The Joys of Unscripted Television

Scripted television will always be my primary love but today I want to spend a little time celebrating the wide world of non-scripted television. Though it’s all too often looked down on, there is a lot that it has to offer. Game shows, home decorating shows, cooking shows, competition reality shows, profession-based shows, and shows that just follow a group of people around all have a place in the television landscape. Today I’ll be talking about some of the shows I have loved throughout my TV history.

Game Shows

I grew up watching game shows. I could spend hours watching Card Shark, The Newlywed Game, Family Feud, Pyramid, and the Price is Right. I was also particularly fond of all the great game shows on Nick in the mid-90s like Legends of the Hidden Temple, GUTS, and Figure it Out.

Legends of the Hidden Temple will always be my favorite non-scripted show of all time. I watched it every time it was on and dreamed of competing on the show. When Nickelodeon created their Games and Sports channel, I was in high school and still really enjoyed watching the show, even if now I got extra annoyed at the kids who couldn’t figure out how to assemble a three-piece monkey. I am a Blue Barracuda at heart, even if I recognize that I would have been a horrible competitor. Even if I managed to get past the water stage, I would have been the kid who didn’t wait for Kurt to finish asking the question before I buzzed in and answered the wrong question. Then if I managed to get in the temple, the guards would have scared me when they jumped out and I would be flustered and slow down. It wasn’t an ideal show for my set of skills as a kid but nothing else gave me as much enjoyment watching it.

The summer between my 7th and 8th grade years, I completely inverted my sleeping schedule and as a result, got very interested in the late night airings of Blind Date and Elimidate. The snarky comments that were displayed in the corner were a particular favorite of mind and while I’m sure none of those couples went on to find everlasting love, there was something entertaining about the strange dates the couples went on. Currently, my dating show love is being filled by another completely ridiculous show – Baggage, hosted by Jerry Springer. The premise is simple. One contestant has a large piece of baggage that remains hidden in a suitcase. They have three dating prospects, who each have 3 suitcases, concealing a piece of small, medium, and large baggage. They reveal hidden quirks or things that may make potential suitors pause a moment before starting a relationship. Throughout the course of the show, the field gets narrowed down to one match, at which point the contestant’s baggage is revealed and the other person gets a chance to either accept the baggage and go on a date with them or reject it and move on. It’s especially fun to play along and guess who the person will go for and what their baggage is but it’s also fun to play along with a romantic partner and talk about what baggage they would or wouldn’t accept out of the options provided.

Last up in this category is a classic that I have been with through many iterations. If I am near a TV that is playing Family Feud, I will be watching it until the end of that string of episodes. I particularly like the latest episodes that Game Show Network is playing because Steve Harvey has the best reaction faces and he will continue to gently tease the contestants about their ridiculous answers for the rest of the episode. I have way too much fun playing along, especially during Fast Money.

Food-Related Shows

I really like food. I love to cook and I can spend hours looking at recipes. Choosing new restaurants to try during vacations has always been fun to me. So of course, I really like Food Network and the Cooking Channel.

As far as actual cooking shows are concerned, Good Eats is the show that has both taught me the most and entertained me the most. I like learning a little about the science behind cooking and like the random asides in the episode that explain food history or the best way to choose a kitchen tool.

In the world of cooking competitions, my current favorite is Chopped but my all-time favorite is still the original Iron Chef. I love the unnecessary pomp that I associate with the show and while there is very little in Kitchen Stadium that I would want to eat, I’ve always been impressed by the creativity of the chefs.

Finally, I really love all shows that feature a restaurant and their most beloved food. I don’t care what the show is as long as it features people who are happy and proud to make something so loved by the customers. I like seeing people enjoy what they are eating so any interview with the chef who loves it or the customers who happen to be there at the time of filming will always make me smile. As a cook, there is nothing more satisfying than hearing that people enjoy what you do and it always makes me proud for the restaurant.

