“The Masked Singer” is just the latest reality smackdown that keeps critics watching.
Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: What is your favorite reality competition show? Why? (Current and older shows apply.)
Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider
Ready, set … relax! It’s “The Great British Baking Show” (or “Bake Off”), of course. It speaks to the very heart of my Anglophilia, but I’m also someone who doesn’t normally watch any baking or competition shows. I am, however, a devotee of “GBBO” (including its latest seasons with new hosts and a new judge — they won me over, OK?) It is perhaps the most serene and happiest show on television, and so different from American (or even UK) series of a similar vein. The judges are hard but fair, everyone is so encouraging (including the other contestants towards one another, always willing to lend a hand), and there is never a desire to humiliate anyone. “You are usually so good, you just let yourself down a little,” is the worst one might hear when presenting a disaster of a showstopper. It’s homey, familiar, and each season true friendships seem to form in the iconic tent. Or at least, the show gives us enough hope and happiness to believe that could be true.
April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics
Top honors are a toss-up between Discovery’s “Gold Rush” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” on VH1, the Yin and Yang of reality TV programming to be sure. “Gold Rush” is a sly addiction, and I have been covering it for so long I actually came to love it, a soap opera for the hard hat set with real found gold at the end of it all. RuPaul is pure high drama and wig-flipping drag-tastic and artistic fun, another world and equally appreciated. The other one I always watch is Lara Spencer’s “Flea Market Flip” for HGTV, I love her and that premise! I have no upcycle skills so I am always amazed at what items people reinvent to resell, it’s a fun show. [Editor’s Note: “Gold Rush” is not a competition show, but the lucky ones can still reap rich rewards.”]
Clint Worthington (@alcohollywood), Consequence of Sound, Freelance
God, do I love cooking competition shows. Sit me down in front of a TV with a Hulu account and I’ll watch “Chopped,” “Iron Chef,” even “Cutthroat Kitchen” till Ted Allen tells me to step away from my station. Sure, in my heart of hearts I know “The Great British Baking Show” is the pinnacle of these types of shows, the televisual equivalent of a pleasant stroll through the English countryside with a petit four and some of your nicest neighbors. But there’s something inherently addictive about the comprehensive level of cross-pollination that occurs across all of Food Network’s quickly produced, cheap to make reality cooking competitions, their stable of familiar, friendly celebrity chefs guesting on each other’s shows and performing on others, spending as much time bullshitting with each other as they are judging or making food. One day, Alex Guarnaschelli will stare daggers into a contestant on “Chopped”; the next, she’ll be running down grocery store aisles to grab ingredients on “Guy’s Grocery Games” (it’s fun, don’t @ me). Watch enough of these shows for a long enough period of time, and you’ll grow fond of the familiarity and warmth each of the Food Network judges has toward each other, regardless of what show they’re on.
This is to say nothing of the high-stakes, against-the-clock mayhem of the actual cooking itself. Whether it’s seeing contestants’ eyes glaze over the weird ingredients in a “Chopped” basket, or the puckish glee with which Alton Brown tortures his contestants on “Cutthroat Kitchen,” there’s just something addictive about watching people thrown into high-pressure situations with lots of open flames and sharp knives. As predictable and formulaic as reality competition rhythms have become (drink every time a music sting is used to make a mild criticism of a dish seem more cutting), guessing who’s getting cut based on whose interviews they show is just part of the fun. This day and for all days, I humbly submit myself to the Food Network gods – as long as they feed me a steady high-carb diet of affable celebrity chefs and pressure-cooker culinary scenarios.
Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire
I am pretty fixated on “Top Chef” these days, both the recent seasons as well as the early ones. It mostly comes down to how good the show is at creating heroes and villains in a compelling way — while never really undercutting the quality of the creativity on display. There are honestly times when I don’t ever want to eat food if I’m not watching these chefs. It’s a show which makes me feel so deliciously hungry.
Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR
It is difficult for me to watch most unscripted so-called “reality” shows because I feel they are centered on a central hypocrisy: They present the promise that viewers are seeing honest reactions to events, when often the production has extensively manipulated both the event and the program’s presentation of what happened. One show that has found its way into my TV cynic’s heart, however, is “The Great British Baking Show,” seen on PBS and Netflix. In a way, this is a show with some of the lowest stakes you can imagine – talented amateur bakers trying to pull off a wagon wheel biscuit or personalized cake under the watchful eye of experienced judges. But on this program, the contestants help each other and root for those who are struggling, with what looks like genuine tears shed when a contestant is ejected from the show – even when it’s clear they’re not up to snuff. Never would have expected the country which gave us Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan to also give us one of the most entertainingly sentimental and emotional competitions on reality TV. But thank goodness it exists, like a tasty scone at the far side of an unruly smorgasbord of much less noble programs.
