Documentary-style television programming has been around for decades — like PBS's '70s-era An American Family — but many refer to MTV's The Real World as the show that created the model for contemporary reality shows. What started out as a good idea — an inside look at the complicated lives of a diverse group of ambitious 20-year-olds all living under one roof — morphed into something else completely.
The success of The Real World proved to television executives that interesting programming could be cheaply produced, tell good stories and attract audiences — not to mention advertisers. Some of the shows — The Amazing Race, Survivor — made for compelling TV.
Unfortunately, the success of the genre also spawned many horrible shows, like Big Brother, The Bad Girls Club and the infamous Flavor of Love. Talk about a good moneymaking idea gone bad. Complex ideas and story lines were replaced with plotting, scheming and mean-spirited "cast members" more interested in fighting, screwing and humiliating one another for the pleasure of audiences and advertisers. Personally, when it comes to reality TV, we love The Biggest Loser for all the right reasons (inspiring, uplifting) and The Real Housewives of Atlanta for all of the wrong reasons (um, far from uplifting).
With that in mind, this month's TV roundup takes a look at the glut of reality television: the good, the bad and the why-bother.
The Family Crews
The Family Crews is our new favorite reality show. In its second season, the show follows the lives of actor Terry Crews and his wife and five children. It shows the complexities that arise when you're trying to hold a family together while chasing Hollywood stardom. Terry's wife, Rebecca, is itching to get back to her singing career after putting it on the back burner to take care of their expanding family, which included the birth of Terry and Rebecca's first grandchild to their eldest daughter, Naomi Burton.
Azriel, Tera, Wynfrey and Isaiah Crews make up the assorted bunch, each with strong personalities and individual identities. Did we mention the grandparents — Big Terry and Patricia? In the tradition of Run's House, it's a family affair at the Crews' house with lots of love, fun and compromise. The show airs on Sundays on BET at 8 p.m. EST.
While channel surfing, we came across Wreck Chasers, a reality show about the race by tow truck operators to get to the scene of an accident in order to make money. The show takes place in Philly and features African-American and Latino business partners, who own and operate the 1 Unit Tow Team.
P.J. Augustine started the tow truck business, literally eating and sleeping in his truck to support his family. He now has a fleet of 22 trucks, which he runs with his wife, "Tow Diva" Pam, and sons, Jamal and Phil. They work hard to keep the business afloat, scrambling to be first on the scene, even competing against P.J.'s business partner, Mickey Caban. Mickey is a veteran wreck chaser like P.J. and also owns a tow yard. Like P.J., family comes first for Mickey, who works hard to keep his wife, Lynette, a nurse, and their two children, Mickey Jr. and 8-year-old Siana, happy.
What's interesting about the show is how competitive P.J. and Mickey are with each other, yet they are still able to manage a growing tow truck company. "First on the scene" has new meaning with this show. Pam is a "ride or die" chick for sure, working side by side with her husband to make it happen. It's cool to see black and brown folks bootstrapping it and achieving the American dream — one smashed car at a time. Wreck Chasers airs on the Discovery Channel. Check your local listings.
Dancing With the Stars
Dancing With the Stars is an audience favorite, which we fought watching until learning of this season's cast, which includes Sugar Ray Leonard, Hines Ward, Romeo and the infamous Wendy Williams. A boxing legend, a Super Bowl MVP, a rapper and a trash-talking talk-show host? We had to watch.
We were not disappointed — Ralph Macchio and Kirstie Alley have been turning it out week after week. Who says big girls can't dance? Kirstie Alley did not get that memo. The only thing good about Wendy Williams' performance is that she has single-handedly done away with the stereotype that all black people can dance. Her "dancing" was hard to watch, and it was not surprising when she was voted off.
On the other hand, it was hard to watch Sugar Ray Leonard get voted off, especially when he had seemed to just hit his stride. He dances a mean Viennese waltz. Now we're left with Romeo and Hines Ward, both of whom can cut a rug.
Dancing With the Stars is as cheesy as the costumes, but what's fun about it is rooting for your favorite dancers, whether or not they're good, and awaiting the results in that 1980s, Star Search kind of way. Mondays on ABC at 8 p.m. EST.
Love & Hip Hop
It's official. We've had our fill of angry, bitchy, shallow black women trying to land a man or hold on to one. Love & Hip Hop is a sad show about the sad lives of four women who lament living life in the world of hip-hop. The show features Chrissy, the girlfriend of rapper Jim Jones. Chrissy's claim to fame is … being the girlfriend of rapper Jim Jones, although she insists she's his stylist. He's a bad advertisement because he always seems to be wearing the same thing. While Chrissy grandstands and talks smack about everyone, you're left wondering when she's going to get her own life.
Rapper Olivia is supposed to be a rapper — the first lady of G Unit, if you will — but has decided to carve out a new path in R&B. She gets busted by Emily for lying about dating an NFL player. Which is interesting because Emily is scared to confront rapper Fabolous, the father of her child, over his rude and disrespectful behavior toward her, yet she manages to confront Olivia over lying about dating this NFL player, for whom Emily works as a stylist.
Rounding out this motley crew is Somaya, a female rapper who is trying to make it happen in the rap game. The problem is, she seems to lack talent and looks like she's about 20 years too late to pursue a career in a youth-oriented industry. Mashonda, who is known more for being famously dumped by super producer Swizz Beats than for her singing career, also appears on the show. Love & Hip Hop has very little love in it and even less hip-hop. Mondays on VH1 at 8 p.m. EST.
The Celebrity Apprentice
Although we thought about pulling this post on The Celebrity Apprentice because of Donald Trump's recent ramblings about the citizenship status of the POTUS, we decided not to let politics get in the way of business — unlike the cast members of this season's The Celebrity Apprentice.
Season 11 of the franchise is pretty weak and full of black-on-black crime. Who knew that the elegant Dionne Warwick was a thug, backed up by big-mouthed bully NeNe Leakes and wannabe diva Star Jones? Who knew that Latoya, the eighth-string Jackson, would be competent and engaging and hold her own in this competition? Jackson is the quintessential anti-bitch, whose mere presence highlights the ferociousness and gutter behavior of Leakes, who appears to get off on kicking people while they're down. Then there's Lil Jon, the first and only rapper on the show, who proves that his "Whaaaat!!" persona does not reflect his considerable business acumen, which is on point.
The Celebrity Apprentice is watchable in the sense that it's a bunch of train wrecks happening simultaneously, even though you try to convince yourself that it's worthwhile because charities are benefiting from this mess. The reality is, Apprentice is indeed a train wreck. Sundays on NBC at 9 p.m. EST.
Nsenga Burton is The Root's editor-at-large.