For the last twenty years, reality shows have been progressively taking up more space on the small screen. An abundance of willing participants and low production costs have inspired showrunners to come up with new variations of the format to fill timeslots. Reality television is also staking a larger claim in the public sphere; it has helped shape how viewers perceive the world and influenced both politics and popular opinions. Even though most know that reality shows are misleading, fans still love to indulge in the fantasies they offer and discuss on-screen conflicts.
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These shows are often described as guilty pleasures—but they do not have to be. While a lot of reality shows are fueled by histrionics and memorable sound bites, there are many others that try to offer genuine insight into unfamiliar terrains. Reality television is an arena for both honest portrayals of everyday life and meticulously edited content, and it can sometimes be hard to make a distinction between truth and fiction.
Updated on July 28th, 2022 by Tanner Fox: From Candid Camera to Survivor, there’s something undeniably compelling about reality television. It’s true that much of what’s seen on these series is either exaggerated or outright fake, but suspension of disbelief allows viewers to enjoy it regardless.
That said, some shows take being fake to a whole new level. From survival affairs that play up the perceived danger of certain scenarios to celebrity drama series that are about as fake as reality TV can be, it can sometimes be hard to push past the nonsense. Fortunately, other reality TV outings portray events as they actually happened.
Fake: Long Island Medium
Long Island Medium documents the life and career of Theresa Caputo, a self-declared psychic. Caputo is best known for her spunky personality, her voluminous blonde hair, and her ability to speak with the dead. On her show, she often approaches strangers on the street to give them psychic readings.
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Psychics are often met with criticism, and Caputo is no exception. According to Daily Mail, private investigator Ron Tebo has even gone so far as to call her a “vulture preying on the most vulnerable.” Tebo claims that Caputo engages in “cold readings,” which is a way of leading subjects into confirming vague statements. Caputo has also left some once-adoring fans with the same impression, so it is safe to say that the medium is probably not as omniscient as she would like us to believe.
In Survivorman, Les Stroud is dropped off in the wilderness with a survival kit. As he films himself, Stroud teaches viewers how to survive under the same circumstances.
Survivorman is often described as the most realistic survival show on TV. There is no camera crew following Stroud around, and he is pretty much left to his own devices. Although Stroud sometimes embellishes how much danger he is in, his show gives valuable insight and information into surviving in the wild. Stroud is the real deal, and so is his show—for the most part, at least.
Fake: Naked And Afraid
Naked And Afraid is a survival show in the vein of Survivor, albeit with an obvious twist. The show transports participants to exotic locations, strips them bare, and films them while they attempt to live off the land.
However, Several former contestants have revealed that Naked And Afraid is not as upfront as it sets out to be. This bizarre adventure is supposedly heavily produced to breed conflict and create villains among the cast, and the production crew also supplies contestants with amenities that would not be available to them in the wilderness. Behind the scenes, they are handed prescription medication, tampons, and even vitamin B supplements.
Real: The Last Alaskans
Alaska has been a popular destination for reality television makers. Alaskan Bush People, Edge Of Alaska, and Alaska: The Last Frontier are a few of the recent shows to come out of this state. Alaskan reality series often focus on curious characters and depict a somewhat romanticized idea of rural life.
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The Last Alaskans is a counterweight to other exaggerated representations of life in the land of the midnight sun. The show follows the last remaining families living in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The people who inhabit these lands are constricted to only seven permitted cabins and have access to few modern amenities. Their daily struggles revolve around surviving the seasons and avoiding packs of roaming wolves. They have little desire for fame, and the show is about as honest a representation as one can find of people living in harmony with nature.
Fake: RuPaul’s Drag Race
RuPaul’s Drag Race features contestants competing in drag. In the span of a single season, they exhibit skills ranging from celebrity impersonations to lip-syncing.
The show is best known for fierce looks, snide comments, and incredible lip syncs. Unfortunately, waistlines and contouring are not the show’s only illusory elements; according to a Vulture interview with former contestant Jaremi Carey, the show edits in soundbites taken out of context to create storylines. Jaremi, known on the show as Phi Phi O’Hara, returned to RuPaul’s Drag Race because he was promised a redemption arc. Instead, he claims that producers were drumming up drama behind the scenes and goading him into saying things that would reflect poorly on him.