Miscellaneous Shows of My Past

Finally, there are three shows that have defined portions of my past that I would be remiss to not mention.

First, American Idol. This what the show I had to watch the summer it came out. Even when we were on vacation, I made sure I would be able to watch that night. I saw every episode and was thrilled when my favorite (AJ Gil) made it to the top 10. Looking back, he was left the competition at the right time, he wasn’t great in comparison to the others but I remember how sad I was that he was kicked out. There’s a reason that Kelly Clarkson has been so successful – she is amazing. I loved her performance of Natural Woman and she quickly became my favorite to win. Then I stopped watching for 6 seasons. I was vaguely in the loop of what was going on because my mom watched and I followed along with her but it wasn’t until the 8th season that I came back to the show as an actual viewer. I happened to walk through the living room during one of Adam Lambert’s songs and very quickly fell in love. So for the next few weeks I continued to follow him and he was the first person on the show I had voted for in a very long time. I was a bit grumpy when Kris Allen won, though I’ve since come to love him even more due to his post-Idol material. The show brought me to a wonderful fandom and the summer of 2009 is a cherished memory in my life of staying up way too late and meeting some incredible people.

Next up, Deadliest Catch. I’ll never fully understand my love for the show or why I found it so entertaining to watch people go crab fishing in extreme weather conditions, but man was I attached to many of the captains and their crew. I loved the family about the Northwestern and to this day, I am incredibly proud of what Jake Anderson has been able to accomplish in his life and the new family he’s found in the Hansen brothers. I left the show after Phil’s passing in season 6 but I can’t help but smile whenever I hear about something that happens on the show.

Finally, the original Ninja Warrior. I watched this show regularly with my boyfriend and we were both hooked on this strange and impressive show. I love the quirky people who never made it far but always gave it their all and I love the All-Stars for their impressiveness on the course and their attitude toward winning and losing. I will never understand how Mr. Ninja Warrior got his name when he was so bad at the game, but there is something almost impressive about his determination to conquer the course.

What are your favorite types of non-scripted television, past or present? Are there any that you have had the same emotional connection you have with your scripted shows?



7 thoughts on “The Joys of Unscripted Television

  1. I used to love Nick gameshows! GUTS, Double Dare, and Legends of the HIdden Temple were all fun shows.

    I am not quite sure if this is ‘unscripted’, but I loved “Trading Spaces” in High School (I think it was on TLC?). Growing up, i had a secret desire to be a carpenter because of this show. I still kinda of do.

    I would say my favorite unscripted show is ‘Jeopardy’. Its the only non-scripted show I DVR. Sean and I will go on streaks where we watch it every day. We watch enough where when we watch the tournament of champions, we remember all of the contestants, and we have our favorites. I also love the HS, College, and Teacher tournaments, and this year they did a “Battle of the Decades” tournament which was a ton of fun. You never know what you are going to learn by watching Jeopardy, but you always learn something!

    Other than that I dont watch a lot of unscripted TV. I am not much of a channel surfer these days, so unless I intentionally record something, I wont see it.

    1. Oh, I forgot, I absolutely love ‘Chopped’ on Food Network. If they are having a special tournament I always try to DVR it. They had one where it was all school cafeteria chefs, and it was one of the most inspiring things I have seen. All of the contestants were gracious and cared so much about what they did. I feel like all the contestants became friends and tried to learn from each other. I actually cried a lot while watching that run of episodes.

  2. OK first a word about this topic and your post. I loved it. I smiled from ear to ear from beginning to end. I just nodded along in the feelings and emotions you conveyed. For me unscripted television is a source of family bonding. From game shows to reality shows over the entire course of my life I can connect unscripted television to being the thing that brought my entire family together around a television set. It was true growing up and to this day it isn’t uncommon for my mom and I to jump on the phone minutes after So You Think You Can Dance to talk performances or for my sister and I to analyze aspects of the Amazing Race on a Monday morning commute. American Idol is special to me because when I lived in NYC the first year it aired it was ritual to have the same group of friends over for chinese takeout and laundry and we would watch AI as we played Spades in my living room. David Cook is my personal favorite, but Kelly Clarkson marks my daughter’s first concert ever. And next week we will be hanging with Justin Guarini at Wicked.

