Five Reality Television Shows That Can Actually Teach You Something Useful

Somehow, the ten most watched shows on Australian TV in 2013 were all reality competitions. Here are a few you can tune into without having to forego your own soul.

Just last week, OzTAM announced that the top ten most watched programs on Australian TV for 2013 were ALL reality television competitions, with The Voice, My Kitchen Rules, The Block and The X Factor making a particular impact on our annual viewing habits. Apparently, watching everyday folks cook dinner, fix-up their kitchen or serenade Seal’s arse is officially more appealing than any crafted story can be.

If, like me, you scoff at even the most casual affection for such confections, then there’s a chance that, again like me, you’re really a filthy reality show addict and need help. It’s clearly easier to publicly rant at the state of Australian television, while secretly daydreaming about the unwatched episodes of Beauty And The Geek that are waiting for you on your laptop in a folder labelled ‘The Wire Season 4’.

If abstinence-based recovery isn’t for you, here are a few reality television competitions that at least target the brain without penetrating the blood-brain barrier. There is no shame in watching brilliant people do brilliant things (except, maybe, the shame in realising that it’s probably too late for you to be brilliant at anything).

1. Face Off (2011 – present)

Channel: SyFy (US), YouTube (Aus)
Profession: Special effects make-up
Summary: No wonder half of New Zealand has worked on a Tolkien adaptation

If you think all that’s required of SFX artists is to add glitter and frills to a jumbo pack of rubber masks, think again. This fascinating reality contest draws back the curtain to a world where ingenuity, artistry and sensible use of foam latex are the only ways to succeed. Each challenge gives contestants two days to design, create and apply (onto a model) a stylistically unified make-up that clearly communicates the character’s story through its detail. Basically, not only must these dudes be master illustrators, painters, sculptors, stylists and costume designers, they’ve also gotta be able to spin one hell of a yarn. Whether it’s ballet-dancing zombies (that can hold up in a choreographed routine) or creatures from an undiscovered ecosystem (that glow under a backlight), the skills required to create these characters are more than a marvel to behold.

Perhaps the most startling thing about Face Off is that the judges’ opinions are almost never affected by emotion or bias. Their feedback is clear, authoritative, informative, and, well… right, and considering the panel is made up of multiple Oscar winners who’ve worked on everything from Beetlejuice to Avatar (heck, even the host is the daughter of the guy who created the fake noses for Raging Bull), you’d expect them to be.

2. Top Chef Masters (2009 – present)

Channel: Bravo (US), Arena (Aus)
Profession: Culinary arts
Summary: Black chicken with poached monkfish liver never looked so good

The original incarnation of Top Chef is like Masterchef on fast-forward, but with better chefs. And judges. And challenges. Oh, and the support of every big name in the culinary biz that doesn’t end in ‘-amsay’ or ‘-liver’. Unfortunately, it’s too often hampered by the desperation of twenty amateurs vying for the same spotlight, and the producer’s ability to capitalise on that desperation.

Enter its calmer, friendlier, more compelling, yet less-watched counterpart, Top Chef: Masters. Renowned chefs smoosh together Michelin stars for charity, creating weekly works of art using every technique and cooking style imaginable. What makes TCM stand out (apart from the world-class food) is the fact that these men and women are at the top of their game, so they can braise and reduce while simultaneously hurling faux smack-talk around the kitchen. They’re chefs with which you’d want to sit down to a meal, regardless of whether they’re catering.

Although the producer’s occasionally choose puff over pastry, this show is a celebration of glorious, intricate, eclectic food, so it’s no wonder that everyone from Thomas Keller to Joel Robuchon have popped by for a feed.

3. On The Lot (2007)

Channel: Fox Channel (US), YouTube (Aus)
Profession: Filmmaking
Summary: What if Tropfest was a weekly thing?

On The Lot sadly didn’t reach a second season, but it left an impression. Each week, a group of sunlight-deprived cinephiles wrote, shot and edited a short narrative in any genre from animation to western. The films were always more impressive than not, and baring witness to the process was always illuminating. Unfortunately, viewers were less concerned with how the sausage was made and more with moments when pigs innards fell to the floor. The producers must have realised this and as the season progressed, petty on-set pursuits became the show’s focus.

But for all the show’s flaws, there was enough here to keep things exciting . The panel of regular judges included Princess Leia and the guy that directed Pretty Woman, for chrissakes. Add to that the fact that guest judges ranged from Wes Craven to Michael Bay to the show’s executive producer himself (one Mr. Spielberg), and there’s enough in this short-lived reality contest to warrant an online rummage.

4. Antiques Master (2010 – 2011)

Channel: BBC2 (UK), ABC (Australia)
Profession: Something involving antiques 
Summary: A chair is (arguably) more than just a chair

This one’s a hard sell: the UK’s leading amateur antique buffs battle to put ancient shit in chronological order. You’d think that watching Antiques Master would be like watching wood-glue dry… well, it is. But, for some reason, changing the channel never enters my mind.

Sure, the presentation is poncey and clinical and the challenges are niche and cerebral, but there’s something scarily appealing about a bunch of stick-in-the-muds waxing articulate on the history of all things passed. When you see a Burr Elm Windsor Castle Secretaire, you might just see a Burr Elm Windsor Castle Secretaire. But if these folks see legacy and story and craftsmanship, who the hell are we to tell them otherwise?

You can catch up on the full thing on iView, but unfortunately, the only teaser we could find on YouTube was put together by some 8-year-old kid with too much spare time/impressive editing skills:

5. Naked And Afraid (2013)

Channel: Discovery Channel (US & Australia)
Profession: Survivalists
Summary: This is not a show about losing your virginity

Let’s get it out of the way now: Naked And Afraid could quite easily be labeled ‘garbage’, purely because it is. A pair of professional survivalists (male + female) are left stranded in a remote setting for 21 days… Sans clothing.

Naked And Afraid is everything reality television competitions are known for: melodramatic, self-important, and completely staged. But whereby these qualities are usually unforgivable, Naked And Afraid offers genuinely helpful skill-based information that might help you if your rugby team ever crashes into the Andes. For example, who knew that mud was a great alternative to SPF 50+?

If you’re the type of person that fantasises about an isolated getaway with a blood-streaked volleyball, this is the reality show for you. If you’re not, maybe try leaving it on as you go to sleep, so your subconscious can soak it up and store it away for an emergency.

Ned Chigliak is a recent Masters graduate of AFTRS, majoring in screenwriting, which means he is now employable as a wiper-of-tables.