go to dinner,” not “Her huge ego,” but she responds to both.
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