    Game Shows – I have never met a game show I didn’t like. All of them from Pyramid to Card Sharks to Press Your Luck – no whammies, no whammies, STOP! I love Jeopardy and my mother has never forgiven me for not trying out in high school. I adored MTV’s Remote Control and one of my ultimate favorite things to ever happen in game shows was VH-1’s the World Series of Pop Culture – teams of three competed in a March Madness style knock out rounds competition for the prize of $250k. Categories ranged from music, TV, movies and literature. Teams had awesome names that played off trivia like Almost Perfect Strangers and my personal favorite el Chupacabra. It only had two seasons but it was a geek trivia dream and it is famous for having as its competitors the men who created 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon. That said, my favorite game show all time is Hollywood Squares. I watched as a kid when it was paired with Match Game, I watched (and actually attended a taping) when Joan Rivers was the center square and I adored its return when Whoopi Goldberg was the center square to Tom Bergeron’s hosting duties. Hollywood Squares has literally been a part of every stage of my life from childhood to adulthood.

    Cable Specialized Networks – How you feel about Food Network/Cooking Channel is how I feel about HGTV. Now I love Chopped and my favorite local restaurant was on Diners Drive ins and Dives. But I am a housing geek. It is not odd to find me at open houses on a random Sunday. Which is why House Hunters is crack TV for me. I can watch for hours on end. There are few shows on HGTV that don’t intrigue me and truth be told, if I won the lottery I would pay to have Jonathan Scott from the Property Brothers come do a gut rehab for me.

    Now all that said there are a few shows that like you have a special place in my heart.

    1) Battle of the Network Stars — More than life do I want this show to make a comeback. What was there not to love? Three teams made up from actors on ABC, NBC, CBS shows that competed in “olympic” style events with highlights like an obstacle course race. It was hosted by Howard Cosell and each one ended in a tug-o-war to determine the champion. This was simply the best show ever and one we waited all year to come on TV. I watched every season and a few years ago Ovation re-aired them and I was giddy once again. It is also the show I vividly remember my whole family watching. My siblings and I would pick a network team before the show started and we would route hard to the bitter end for them year over year. Seriously, there has never been anything like it since and I would pay money to see it revived.

    2) The Real World — The NYC, LA and San Francisco seasons of MTV’s The Real World were ground zero for the emergence of reality television. It also coincided with my first three years of college. So the idea of strangers from different walks of life living together was very salient to me having arrived at college to a dorm room suite of three other girls. The NYC loft seemed like the coolest experience in the world until Kevin and Julie got into a vicious fight about racism. LA seemed like a fairy tale and San Francisco gave us Pedro Zamora. For me, to see a latino, a gay latino living with HIV just 2 years after we buried my cousin for having passed away from complications with AIDS was revolutionary in my mind. It was breaking the stereotypes and bringing dignity to the disease and showing a new generation of latinos who broke the molds we had been traditionally seen under. It was great fun TV and those early seasons were certainly less contrived than when they went on into the later seasons. But for me it was a perfect storm of being the right age, the right demographic and in the precise emotional/social corridor that this show put on display.

    3) The Amazing Race – This is the show that harkens back to the same feeling I got with Battle of the Network Stars – it’s a family affair. My immediate family, cousins and extended family all watch. We all discuss and we nearly put a team together for their failed ‘family edition’ experiment. I love the beauty of seeing the world and finding out oddities that are culturally relevant to the places they visit. It ranks as the one reality show I would go on in a New York minute and one of the few shows that win or lose, you’ve won because it is the adventure of a lifetime.

