“Reality show” is an ironic name to give to a brand of television that serves more as an escape from reality. It’s a sad truth that one of the main reasons we indulge in reality television is to remind ourselves that our lives are at least not as bad as those of the people on the screen. The shows on this list embody this, maybe taking the humiliation of their contestants too far. Whether just plain cruel or based upon stupid premises, these are the worst reality shows of all time.
I Wanna Marry “Harry” (Fox, 2014)
The premise of I Wanna Marry “Harry” is undoubtedly exploitative. In a Bachelor-esque competition, 12 American women vie for the love of a Prince Harry lookalike, who they are led to believe is the real Prince Harry. In reality, he is a 23 year-old British rando named Matthew Hicks, who doesn’t even bear that much resemblance to Harry and has the personality of drying paint.
The network made every effort to convince these women that they were in the presence of actual British royalty. He arrived via helicopter to the “palace” where most of the show took place. He was perpetually accompanied by a butler named Kingsley (yes, Kingsley). And during dates, actors would pretend to be locals trying to get pictures with the prince. The women were even shown photoshopped pictures of Matthew standing alongside the royal family.
As bad as I Wanna Marry “Harry” was, it attempted to do something meaningful: to satirize the American obsession with British royalty and unrealistic fairytale romance. It just went about this in a terrible way.
The Moment of Truth (Fox, 2008 – 2009)
The bastard child of Maury and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Fox’s The Moment of Truth saw contestants hooked up to a polygraph, forced to answer deeply personal questions to earn money, the grand prize being $500k. In attendance were the contestants’ families and friends, many of whom were the subjects of questions.
In the first half of each episode, questions led to only mildly embarrassing answers. As the prize money increased, however, questions had the potential to ruin marriages, end friendships, and cut family ties. Of course, contestants could opt out of answering a question (in which case they’d lose all of their prize money), but the mere fact that they opted out of answering would certainly raise eyebrows to the subject of the question.
The point of The Moment of Truth was to showcase the things people were willing to sacrifice for money. But there are far more tasteful ways to highlight this sad truth.
The Swan (Fox, 2004)
In terms of sheer cruelty, Fox’s The Swan is maybe the worst show on this list (maybe). Each episode takes two women who are referred to as “ugly ducklings” and attempts to mold them into a specific standard of beauty via plastic surgery. At the end of the season, a beauty pageant involving all the former “ugly ducklings” takes place, and the one who has most transformed into a “swan” wins.
Since its demise, producers of The Swan have defended the show, claiming that its purpose was to increase the self-esteem of its contestants (because, of course, telling people that their appearance is so flawed that it can only be fixed by plastic surgery is a great ego boost).
The WB’s Superstar USA (The WB, 2004)
In 2004, American Idol frenzy was at its peak. Satire of the regrettable craze was not only inevitable, but felt necessary. The WB’s Superstar USA attempted to fulfill this need, and it unfortunately failed in every way. This can be attributed to the sheer cruelty of its premise. Like American Idol, the show sees three judges choosing which of a slew of contestants has what it takes to be a “superstar” singer.
The twist is that the contestants are all really, really terrible at singing. They don’t know this, however. The judges egg them on, lying to their faces and telling them that they are, in fact, singers worthy of stardom. The show is essentially a huge joke at the contestants’ expenses.
Had the show been scripted and used actors to play the oblivious contestants, it certainly could have worked. However, its humiliation of people left a bad taste in its audience’s mouth. It was canceled after one season.
The Pickup Artist (VH1, 2007 – 2008)
Thankfully, we live in a post-pickup world. Even teenage boys—who were the main audience for so-called pickup artists (PUAs) in the late ‘00s—will now tell you that the concept of picking up women via emotional manipulation is asinine and far more humiliating for the PUA than their unsuspecting targets. However, in 2007, the socially inept clung to the concept of pickup artistry, believing it a valid way to conquer their fear of women.
VH1’s The Pickup Artist took eight of these men and essentially placed them in a pickup artist bootcamp of sorts. Here, they were given the absolute worst dating advice imaginable. (According to this show, women like being insulted, as it makes them feel more vulnerable. What?) However, never at any point were the show’s participants given advice on how to improve the circumstances that were making them socially inept in the first place.