It’s hard to believe some shows made it out of the writers’ room. From pitching the idea to production to distribution, the process — and by extension the show — somehow never got the ax. Even more surprising, some of the shows are popular and defy all odds of commercial success. As a matter of fact, we watch some of them. Below is a list of reality TV shows that sound made up but, for better or worse, are very much real.
‘The Swan’ (2004 to 2005)
Controversial even for its time, “The Swan” premiered in 2004 on FOX and somehow got picked up for a second season. Each episode featured two self-proclaimed “ugly ducklings” who subjected themselves to a range of procedures over the span of three months, including psychotherapy, personal training, and cosmetic surgery.
Critics were quick to call out the show for promoting toxic ideas about body image and self-perception. Think of it like Tyra Banks’ now-infamous “America’s Next Top Model” but on steroids and then some. The icing on the cake was that each episode’s “ugly ducklings” competed against each other for a spot in a pageant at the end of the series. There’s a strong argument that the early aughts were the golden age of problematic but highly entertaining reality television.
‘Wife Swap’ (2004 to 2020)
“Wife Swap” was a dream — and nightmare — come true for almost every tantrum-throwing kid out there. The premise was simple: Two very different families would swap wives and moms for an extended period of time, letting every family member involved see what it would be like to live with someone else. By the end of the experience, almost everyone became more appreciative of their wife and mom to the point that they started helping around the house more — at least for a while.
Inspired by a British show of the same name, “Wife Swap” had highly comic effects while also managing to get deep and personal. We learned about messy, complicated family dynamics and even reflected on our own situations. But we imagine things weren’t so entertaining for the kids who had their moms swapped on national television. We wonder where those kids are now.
‘Who’s Your Daddy?’ (2005)
A lot is in a name, and “Who’s Your Daddy?” is no exception. The show, however, may not be exactly what you think. The dramatic and emotional program featured actress T.J. Myers, who is adopted, trying to identify her biological father among several contestants. Myers interacted with each participant individually in the hopes of not just finding her biological dad, but also winning a $100,000 prize. If a contestant who was not her biological father managed to convince her otherwise, the money would go to him.
“Who’s Your Daddy?” was quickly shelved due to low ratings, which is honestly a shame. Sure, there were some weird feelings about connecting with a biological family member on national TV, but at least the show offered a warmer take than Maury Povich’s “you are (or aren’t) the father.”
‘Doomsday Preppers’ (2011 to 2014)
Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey may face off against Infected on “The Last of Us,” but the people on “Doomsday Preppers” are getting ready to deal with real zombies. According to them, the world as we know it is ending and apocalyptic catastrophes in the form of zombie outbreaks, famine, nuclear war, and every other conceivable scenario are just around the corner. To that end, they’re taking great steps to protect themselves — from building underground bunkers to moving to desolate places where they hope they’ll be safe.
Watching people prepare for “doomsday” can be chilling, especially when you haven’t even gone grocery shopping for the week and are royally unprepared for an emergency. But, hey, you might learn about a nuclear bunker close to you, though good luck trying to get in.
‘Sexy Beasts’ (2021)
If you think you’ve seen it all when it comes to reality dating shows, you’re not familiar with “Sexy Beasts.” The Netflix series, which was originally based on the British version, features people being transformed into animals and mythical creatures using prosthetic makeup as a way of dating beyond the surface. Rather than judging other contestants based on their looks, these Sexy Beasts got to know each other based on their personalities and only took their costumes off once the pairings had been made.
The show is exactly the type that makes you arch your eyebrows, but it also gets quite a few things right. In addition to being very engrossing, “Sexy Beasts” reminds us of a vital lesson on the dating scene: Never judge a book by its cover — or, in this case, a beast by its unruly mane. Here’s to hoping it gets revived for another season.
‘MILF Manor’ (2023 to Present)
If you’ve been on the internet long enough, you’ve probably seen the terms “DILF” and “MILF” thrown around — especially at older men and women, respectively. We won’t spell out what the acronym means, but let’s just say that it refers to people of parental age who are sexually attractive despite their wrinkles and cellulite. It has become so ingrained in our vocabulary that someone thought a show called “MILF Manor” would make for great reality TV.
The synopsis gets intensely weird though. Eight pairs of mothers and sons stay in a villa in Mexico, and all 16 contestants are supposed to romantically pursue each other. They undergo challenges and reveal secrets that would make you go, “You can’t be serious.” The show is gross, problematic in more ways than one, and horrifying if you imagine yourself on it with your mom. Let’s just say this one’s not for us.