June Thomas (@junethomas), Slate
I suspect there is something very unoriginal about this pick, but nothing beats “The Great British Baking Show” for sheer watchability. Of course, there’s a certain amount of stress baked in to any competition, but this show, with its friendly vibe and utter lack of cut-throat attitudes is an anxiety-free viewing experience. Instead, it’s all warm ovens, sweet treats, hugs, and bad puns. Delicious!
Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine
I am garbage so my answer will reflect my low-rent bent: “The Bachelor.” It takes literally NO skill to win; the most you get out of it is a few months of “Life & Style” covers, a Neil Lane ring that likely goes back after the engagement falls apart and maybe a Freeform show that lasts less than a year. But still, this franchise — now in its 154th season or something — remains a total hoot. The producers have leaned all the way in to the fact that this is a comedy and know that it’s never about the Bachelor or Bachelorette: It’s about the crazy, shameless and oversexed dumpster fires who agree to line up and vie for the star singleton’s roses (and other things that can prick ya, wink wink). They are needy, nasty and usually half-naked, if not fully drunk as well, and they are perfect reminders that we all, at one time or another, have behaved like absolute monsters to get someone’s attention. By the time the players have made it to the Fantasy Suite, the rules go out the window as fast as the curtains are drawn and it’s never not addictive trying to figure out who will make it all the way to beachside Thunderdome where one is sent home (to pack for “Bachelor in Paradise”) and the other becomes engaged to the next “Dancing with the Stars” cast member.
Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter
For me, there are two contenders here. “Top Chef” very nearly got my Best TV Show Currently On Air vote. It’s a resilient format that combines tremendous appreciation for food, which I love, with consistently solid casting and a competitive structure that invites a certain kind of chaotic, clock-racing drama in almost every episode. Frequent variation of seasonal locations helps prevent the individual weekly challenges from ever getting stale and, for the most part, the show offers the pleasure of watching people who are, fairly uniformly, good at what the do.
My vote still has to go, though, to CBS’ “Survivor,” because there is no way that you possibly could have predicted back in 2000 that this was a format that had 37 (and counting) seasons in it. CBS has never paused “Survivor” to let the contestant pool build up again or to let the game recharge its energies. The show just keeps chugging along and, remarkably, it keeps shifting and evolving in subtle ways that are perhaps only visible to regular viewers. If you’d only watched the first season and then you checked in on the most recently completed season, you’d probably be impressed with how polished the show’s production has become, but also how steady and recognizable its strategies still are. That would leave out a lot of the weekly nuance brought about by variations in theme and the game rules and also in approaches to the game from players who have come of age watching “Survivor.” Even after 37 seasons, things still happen regularly that have never happened before and that feel all the more revolutionary for that scarcity. Even in a season like this past one, which began with a hoary and hokey “David vs Goliath” theme, after people stopped misinterpreting said theme and just got to playing “Survivor,” the casting as usual proved outstanding and the game continued to be a good game. Ratings have followed suit. Fatigue sets in with nearly every competition reality show, but the “Survivor” audience doesn’t waver. For good reason.
Kaitlin Thomas (@thekaitling), TVGuide.com
I don’t watch most reality TV shows — if it doesn’t air on the Food Network, I probably haven’t seen it — but I wholeheartedly love “Beat Bobby Flay.” Now, I know what everyone is thinking: Bobby Flay is an a-hole! How could I watch and support this man and this show? Well, honestly, his level of obnoxiousness is exactly what makes “Beat Bobby Flay” so much fun to watch. Find me another show about a person who thinks they’re so great at what they do that they challenge people to come prove them wrong on TV. Chefs arrive with signature dishes they’ve probably made hundreds of times before, and Bobby’s just like, “I can do it better, without practice, in just 45 minutes. Watch me crush your hopes and dreams in a single 30-minute episode.” And he does! He wins quite a bit. I don’t care if this is all rigged, because I am obsessed with watching the drama of the kitchen unfold. I love watching Bobby get flustered and screw up. I love it when he loses. I love it when Michael Symon shows up and makes fun of him. And the best part is that this isn’t even the first show where Bobby Flay does this kind of shit. “Throwdown! With Bobby Flay,” the predecessor to “Beat Bobby Flay” that featured Bobby practicing the dishes he had to cook, saw him show up to fake events where people thought they were being featured in a new show for the Food Network only to find out it was a set up and Bobby Flay was going to challenge them at their own dish! These shows only work because of Bobby Flay’s crazy ego. And I am obsessed with it.
Diane Gordon (@thesurfreport), Freelance
Bravo’s “Top Chef.” The reason? Because I’m constantly amazed at how chefs work under pressure and with seemingly impossible time constraints. I’ve always admired the judging panels on the show too, as they have a strong core of experts (Tom Colicchio is still my favorite because of his targeted, blunt assessments) that they augment with world-class chefs like Eric Ripert, who stop by for an episode.
