Reality TV's Highest Highs and Lowest Lows


For more than two decades now, TV viewers around the globe have been obsessed with watching total strangers attempt to live together, eat bugs for money, compete for a spouse, and sing or dance to win the adoration of millions of fans. These pseudo-stars have entered our lives and our living rooms through the low-budget form of entertainment known as reality TV. Today, many of these shows are staples of evening programming and some cast members are as well known (not to mention as well paid) as top Hollywood actors. To celebrate this unique genre, take a glance back at some of reality TV's highest highs and lowest lows. Think we missed a priceless reality moment? Drop a link to a clip in the comments below.

It was in the first episode of the third season of MTV's flagship reality show The Real World (set in San Francisco in 1994) that the rest of the real real world first met Pedro Zamora, a 22-year-old Miami man living with AIDS. After the seven roommates complete the (now infamous) room-choosing scene and toast each other during their inaugural dinner, Pedro unpacks a large scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings of his accomplishments as an AIDS activist and educator. Most of the roommates react with pride and support, but roommate Rachel Campos's face freezes and she turns on her heels, exiting the room swiftly. She later tells the camera: "Everybody else was just in so much adoration of his accomplishments, that me asking a question [about how it would affect me] would have made me, like, you know, the bitch." Zamora used the show as a way to educate a young, sexually active MTV audience vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, and even received a call from then-president Bill Clinton, thanking him for his work. He died the day after the final episode of The Real World: San Francisco aired.

In this charming love story that aired in 2000, 50 women compete in a two-hour, single-broadcast reality show for the love of a to-be-announced multimillionaire. Total stranger Darva Conger was chosen by the rich Rick Rockwell to have his hand in marriage on Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? Wed they did (in front of a live studio audience). But the honeymoon was short-lived when news surfaced that Rockwell had a restraining order against him from a former girlfriend for domestic violence. Conger quickly begged for an annulment and told Good Morning America, "I committed an error in judgment." Really? Check out Jon Stewart's skewering of the couple in this clip from a 2000 episode of The Daily Show.

While filming her reality show Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica with then-husband Nick Lachey, pop star Simpson chomps on a forkful of tuna fish and utters the unforgettable question, "Is this chicken, what I have, or is this fish? I know it's tuna, but it says chicken ... by the sea." Her baffled hubby stares back at her in disbelief, then attempts to explain to her (as if speaking to a 5-year-old) what the brand Chicken of the Sea is trying to accomplish with their clever (but admittedly deceptive) wording.

In this clip from Survivor: The Amazon (2003) contestants participate in an immunity challenge where they must balance on a small stool in the middle of a swamp. Last contestant standing wins. Minutes into the challenge, Jenna Morasca and Heidi Strobel announce that they will take their clothes off if the producers bring them chocolate and peanut butter. (How convenient that the producers just happened to have PB, cookies, and cola on hand.) Morasca and Strobel's display reeked of attention-seeking, but it paid off with a dual spread in Playboy magazine for which they were reportedly paid $1 million.

Season one "cheftestant" Dave Martin might have been the only person to successfully silence fellow culinary competitor and all-around meanie Tiffani Faison when he snapped at her with a catch phrase that quickly made its way onto T shirts at Bravo TV's online store. As they sat side by side at the judges' table to determine which team member should earn a fancy prize (they worked together on a winning restaurant concept), Faison tried to take credit for her team members' work and continually interrupted Martin's efforts to explain his contribution. But Martin had had enough and let his complaints about Faison fly, punctuating it all with the memorable and alliterative, "I'm not your bitch, bitch."

The despicable 2004 reality-competition show The Swan offered women thousands of dollars' worth of cosmetic surgery, orthodontia, and hair extensions (gratis), then forced them to compete in a beauty pageant with other former "ugly ducklings." As they try to heal (still with bandages on their faces) their "coach" berates them for not spending enough time at the gym. Oh, and did we mention you could get kicked off the show for looking into a mirror? If this is life in the land of the beautiful, we'll stick to the other side of the pond, thank you very much.

