While many thought reality TV to be a passing fad, or even something to tide us over during the recent writer’s strike, it’s become clear that the genre isn’t going anywhere.

It’s durability is made all the more amazing by the fact that virtually every show adhering to reality TV conventions makes its stars or contestants look like giant assholes or morons. However, there are exceptions to this rule. Not coincidentally, the exceptions are held in higher regard than their baser brethren.

For these five entries, you can expect a cringe-free hour of TV, which is pretty much the most praise you can lavish on reality television shows.

5. Top Chef




If you get yelled at, it’s because you didn’t cook something well. Not because you made out with a pastry chef in the hot tub or stepped on too many people’s toes. The drama is, by and large, in the contest, rather than the characters. Historically, being a jerk or an angel doesn’t hurt or help you; what you do in the kitchen does. So the stars seem to be themselves, without adopting some weird Real World/Road Rules Challenge persona.

Further, no one is out to embarrass one another. Contestants work together, and the judges are quite matter-of-fact. Sometimes painfully so (e.g. Tom Colicchio). While drama and conflict might be the name of the game in reality television, this show makes the competition the star, allowing the participants to maintain dignity.

Unless they cook with scallops. This is Top Chef, not Top Scallop.

4. Project Runway




Project Runway allows its stars to walk away in one piece for two separate reasons. Firstly, it’s a show on which the contestants are creating something. If you’re a jerk or flirt or ditz and you are able to craft a beautiful gown or creation, more than likely all will be forgiven. It’s not like you’re a real housewife whose biggest accomplishment was knocking back a bottle Pinot Grigio during lunch.

Secondly, considering the cast of characters on Project Runway, unless you sprout lavender wings and a swastika starts glowing on your forehead, you’re probably going to seem like a well-adjusted, sane person, all things considered.

It’s easy to appear like a bastion of self-respect and composure next to the likes of Christian Soriano and that dude with the backwards neck tattoo that he can read it in the mirror, but these contestants distinguish themselves further by creating some pretty amazing stuff.



3. American Idol




Certainly, there are a lot of shows that have come to mimic the AI format, but I profess that the original is still more about the music (or just the voice) than the others. The contestants seem to be genuinely happy for one another, perhaps because it’s a solitary competition. While hating the other contestants could conceivably allow you to “get inside their head,” there just isn’t any room for interaction beyond the cursory, “Congratulations. That was great! You did so well!”

I suppose you could supplant that with, “You are a horrible person and your music makes me wish I was born without ears,” but these are mostly young kids who have been given a great opportunity and are too happy to mar it with petty infighting.

Exception: The William Hung types. They don’t emerge with dignity, but it’s pretty clear that people like that didn’t have much to begin with, so they don’t count.

One common thread running through the shows on this list is the fact that these conpetitions/shows serve as a legitimate springboard to career advancement. Whether or not this is a cause of the dignity-preservation aspect or an effect is irrelevant. The contestants see a career opportunity and conduct themselves in a professional manner. Or they conduct themselves in a professional manner so it becomes a career opportunity.

Either way, dignity intact.

2. Last Comic Standing




Stand-up comedy isn’t really a profession one would associate with “dignity.” More often than not, it’s a fool’s errand in capturing the attention of a drunk, distracted audience so that you may, in all likelihood, have their full attention when you bomb in front of them.

The humbling nature of the industry makes it all the more impressive that the contestants can not only salvage some self-respect out of the affair, but can actually entertain. When four hundred-pound men telling jokes can garner respect, it’s a testament to the format of the show as much as it is to the people who are on it.

1. Top Shot




I really wanted to include The Amazing Race on this list, as it has perhaps the coolest concept of any reality show out there, but the stress and uncertainty of it all provides too many opportunities for bickering and infighting. Imagine enduring a really long, complicated worldwide vacation with your significant other or best friend. Then imagine that nothing goes right. You wouldn’t appear to be your best under those circumstances, either.

For this reason, I pick Top Shot as the final entry. Sure, there’s not a lot of career advancement in this one, unless you get hired out of the back of Soldier of Fortune magazine, but it’s certainly a contest of skill, rather than personality, which is good, because many of the contestants are lacking in that department.

Finally, and most importantly, I pick Top Shot because the contestants are really, really good with guns, and I am afraid they will shoot me as I swing between two dinner plates if I don’t put them on the list.

So, uh, don’t shoot me, Top Shot contestants. You guys are the tops.