Real: Undercover Boss
Undercover Boss has often faced ridicule because of the unconvincing disguises worn by the show’s featured bosses. These CEOs and high-ranking managers do not dress up for their own amusement, but to take on low-level jobs within their own company and eventually give back to the employees who may feel underappreciated.
Even though the show might seem forced, it is surprisingly real. The titular bosses choose their own disguise and undercover personas, and everything that happens while the cameras are rolling is completely organic. The production crew never lets on what they are really making, but they do go through a rigorous selection process to decide who will appear on the show.
Fake: The Real Housewives
The Real Housewives is Bravo’s poster child; the franchise follows affluent women from several different cities in the US in their day-to-day life. In addition to going on frenzied shopping sprees and lavish vacations, the women are known to argue over perceived slights and throw each other under the bus at every turn.
Although the show might depict a reality foreign to most viewers, it professes that all the interactions and relationships on the show are authentic. Curious onlookers who caught the New York cast filming in Southampton reported that the process looked like something you would find on a studio set. As per Jezebel, the cast would take pauses during their discussions to wait for camera set-ups and shoot multiple takes of the same “scene.”
Real: Judge Judy
Judge Judy has been entertaining audiences with witty rebuttals and a keen sense of justice for over two decades. Despite the show’s popularity, some of the cases brought before the judge have been so preposterous that audiences wondered if they were real or fabricated.
Viewers can lay their worries to rest; Judge Judy actually has 65 researchers sifting through the country’s small claims court. When they come across an interesting case, they contact the two sides to hear if they would like to appear on the show. If this is the case, the claim must be taken out of court and into arbitration. Nevertheless, there are some details to which viewers are not privy. The two sides receive compensation for participating and the outcome is actually decided before filming begins.
Fake: Basketball Wives
Basketball Wives follows the lives of women married to prominent basketball players. Shaquille O’Neal’s ex-wife Shaunie and Doug Christie’s wife Jackie are among the show’s cast. The women usually get into outrageous disagreements and come together afterward in “ponderosas” to work things out.
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Not everyone has been happy about their own participation in the spectacle. According to Complex, former cast member Matt Barnes stated in an interview that participating in the show is his biggest regret. He then went on to reveal that the entire show is staged and scripted. Basketball wife Tanya Young backs up his claims. In a detailed article from The Daily Beast, Young explains how producers would pit women against each other and sow discord within the group.
Real: The First 48
Detailing crime and police work is a surefire way to draw viewers in. The First 48 is a real-life addition to the line-up of police shows that fill the TV schedule. In homicide investigations, the first 48 hours after a crime has been committed are considered the most important. When these hours have passed, the chances of catching the perp drop by 50 percent. The First 48 documents how homicide detectives work during these crucial hours to catch the culprits.
Critics have been alarmed by the disproportionate number of black criminals on the show. Although the show struggles to present a balanced perspective of crime in America, its depiction of what goes on in a police investigation is very accurate.
Marriage is a monumental passage in anyone’s life, but the women on this show take getting married a step further. The brides-to-be often come across as demanding, spoiled, and stubborn. Bridezillas delivers on what the title promises. The smallest hiccups can knock the blooming brides off their rockers and provoke incredible reactions.
Not all brides have been equally pleased with the Bridezillas treatment. As per Salon, former participant Cynthia Silver says she was tricked into believing that she was participating in a documentary titled Manhattan Brides. Additionally, according to Life & Style, Julia Swinton-Williamson from the show’s second season had a similar experience and sued the show for misleading her.
Real: 60 Days In
60 Days In offers viewers a disturbing look into what goes on in the prison system. The series documents what happens inside prisons and follows a number of undercover prisoners who have been sent in to obtain information. As documented by Business Insider, after the first season aired, multiple corrections officers lost their jobs.
60 Days In has become an international success and is broadcast in over 100 countries. A big part of the series’ success is its unfiltered portrayal of the prison system and of what the reality for most prisoners is actually like. Even though it sometimes leaves valuable details out of the story, 60 Days In is still one of the most accurate reality shows on TV.
Fake: Southern Charm
The trials and tribulations of wealthy young Charlestonians are put on full display in Southern Charm. The show, which follows the The Real Housewives formula, has been an unexpected hit for Bravo.
Despite its success, a cast member decided to go public and voice her concerns about the show’s truthfulness. Danni Baird stated in an interview with Inquisitr that scenes were inserted into the narrative long before they took place. It has also been reported that the show’s most tumultuous couple did not even live in Charleston while they were filming the first season; they actually resided in Florida. Their unclear past may lead viewers to question how much of their relationship is correctly portrayed on the show and how much of this so-called reality series itself was flat-out fake.
