Reality series are often the guiltiest of pleasures, and we at TV Fanatic love to indulge.
From competition series to dating shows and even some documentaries, the stream of reality TV in 2021 was endless.
You can never go wrong with veteran shows like Survivor and Big Brother. Some of the controversial ones, like Married at First Sight, Love Island, and the 90 Day Fiance franchise, are the definition of “guilty pleasures.”
If you’re a true crime or documentary aficionado, we have some of the best and worst of those, too.
We TV Fanatics compiled a list of the Best and Worst out of the bunch. Check it out below!
Siwa’s Dance Pop Revolution (E/Peacock) – Best
It is in the “best” category mostly because we miss Dance Moms so much, which is the next best thing to new DM episodes!
Most surprising, though, is how personable Mama Jessalynn turns out to be.
She’s not as insane as Abby Lee Miller, but the show still gets loud with mama drama.
See No Evil (ID) – Best
See No Evil, one of the best and most gratifying of the true-crime docuseries, returned with its eighth season this year. Watching criminals get caught is rewarding, and this series pulls through in that department.
It is also somewhat comforting to know that surveillance cameras really can work when appropriately researched. See No Evil season 8 episode 3, “He’s Dead, That’s How I Feel,” is a real shocker, one that might even call for a “Did you see that??” text to a friend.
But most episodes feed that true crime need, and being able to say, “See ya!” to the guilty freaks at the end of each is sweet, sweet justice.
Cold Justice (Oxygen)- Best
Another well-done one for true crime fanatics, Dick Wolf’s Cold Justice (now having moved to Oxygen network for the last few seasons), returned in season 6 to do what it does best: find the bad guys/gals.
Investigator Kelly Siegler is still traveling to small towns to help solve cold murder cases, and the best part is when she interviews suspects on camera.
However, this season, there is a special 90-minute episode called “Small Town Conspiracy,” especially notable for investigating rumors about a potential police/murder conspiracy. It’s healthy to see how the rumor mill affects cases and how the truth really can be found.
Tiger King (Netflix) – Worst
Ok, ok, it’s still a guilty pleasure, we confess. But Tiger King season 2 just wasn’t ready yet.
It’s a short season banking on the world’s morbid curiosity about these stranger-than-fiction characters, and it just needs more time to reveal more. Maybe more will come, but season 2 is mostly filler as it stands.
Maybe they should have just combined it with the Tiger King: The Doc Antle Story limited series.
Big Brother (CBS)- Best
The Cookout singlehandedly saved Big Brother.
For years, Big Brother only made the news when it was to talk about houseguests engaging in racist behaviors. But Big Brother 23 was everything that’s entertaining about Big Brother.
The players were there to play the game from the very first night. And The Cookout, the most dominant alliance in the show’s history, put on a clinic all season. The show was never dull and breathed new life into a series that had been in a severe rut for many years.
Married at First Sight (Lifetime) – Worst
Is this show entertaining as heck? Yes. But is it one of the worst reality television shows? Also, yes.
It’s downright awful what the show’s premise does to the couples that they pair up. It’s an affront to the sanctity of marriage, no doubt, but at this point, they can’t even pretend as if they’re trying to find real love for any of the walking red flags who sign up for this show.
We’re convinced that the so-called “experts'” real goal is to generate drama rather than genuinely find these people love. The only thing these experts succeed at is pairing together a bunch of people who are not ready for marriage and placing them in toxic relationships that send Twitter into a frenzy every week.
It’s actually gotten to a disturbing point: they often stick people in unhealthy relationships and encourage them to stick with them. Chris, Paige, Bao and Johnny, and Myrla and Gil, anyone?
Last Chance U: Basketball (Netflix)- Best
Without a shadow of a doubt one of the best sports docu-series ever. John Mosley’s passion for basketball and coaching the East Los Angeles College Huskies on the court and off is what sports movies strive to capture onscreen.
You’re instantly drawn in and invested in Mosley, his supporting coaches and staff, and all of the young men he coaches who aim to further their sports careers and follow their dreams into top-tier sports programs at colleges or pro-basketball.
We follow Mosely home and some of the young men he coaches too. We hear their stories and what they’ve sacrificed or overcame to pursue their dream of playing basketball. We revel in their victories and are devastated by their losses. It’s an emotional rollercoaster ride, but it’s pure brilliance.
Top Chef (Bravo) – Both
Top Chef Season 18 was memorable for the right and wrong reasons. The show beautifully handled the challenges COVID-19 posed to the competition. Hopefully, some of the changes, like the Top Chef alumni judging panel, will stick around.
Plus, we were introduced to rising culinary superstars like Shota Nakajima and Dawn Burrell. Unfortunately, the named winner’s controversy tarnishes what was otherwise a stellar season.
The Circle (Netflix) – Best
The social media-based reality show hit it out of the park for its third season. The Circle Season 3 balanced a great mix of fun reality TV characters and in-game strategy.
Now that players were familiar with the game, the contestants tried to use their strategies to get ahead. But the twists and player decisions kept us on our toes. The Circle Season 3 surpassed the growing pains to become our next guilty pleasure.
RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars (Paramount+) – Best
When RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars Season 6 shifted to Paramount+, there was some fear that the might’ve been a reason for the shift, but all those worries were for nothing. The sixth season of All-Stars was one of its best!
And, it was one of the best Drag Race entries to come out in 2021. The queens delivered an exciting season, and each one seemed ready to play the game, especially making the tough decisions with their lipstick votes. The lip-syncs were jaw-dropping, and the battle royale twist was one of the best episodes yet.