    1. I now also want a revival of Battle of the Network Stars because that sounds amazing.

      I love how so many of your memories and love for unscripted TV comes from watching and sharing the experience with your family. It seems like it’s so much easier to come together to cheer for a team/watch a renovation or house search/watch people eat and cook food than it is to watch scripted TV together.

      I would be completely awful at The Amazing Race but you’re right, just being on the show and seeing something new and having that adventure would make the experience worth it even if you don’t win.

  3. This topic (and the comments so far) brought me so much joy. I have such deep love for unscripted television, and I think it all stems from my love for the great Nickelodeon game shows of our youth. Saturdays were happy days in my house as a kid because they always involved watching Legends of the Hidden Temple (even if, like you I would have been thrown off by the guards), Figure It Out, Double Dare, and GUTS (I even have a GUTS t-shirt that I proudly wear often).

    I love that game shows seem to have a special spot in all of our hearts because they mean time spent watching TV with family. Jeopardy is still a show I watch almost every night, and I love playing along with my parents. Few things in life give me as much satisfaction as running a category or answering a final jeopardy question correctly from the dinner table or the couch.

    As I grew up, unscripted television meant The Real World. I have fond memories of watching the Las Vegas season at the age of 13 and trying to hide from my parents that I was watching a TV show that featured a lot of drinking, swearing, and sex. It was my own little form of teenage rebellion, and of course it had to do with television. 😉

    I loved every new competitive reality show that came out in my early adolescence—from the first seasons of Survivor and The Amazing Race to American Idol. Like you, I watched that first season religiously and am still an avid Kelly Clarkson fan. I also watched Season Two every week (I’ll admit to loving Clay Aiken), but my viewing fell off until I discovered Season Eight and Adam Lambert and Kris Allen. Being a part of that AI8 fandom was such a huge moment in my fangirl history, and I’ll always love that show for what it gave me—a sense of confidence in being a part of a fan community and friendships I treasure to this day (including the one I have with you!).

    Nowadays, I watch basically any and all unscripted television—from the critically acclaimed (Top Chef) to the critically abhorred (The Real Housewives of ). Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives got me through late nights/early mornings writing my college thesis; Bravo is my favorite channel to put on as a default; and I have spent many nights with my best friends watching marathons of Say Yes to the Dress.

    Summertime is my favorite time for reality TV. I spend my Monday nights watching The Bachelorette and my Wednesdays watching So You Think You Can Dance. The latter is a show I love because it taps into one of the most important parts of my life: my dance background. I love those moments that happen almost every week where I watch a contestant’s smile or passion and see an echo of my own love for performing on their faces. Dance touches my heart like nothing else on Earth, and I love that I get to watch a show that’s dedicated to sharing the beauty of dance with the American public. And the former is a show I love because it taps into my hopeful romantic side. I can’t help but get invested in nearly every season of The Bachelorette because when it works—and I’m usually pretty good at predicting when it’s going to work—it’s like watching a love story develop in the real world right in front of you. My favorite seasons are the ones where it’s clear from early on who the Bachelorette will pick, and this season has been like that with Andi and Josh. I spent yesterday morning re-watching all of their moments from this season on YouTube because the finale of the show is in two weeks, and I know I’m going to cry when he proposes. I’m such a softie, and I love that this show lets me be as ridiculously optimistic about love as I want to be. Plus, it’s a feast for the eyes between the travel scenery and the 25 guys fighting for one girl’s affections. 😉

    1. I love that you have a GUTS shirt. I’ve never stopped finding it strange that the Mike O’Malley from GUTS went on to be Kurt’s dad on Glee,

      Your two favorite summer shows are so quintessentially Katie. You get to watch people do one of the things you love best and you get to see people be open to falling in love and watch as they find someone special. You love SYTYCD for the same reason that I still watch cheerleading competitions (or just the YouTube videos if I miss the actual airing). It’s so special to see people excel at something you feel passionately about and to get to see their passion at the same time.

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