In this terrifying minute of video, crew members of the Time Bandit ship--and stars of the Discovery Channel show Deadliest Catch, which follows crab fishermen in Alaska--watch a fisherman on a nearby competitor's ship get swallowed into the freezing sea by a gushing wave. Emergency bells blare and the crew members begin screeching "man overboard!" The man is plucked from the water by Time Bandit's crew and, incredibly, is alert enough to thank his rescuers and shout, "Oh, my god, that's some f--king cold water!"

We're equal-opportunity when it comes to dating reality shows. But The Littlest Groom, in which a 4-foot-5 man tries to find love among a group of women who are of similar height, was chock-full of ridiculous puns and what could only feel like finger-pointing and laughing. The real twist comes when "average-size" women are introduced into the dating circle. Thankfully, the show's run was short-lived (sorry, had to!), with only two episodes. But that was just enough to stir up plenty of controversy.

In the season-three finale of Project Runway, show mentor Tim Gunn visits designer/contestant Laura Bennett and her gaggle of children in Manhattan to check up on her progress leading up to Fashion Week. But when Bennett's children try to introduce the dressed-to-impress Gunn into the family fray by handing him a (surprisingly large) turtle turd, Gunn squeals "ewww!" and urgently scoots away. It's one of those moments that are impossible to get tired of watching.

What makes better television than children fending for themselves in a spaghetti Western-themed ghost town on the day they run out of food? Nothing, in these producers' eyes. The Kid Nation young'uns caucus and decide they're hungry, and it's about darn time to kill and eat some chickens. A skateboarder-looking young teen boy does the honors with an ax and the children completely lose it when they see an actual chicken running around with its head cut off. "We gave these two suckers a shortcut!" shouts 11-year-old Jared. Yes, Jared, you gave two chickens a shortcut to death and about a dozen kids a shortcut to therapy.

There's no lack of tears when watching Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, the show that rebuilds and refurnishes homes of families facing horrible struggles due to unemployment, natural disaster, or crippling illness. As carpenter turned host Ty Pennington stands near the family that is waiting to see their new home for the first time, he shouts "move that bus!" A large coach bus zooms away, revealing a gigantic mansion where a small home once stood. Cue sappy music, screams of glee, and tears (oh, so many tears). Sometimes, a local company will even step in and offer to pay off the original home's remaining mortgage, as seen in this clip from an episode featuring the Carr family of Texas.

Just try to watch the Discovery Channel program I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant without screaming at the television. We recommend: "Are you kidding me?!?" "Take more pregnancy tests!" and "If you look pregnant and feel pregnant, you're probably pregnant!" This show features cheesy reenactments (often starring the actual mothers) of women retelling stories of mysteriously gaining weight then delivering babies while attempting to use the toilet. Seriously. In this clip from E!'s The Soup, host Joel McHale can't hide his disgust for this absurd television program.

Unemployed Scottish singer Susan Boyle did not impress the judges or the crowd of U.K. reality-competition show Britain's Got Talent with her stunning good looks. Judge Simon Cowell even made an over-the-top eye roll when Boyle revealed her age (47), and many newscasters later called her "frumpy" and "unkempt." But all were in stunned silence as she belted the first bars to "I Dreamed a Dream" from the musical Les Miserables. Jaws dropped and Cowell exclaimed, "Extraordinary!" YouTube clips of the performance earned nearly 2.5 million views in the first three days.

Jersey Shore, the show that introduced the media elite to fist-pumping and GTL, was a guilty pleasure for many (including plenty at this publication), but watching a woman get decked in the face (by a high-school gym teacher, no less), turned our stomachs. MTV responded to a dust-up over the hit by editing the actual punch out of the episode. Too bad the entire world had already seen it dozens of times on the Internet. Can we just get back to sleazy hot-tub activity, please?