Plus, RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars Season 6 made herstory by crowing the first-ever trans winner in the Drag Race franchise.
Survivor (CBS) – Best
How do you keep a show fresh after 40 seasons?
After COVID kept the show on hiatus from filming for longer than usual, viewers finally got Survivor back for season 41 in September 2021. Thirty-nine days became 26, and production upped the ante by making castaways work harder than ever for food and fire.
Though there were a few too many twists and advantages, season 41 was a delight week after week due to the incredibly charismatic and diverse cast, with personalities that leaped off the screen and into our living rooms (and hearts).
Survivor returned with drama, excitement, and critical discourse about race and representation in reality television.
The Great British Baking Show (Netflix) – Best
What continues to make The Great British Baking Show one of the best is that it is the opposite of most other reality TV. Every contestant shows up to do their absolute best, but that never means putting anyone else down.
Also, unlike other reality shows, this isn’t every man for him or herself. The bakers are respectful, polite, friendly, and downright lovely! There are no backstabbing or manipulations. The hosts are always entertaining, whether they’re delivering some good-natured ribbing or a shoulder to cry on. And the judging is tough but fair.
It’s easy to see how some of these contestants end up being life-long friends. If we were better bakers, we kind of wish we could join them in that somehow idyllic and intimidating tent.
Love Island USA (CBS) – Worst
It’s a terrible shame when a Love Island season fails to deliver salacious drama and messy romance. Love Island USA Season 3 could best be described as “boring.”
The islanders made the worst decisions for the fans at home at every turn. They were more focused on finding a way to stay on the show and faking a romance than actually trying to find love. Some islanders did find romance, but the rest floated around aimlessly.
The Love Island franchise is more than just twentysomethings trying to become influencers (it’s a part of it, but this is still a romantic show); it’s supposed to be our guilty pleasure summer treat. When the format gets it right, like Love Island USA Season 2, it does it amazingly. Unfortunately, this season was more low tide than a fun ride.
I’ll Be Gone In the Dark (HBO) – Best
True crime buffs were familiar with Michelle McNamara’s work tracking down the Golden State Killer, which she coined for the serial rapist/murderer.
The book she was writing at the time of her premature death was finished and turned into this chilling look at her work and its effect on the case and her. Her passion was unmatched, and this tribute to her work offers comfort to fans and other true crime buffs.
It’s HBO; what else is there to say?
The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin (HBO Max)- Best
One of the more effed-up ones this year, The Way Down, had to stop filming midway through filming the series because many of its subjects died in a freak helicopter crash before the story could be finished.
Those who perished included Reverend Gwen Shamblin Lara, who founded the Remnant Fellowship congregation in Memphis, and her husband, Joe Lara. Both were involved in administering the church’s weight loss program, “The Weigh Down” — see the clever play-on-words in the limited series’ title now? And then, like, the helicopter also went down so…
Anyway, the first three (and only currently available) episodes report on abuse allegations of children in the program and the cultish treatment of its adult members. Frightening stuff that wouldn’t be considered believable if it weren’t true.
HBO assured that the remaining two episodes, having required a shift in reporting after the accident, will come to us in early 2022.
Naked and Afraid of Love (Discovery+)- Worst
The one thing Naked and Afraid of Love had to go for it was that it was hard to tear your eyes away from the hot mess of a dating survival series and the plethora of contestants who drove you insane.
Someone decided to combine the survivalist show Naked and Afraid with something akin to Temptation Island to see what the results would be, and what we got was a bunch of young people chasing after the same love interests, creeps, f*ckbois, girls who didn’t know their worth, and, Nelson.
If you took a shot every time any of the guys claimed that Blonds with Blue-eyes were their “type,” you’d blessedly end up in a coma rather than make it through the rest of the series. Most of the guys chased after one girl, Britt, who seemed to run away from the more stable and decent Bennett in favor of toxic narcissist Michael.
The smartest people of all left early on, and the limited, available quality of men was so small two women fell in love with each other and became the best love story of all.
Gordon Ramsay Franchise (FOX, National Geographic)- Best
It’s Gordon Ramsay Supremacy, and we’re faithful subjects to one of the reigning kings of quality reality TV. He can do no wrong with his content.
Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted series had him globetrotting from Texas and Maine to Iceland and Portugal on National Geographic, introducing us to cultures as Gordan embarked on some adventures.
Hell’s Kitchen celebrated its 20th season with a series of chefs who were 23 and younger competing for that coveted spot in one of the best seasons of the series to date.
And Masterchef celebrated its 10th season with a series of legendary guest chefs who had us fangirling as much as the aspiring chefs competing! The man had our undivided attention for half of 2021, and he already has plans to start 2022 off with a bang with Next Level Chef on FOX.
90 Day Fiance Franchise (TLC, Discovery+) – Both
Here’s the thing, when it comes to reality TV that’s the epitome of trashy, the entire 90 Day Fiance franchise fits the bill.
It’s freaking godawful television, but it’s so damn good! Once it sinks its hooks into you, there’s no escaping it, and you get so thoroughly invested in the participants that you’ll follow them everywhere.
Kenny and Armando finally married after Armando’s family came around to accept his sexuality was prime viewing. Angela is entertainment gold. Who wasn’t tuning in to see Kalani almost fight Asuelu’s family from Samoa?
We’ve been waiting for 84 years for Sumit and Jenny to get mirrored, which is ironically close to how old she is when a kind of sort of secret marriage ceremony a DECADE in the making actually happened!
Did your favorite make the list? What are your best and worst reality shows of 2021? Hit the comments below!
Jasmine Blu is a senior staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter.