Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Year in Reality TV

The Year in Reality TV

Listen, we know we’re not growing any brain cells watching as much reality TV as we do.
But we stick with it, because tuning in to our guiltiest pleasures each week always reaps a bounty of rewards: meltdowns, fist fights, questionable hygiene, scandal, butchering of the English language and other random water-cooler moments. Plus, reality TV also makes us appreciate the quality dramas we watch that much more, too
Anyway, on the mayhem. Here are our picks for the Top 10 Memorable Reality TV Moments of 2011:

It was another year of dramatic and, in some cases, welcome change for many reality series in 2011. There was a changing of the guard over at "American Idol," a shakeup among "The Real Housewives of New York City," and Piers Morgan announced he was leaving "America's Got Talent." But some things certainly stayed the same: An NFLer dominated on "Dancing," the Kardashian family had America's attention (much to our chagrin) and the cast of "Jersey Shore" were making fools of themselves ... only this time in Europe. 2011 was, in short, an unpredictable, though not entirely surprising, year for reality television. Along the way, we said goodbye to Kate Gosselin, welcomed back Simon Cowell and wondered what Donald Trump was really up to. Here, now, is a look at the year's reality TV highlights.

'Idol' Revamp

The 10th season was one of dramatic change over at "American Idol," where both Simon Cowell, Kara DioGuardiand Ellen DeGeneres opted to vacate their spots on the judges table. In their stead, returning executive producer Nigel Lythgoe turned to Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler to re-energize a show that had grown predictable in the past couple of seasons. At the very least, the show became a kinder, gentler place for contestants and viewers. J.Lo proved to be a Paula Abdul redux, minus all the inanities and occasional incoherence, and Tyler injected just enough edge-of-your-seat energy to make things interesting during judges' feedback. He shook the blogosphere when he famously dropped an F-bomb in response to Casey Abrams' Top 7 performance of Maroon 5's "Harder to Breathe."


That darned Kim Kardashian-Kris Humphries "Fairytale Wedding," stretched out over two nights this fall, served up some historically high ratings for E! But the controversy it sparked when Kim revealed plans to file for divorce later this fall generated far more headlines and airtime on news outlets, as an increasingly cynical public began to openly question the integrity of the relationship and the intentions of mama Kris Jenner and the rest of the Kardashian clan, who've never been shy about their desire to make a buck here and there. For what it's worth, this family has an impeccable sense of timing: Kim declared her intention to divorce just weeks before the Season 2 premiere of "Kourtney & Kim Take New York." Maybe she'll announce her intention to stick together with Kris right before the season finale

Cher's Got Chaz, Babe

Transgender advocate Chaz Bono's inclusion in the Season 10 cast of "Dancing With the Stars" was a significant milestone for the LGBT community. It was, however, a sizable source of controversy for the show, which faced down criticism from some vocal followers who weren't ready for such a change. But credit the 42-year-old son of Cher and the late Sonny Bono for weathering the storm and, with partner Lacey Schwimmer, making a creditable run in the contest. Highlights include their Week 3 rumba tribute to Sonny and a "Rocky"-inspired paso doble in Week 4, which brought a proud and teary mom Cher to her feet

'Kate Plus 8' No More

Our long national nightmare is finally over. After 150 episodes, TLC closed shop on "Kate Plus 8" this fall. It was just the back-to-school treat many incredulous viewers across the nation were hoping for, incredulous that Kate Gosselin had stretched her 15 seconds out so long. America was there for the gratuitously nasty divorce with Jon, the breakdowns and meltdowns and shakedowns, the trip to Alaska with Sarah Palin and even her laughable stint on "Dancing With the Stars." Now Kate can return to life outside the spotlight, which should hopefully provide her the space and time to focus on raising her challenging brood without regard to what she   look like on camera.


Donald Trump managed quite the feat during the spring when he dominated both political and entertainment headlines, to the complete annoyance of his many detractors. Ever the spotlight hog, the Donald started making waves in April when he launched a series of public critiques of President Obama that culminated in rabid speculation about his own presidential run. The Donald (and NBC) smartly interwove this will-he-or-won't-he narrative into "The Celebrity Apprentice," where in one memorable episode he asked the celebrity contestants whether he'd make a good president (you can imagine what the responses were from the likes of NeNe Leakes and Gary Busey). As the political pundits grew increasingly exasperated and incredulous about the (publicity) campaign, Trump finally announced on May 16 that he would not run for president ... just one day after the first of the two-part season finale of "The Celebrity Apprentice." Coincidence? You be the judge

The Voice' Strikes a Chord

"The Voice" proved an unusual but totally welcome addition to an already crowded singing-competition TV landscape this past spring. Based on "The Voice of Holland," a show with a similar format in the Netherlands, NBC's newest reality singing show struck a chord with viewers with its playful, somewhat novel format (blind auditions complete with rotating chairs, intra-team battles and live performances) and its likeable cast of judges. Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton not only engaged in friendly competition with one another, but also proved highly competent and empathic mentors to the show's roster of blue-collar singing talent. By the time Javier Colon (mentored by Levine) walked away with $100,000 and a record deal at the end of the season, he wasn't the only winner: NBC had finally found a rookie hit.

Gone Country

"American Idol" fans fell hard for a couple of young country singers during Season 10. Teenagers Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina outlasted a couple of spirited rock singers to provide viewers the show's first all-country final showdown. In the end, it was North Carolina high schooler Scotty McCreery's resonant bass voice and aw-shucks charm that won over the voters. In capturing the Season 10 crown, at 17-year-old McCreery became the youngest male winner in the show's history, just missing Jordin Sparks' record of being the youngest winner ever by two months. And, after a couple of seasons of pop rockers , Scotty became the first country winner since Season 4 winner

Tears for Gaga

No one should have been surprised, given her outsized charisma, but Lady Gaga utterly dominated "So You Think You Can Dance" during her top 8 week appearance. Looking smart and extroverted as ever, Gaga made the most of her time on-screen and proved that superstar guest judges on reality competition shows need not be utterly worthless . Gaga, on the other hand, knew her stuff, gave constructive feedback and helpful advice and demonstrated a full range of emotions . Her appearance was highlighted by her throwing one of her shoes onstage in appreciation of one of the numbers and her coming to tears after Marko Germar's deeply moving contemporary dance. It was, easily, the most memorable episode of Season 8.

The Brit Is Back

After nine seasons on "American Idol" and being a prominent reason for making that show and his own brand of obnoxious (but ceaselessly entertaining) on-screen critiques ubiquitous parts of the viewing public's TV vocabulary, Simon Cowell struck out on his own and brought stateside his version of "The X Factor" -- something he was contractually prevented from doing while still signed to "Idol." After much hoopla and speculation, the surly Brit finally launched this fall with a crew that was a mix of familiar friends and faces, including fellow judges L.A. Reid (an old industry friend), Paula Abdul (his beloved "Idol" partner in crime) and former U.K. "X Factor" judge Cheryl Cole (who was ultimately replaced by Nicole Scherzinger). The show, while not (yet) as popular as "American Idol," has nevertheless continued to hold down solid ratings for FOX and, despite the pressures of not meeting nearly impossible expectations, has become one of the season's success stories. Watch for this franchise to come back even stronger in its second season

Guido/Guidette Invasion

After spending Season 3 in Seaside Heights, the gang at "Jersey Shore" brought their addictive brand of crazy to Florence, Italy, for Season 4. The locale might have been different, but the string of foibles and antics seemed awfully familiar. Some of the highlights: The Situation pursues Snooki, the gang works at a pizzeria, Deena pulls a "robbery," Pauly and Vinny put on a comedy show, Snooki and Deena have a run-in with the police, Mike has a run-in with a wall, and Snooki and Jionni break up. You know, the usual. Season 5 is set to launch in January and will follow Snooki and company's antics again in Seaside Heights ... back where they belong.

Piers Buzzes Out

After six seasons, Piers Morgan announced this fall that he would not be returning as a judge to "America's Got Talent." The plate had gotten too full for the British journalist and TV personality, who earlier in the year had been passed Larry King's talk show baton on CNN. It was certainly a fruitful run for Morgan on "Got Talent." He was the last of the original judges still with the show (the others were David Hasselhoff and Brandy Norwood) and actually worked alongside Simon Cowell on the British version. As to who will join Sharon Osbourne and Nick Cannon, things are, for the time being, undecided, though buzz has centered on Howard Stern as a likely replacement. If that's the case, summers in Las Vegas are bound to become a bit more rowdy.

Bachelorette' Gets Bentley'd

Ashley Hebert, who had been rejected by Brad Womack in Season 15 of "The Bachelor," went on her own search for love during Season 7 of "The Bachelorette," finally choosing J.P. Rosenbaum in the finale. But the real story of the season was the machinations of Utah businessman Bentley Williams, who, like all good TV villains, made the most of his on-screen time and muddied things up just enough to make them interesting. Bentley mocked the integrity of the show's premise by getting Ashley to fall in love with him for sport, all the while privately admitting he wasn't really attracted to her and only it for the thrill of the game. It was a sad scene indeed to see Ashley get played for the fool. It was even sadder still when she begged producers to fly Bentley back to the show, even after he had voluntarily left. Sounds like this guy needs a show of his own.

Skinny Girl Does Good

Jill Zarin must be going meshuggeneh over former bestie Bethenny Frankel's newfound success. Frankel has not looked back since making the decision to leave "Real Housewives." Her spin-off, "Bethenny Ever After," wrapped up a successful second season in which the neurotic but totally lovable chef-author turned entrepreneur mulled the decision to sell her Skinnygirl Margarita to a distributor. That deal, if reports are to be believed, made Frankel richer to the tune of $120 million. Despite some recent bad news (she and husband Jason Hoppy were lost at sea while taping for the new season, and plans for her talk show died in development), Bethenny just wrapped a third season of her series and continues her march as one of reality TV's true success stories

Circling the Wagons

"The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" confronted the consequences of Russell Armstrong's suicide head on in the Season 2 premiere. Armstrong, who had died just weeks before the season was scheduled to kick off, was understandably on all the housewives' minds in the opener, as all the ladies gathered together to mourn his loss, share their thoughts about the loss and to demonstrate some uncommon unity and support for one other. Russell's death caused Bravo to re-edit the season's initial episode: He does not appear in any scenes, and Bravo used the opportunity to air numerous PSA about suicide prevention.

Pretty Ridiculous

Wendy Dickey caused quite a stir earlier this fall when her 3-year-old daughter Paisley was featured on TLC's "Toddlers & Tiaras." The cause of the controversy? Why, that would be the Georgia mother's decision to dress her daughter as Julia Roberts ... from "Pretty Woman" ... at the beginning of the movie. That's right: Poor Paisley was made to strut around the pageant stage dressed as a fictional streetwalker. And outraged viewers and observers chimed in across the nation, not the least vociferous of which was the Parents Television Council, who quickly denounced TLC's decision to give the mother-daughter duo airtime. TLC offered no comment, but Dickey did respond, "I thought it was real cute to do Julia. She's 3. If she was 10, I never would have considered this. But as young as she is, I thought it was very comical."

Biggest Loser' Trainer Shuffle

"American Idol" wasn't the only show to see significant cast changes. Over at "The Biggest Loser," trainer turnover was sizable. In Season 11, contestants saw boxer Cara Castronuova and fitness expert Brett Hoebel join Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper. By Season 12, of this group only Bob remained. Added to the mix were Dolvett Quince and former tennis pro (and Web search sensation) Anna Kournikova. What can viewers expect next season? More change. Even before the current season was over, the show announced that Kournikova would not be returning for another season. Draw your own conclusions

XXX Factor

Eager to springboard ratings, producers of "The X Factor" ignited controversy with some viewers when they decided to digitally impose a big logo'd "X" on a suddenly pants-less Geo Godley during his on-screen live audition. Godley wasn't actually nude; he was wearing a leopard-print thong. But the way it was presented to viewers and the manner in which the judges (especially Paula) were portrayed in their reactions surely made it seem so -- so much, in fact, that the Parents Television Council filed a formal complaint with the FCC over the whole pants-dropping affair. Simon's reaction to the whole brouhaha? According to host Steve Jones, Cowell said it was "probably his favorite audition ever." Go figure.

Unfinished Business

After placing fourth in Season 14, sisters Lakisha "Kisha" and Jennifer "Jen" Hoffman boldly stepped back into Phil Keoghan's arena and bested a roster of returning teams to take the top prize in Season 18 of "The Amazing Race." The sisters outpaced father-daughter team Gary and Mallory, friends Zev and Justin and a couple of Harlem Globetrotters on their way to victory. Despite their hustle and fortitude, Kisha and Jen did not have a first-place finish in any leg until the finale, spending most of the season trailing and trying to catch up. They dedicated their win to their mom, with whom the two sisters said they would share part of the $1 million winnings.

Better the Second Time Around?

Brad Womack made himself anathema to women near watercoolers everywhere when he famously rejected every single bachelorette during his first season on "The Bachelor" in 2007. So women must have experienced a bit of schadenfreude after Womack's second run on the show this past winter. Womack proposed to Emily Maynard in the Season 15 finale, and immediately afterward, viewers found out in the "After the Rose" special that the couple had already gone through a breakup. By July, the couple had announced the split was official.

'The Real Housewives of Celebrity Apprentice'?

Credit NeNe Leakes for staying true to herself on "The Celebrity Apprentice." When things got a little tense in the workroom and the boardroom, the "Real Housewives of Atlanta" star went to her comfort zone -- talking serious, in-your-face trash and yelling at her fellow teammates. While nearly everyone on the "Celeb Apprentice" cast was treated to her over-the-top histrionics, NeNe saved her best stuff for LaToya Jackson (who NeNe called Casper the Ghost in one famous exchange) and Star Jones, who was NeNe's biggest object of derision and insecurity. After numerous on-camera arguments, their feud came to a head in the May 8 episode, where Leakes simply disappeared from a task, prompting the Donald to call her by phone. When she informed him that she refused to return to the show, he promptly fired her. How's that for some "Real Housewives" drama?

André Out, Kelly In

After a four-season run, larger-than-life fashion figure André Leon Talley announced that this season would be his last on "America's Next Top Model," proving that it's a slog to keep up with the likes of Tyra Banks. The Vogue editor brought instant industry credibility to the show, which had in recent years failed to produce breakout modeling stars. He joins a list of famous former judges, including Janice Dickinson, Twiggy and Paulina Porizkova. André departure is certainly a loss for viewers, who are likely hungry for a personality who can stand up to Tyra and her outrageous histrionics on the panel. Perhaps that person, at last, will be Kelly Cutrone, his confirmed replacement, who in her time on "Kell on Earth," "The Hills" and "The City" has proved to be no wilting lily. Viewers know she won't hesitate to put the models in their place, but will she do the same with Tyra?

Redemption Rob

When it was announced that "Boston" Rob Mariano and Russell Hantz were returning to join the cast of 16 new players on "Survivor: Redemption Island," it was assumed that the season would be dominated by a prolonged showdown between two of the show's most illustrious and successful players. This appeared to be the case initially, but Russell found himself voted off and at the short end of the stick at his Redemption Island challenge, and suddenly it became Boston Rob's game to lose. He skillfully built alliances and managed, too, to win the final immunity challenge. His win capped off a run of several distinctions for the former construction worker: He is the only four-time player on the show, he passed Parvati Shallow for most days survived on the show, and he also snagged the fan-determined "Player of the Season" award of $100,000 to go to go with the $1 million top prize. Mariano currently co-hosts History's

Bravo Cleans 'New York' House

In an effort to inject some fresh blood into a show that had grown increasingly toxic, Bravo decided to overhaul the cast of "The Real Housewives of New York City" in the offseason. Just weeks before filming Season 5, it was announced that Jill Zarin, Alex McCord, Kelly Bensimon and Cindy Barshop were effectively fired from the series, a decision that left only Ramona Singer, LuAnn de Lesseps and Sonja Morgan from the previous cast. But "New York" is not the only "Real Housewives" show that'll see some change. Larsa Pippen and Cristy Rice won't be returning to the "Miami" cast. And Peggy Tanous recently left the "Orange County" show, wanting to distance herself from the "negative energy of the cast.

Top Model' Honors MJ

During a fall season dominated by news headlines about the criminal trial of Michael Jackson physician Conrad Murray, it was a pleasant and welcome surprise to see a loving and respectful tribute to the King of Pop on "America's Next Top Model." In the season's fifth episode, LaToya Jackson was on hand to oversee the photo shoots of the all-star models as they transformed themselves into Michael Jackson at various stages of his career. Each model sported an outfit that MJ made famous in a memorable album or video (and, boy, were there plenty). The results were stunning and breathtakingly respectful.

The Comeback Kid

Rachel Reilly overcame the odds and won "Big Brother 13" and its $500,000 top prize, edging out Porsche Briggs by a 4-3 vote in the season finale. Reilly, who had been a not particularly well-liked Season 12 cast member, set a record with her victory, having been up on the block for eviction five times during the season. Reilly, on the other hand, also tied the record for Head of Household victories (four) in a season. Not too shabby for someone who had entered the season as an annoying villain.

Baptism Gone Wild

If there were any fears of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" lacking any melodrama with the absence of Danielle Staub, they were quickly squelched in the Season 3 premiere. Viewers were introduced not only to new cast member Melissa Gorga  but the simmering feud between them. The tension seems to have stemmed from a natural rivalry between the two (Melissa is the wife of Joe, Teresa's brother). When Teresa walked over to her brother Joe to offer congrats on the christening of his new child, he upbraided her for lack of timeliness, dropped a careless expletive and all Jersey heck broke loose. It was a full-on brawl at a baby's christening with nary a punch or expletive pulled. After all, what's a baptism without relatives punching each other? Class, courtesy of the Giudice and Gorga clans.

And Baby Makes 22

The Brown family welcomed the addition of another member this past fall on "Sister Wives." And no, it wasn't another wife, surprisingly. Baby Solomon is the 17th child for Kody, but is the first for mother Robyn, who has three other children from another relationship. In case you lost count (it's hard not to), Robyn is Kody's fourth wife. Hopefully, the addition of another Brown baby will help to smooth things over in the plural household, which in Season 2 had grown increasingly strained by the complexities and challenges of living in such an unconventionally large family.

Fear' Revisited

Finally, longstanding fans will get to hear, "I'm Joe Rogan, and this is 'Fear Factor.'" After a five-year absence from television, the much-talked-about "Fear Factor" is making a return on NBC. When it was first launched in 2001, the gross-out, stunt-dare reality game show was on the cutting edge of TV programming. Now, it's considered a throwback. Will viewers reward NBC for its fidelity to a once cherished reality series franchise? We'll have to see. Revivals are certainly no sure success (think "Charlie's Angels"), but given the state of relatively polite reality TV competition shows currently on the air, "Fear Factor" (part deux) has got a shot.

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