“Top Chef” continues to impress as they’ve changed locations each season and embraced the beauty and menu possibilities of each new locale. The current season is in Kentucky and they’ve leaned into southern flavors and ambience. The show’s producers have also tweaked the challenges to keep them fresh; this season, there were three Restaurant War teams instead of the usual two.
Finally, I love “Top Chef” because it inspires me to seek out and enjoy good food. Whether it’s fancy or not, “Top Chef” shows there’s so much more than a few recipes that go into a great meal.
Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox
Only one reality competition show, to my mind, captures the vast possibility of this great American landscape, the creativity and drive that gives us meaning and creates purpose. Only one reality competition show allows us to better understand both ourselves and the world around us, helps us look past the surface and see the true beauty within. Only one reality competition show features people confronting their worst fears and conquering them through a combination of grit, determination, and great costumes. That show, of course, is “The Masked Singer.” Long may it reign.
Tim Surette (@timsurette), TV.com
Put me down for “MasterChef Junior,” a spin-off that undoes everything that makes the mothership so intolerable. Where “MasterChef” is braising in a soup of fear and anger, “MasterChef Junior” is topped with a heaping dollop of hope and positivity. And the kids in this! They show off real, impressive kitchen talent and can cook for me anytime (except for that one kid who made spaghetti and meatballs with scallops, but those culinary catastrophes are easy to forget when they come from the tiny hands of a four-foot chef). And when one of the kids cries – every episode, like clockwork – Gordon Ramsay doesn’t bottle the tears to use in his next gazpacho like he does with the adult version, he displays actual empathy and picks the kids up with honest, helpful advice. “MasterChef Junior” is an emotional cleanse not found in most reality competitions.
Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), GoldDerby
“Big Brother” is the most addictive reality show – I’ve literally lost hours of sleep to the live feeds – but my favorite? Nay. My all-time No. 1 is “The Amazing Race.” Its ridiculous Emmy run (seven straight wins, 10 total) never bothered me that much unlike, say, “The Daily Show’s” 10-year streak because, honestly, the scope and sheer production value of my beloved “TAR” is insane. It shoots all over the world in three weeks; all these other reality show chumps shoot on a closed set or one location for months. Really, it just does not compare. There’s also no judging or voting involved – it’s all on the racers (and some taxi luck) to avoid coming in last the first 11 legs and then come in first on the last one. And as someone with eternal wanderlust, I’d much rather watch people try to march unruly donkeys up a picturesque mountaintop in Ireland or build a bamboo raft in Malaysia or unroll 200 hay bales in Sweden (iconic Roadblock!) than wait for a couple of chairs to turn around.
Marisa Roffman (@marisaroffman), Give Me My Remote
While “The Masked Singer” is the current reality TV love of my life (who the heck is under those darn masks?!), I have so much affection “American Idol” and “The Voice.” (Yes, I love both.) I’ve watched both shows since the beginning and have such a fondness for them…albeit for slightly different reasons. “Idol” has had magical combinations of judges, but frankly, when I think of the show, I think of Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Adam Lambert, and some of the incredible talent they’ve produced. (Clarkson is actually my favorite talent show winner ever.) “The Voice” has had some incredible contestants, but the real electricity often comes from the early rounds/the various coaches. “The Voice” has occasionally struggled with maintaining energy and momentum post-Blinds, but when it’s clicking, it’s so freaking compelling.
Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire
The best of the best — or my favorite amongst very few favorites — is “Survivor.” With longevity breeds repetition for many successful reality series, and through 37 seasons CBS’s enduring competitions have overlapped for better and worse. But from hidden immunity idols to tense Tribal Council votes, the basic structure of the show is incredibly sturdy, and the twists added by producers and savvy contestants have been as cunning as they are ruthless. (Remember when Jonny Fairplay’s visiting friend lied about his dead grandmother so the contestant could win an immunity idol?)
To be fair, I’ve dropped in and out of “Survivor” over the last decades, leaning toward kinder reality-competition shows like “The Great British Bake-Off” (perhaps as a result of watching “Survivor’s” countless cutthroat moves for so long). But when Rahul conned his way to a championship last year, all my “Survivor” triggers went off. Maybe all that weeping and cowering was just for the camera… maybe he manipulated the judges to keep him on the show… maybe these Brits are too trusting. Or maybe I just need to spend more time with the nice folks.
Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*
A: “Counterpart” (three votes)
Other contenders: “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch,” “Bob’s Burgers,” “Derry Girls,” “Dirty John,” “Escape at Dannemora,” “Good Trouble,” “I’m Sorry,” “The Masked Singer,” “Ray Donovan,” “Surviving R. Kelly,” and “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo” (one vote each)
*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.