Real: Terrace House
Reality television usually fans the flames of drama and pits participants against each other, but Terrace House does none of these things. The Japanese reality show captures awkward and relatable moments in the lives of six young men and women.
For viewers who are accustomed to Western reality television, this show will come as a welcome surprise. The format is similar to Big Brother with the six cast members living under the same roof, but the tone is completely different. The cast tries their best to get along, and editors devote a considerable amount of screen time to dishwashing and other mundane tasks. This show is perhaps the only one of its genre that has no troublemakers and drama queens in the cast, and it’s as far from fake as a reality series can be.
Fake: The Voice
The Voice has earned a primetime spot and high ratings from its winning formula. On the show, hopeful singers are coached by pop superstars as they compete to win a record deal.
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Yet, according to one potential competitor, the contest is not as fair as it seems. As covered by International Business Times, Rock singer Adam Wiener stated in a Facebook post that he was courted by the show but declined the offer. Wiener turned the opportunity down because of the restrictions put on contestants. He claimed that the competition is completely pre-cast and that the producers decided both the style of music he would be performing and the specific songs. Wiener’s revelations have some fans questioning what other aspects of The Voice may be fake.
Real: The Great British Bake Off
Culinary competitions have become massively popular over the last decade, and The Great British Bake Off is one of the most successful members of this genre. While several of its kindred shows are peppered with harsh scoldings and humiliating critiques, The Great British Bake Off prefers to highlight baking skills and celebrate amateur bakers.
A major concern for the show’s hosts is the representation of contestants in an honest light; former hosts Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc even walked off the set in protest once during filming. Perkins later explained in a tell-all with The Telegraph that producers were driving competitors to open up about painful stories from their past. Thanks to its headstrong hosts, The Great British Bake Off now sticks to pastries and no longer tries to dredge up old memories.
Fake: MasterChef USA
MasterChef is another popular cooking contest that has been heating up both televisions and kitchens across the globe. On the show, promising amateur chefs audition to compete for the title of MasterChef and $250,000 dollars.
Despite the tempting premise, a former contestant has revealed that the competition is almost completely fake. In a lengthy blog post recapped by Inquisitr, Ben Starr explained that participants had to agree to potentially fictionalized and humiliating portrayals of themselves. Starr also claims that editors would piece together different pieces of dialogue to create statements that were never uttered. As far as authenticity goes, literally placing words in the mouths of contestants is far from an honest depiction of the MasterChef experience.
Real: MasterChef Australia
While MasterChef USA is known for the contestants’ petty commentary and frequent break-downs, MasterChef Australia takes a much milder approach to the format. The Australian version airs five nights a week, which means that most episodes do not center around the elimination aspect of the competition.
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For the contestants and viewers alike, the show is as much a cooking competition as it is a cooking class. As per the New Zealand-based news outlet stuff, host Gary Mehigan has explained that the secret to their success is picking the food and then slowly letting the contestants open up. His colleague Matt Preston also let slip that the judges never let producers influence their decisions.
Fake: Vanderpump Rules
The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills star Lisa Vanderpump heads this show about the waitstaff in her restaurant, SUR. The staff has a tendency to poach each other’s partners and steal alcohol and cutlery from their boss. Although the relationships on Vanderpump Rules are real, there have been some indications that other aspects of the show may be contrived.
In one episode, a fan noticed that cast member Kristen Doute was shown intermittently with and without her necklace during a scene. There is a clear indication that the same scene was shot several times and pieced together afterward. As covered by Starcasm, Stassi Schroeder has also admitted that she was forced to fake a breakup for the reality show. This all points to the fact that Vanderpump Rules is staged for cameras.
Real: Celebrity Big Brother
Celebrity Big Brother had already been a hit in several European countries before it found its way to American audiences. The US version featured many famous faces, and television personality Ross Matthews and former White House staffer Omarosa Manigault were among the show’s most recognizable stars.
Fans of the show will remember that it aired four times a week in highly-condensed episodes. The episodes were often dramatic and misleading, but viewers still had a way to get a complete understanding of everything that went on. Cameras were rolling non-stop while the celebrities were in the house, and the footage could be streamed at all hours on CBS’s website. These online streaming services offered viewers a completely unedited look into what really happened in the Big Brother house.
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