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The 12 Best Reality TV Shows for Grownups, Ranked!

From guilty ‘Real Housewives’ pleasures to feel-good ‘British Baking Show’ sweets, we’ve got your ultimate TV reality checklist. Binge away ­— we won’t judge!


spinner image A collage of stars from reality TV shows such as "The Voice," "The Great British Baking Show," "Survivor" and "American Idol."
Photo Collage: AARP; (Source: Left to Right: Netflix; Art Streiber/NBC; CBS; Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Welcome to reality TV, where the viewing is compulsive, the memes viral and the escapism total. While some series, from Keeping Up With the Kardashians to the Bachelor shows, have dominated conversations for years but not aged particularly well (except for time-defying Golden Bachelor Gerry and his 22 telegenic women!), some shows have innovated, dominated, endured and are still worth a pleasure watch. Meet the best reality TV shows for grownups, ranked from number 12 to number 1, and all streaming now. (And don’t miss the broadcast season premieres of The Voice on Feb. 26 and Survivor on Feb. 28.)

12. The Real World, MTV (1992-2017, 2019)

Feel-good or guilty pleasure: Guilty pleasure

Number of seasons: 33

Why it’s worth your time: Credited as the launchpad of every TV reality series to follow it, this unscripted, raw look at what happens to a group of strangers when you put them together in a house for several months (in a different city every season) was based on PBS’s groundbreaking 1973 reality series, An American Family. The messiness of real life — relationships, prejudice, politics and religion — is on real display here, and while it doesn’t have the zip and zing of latter-day, highly produced reality TV shows, it’s worth a revisit.

A real win: Season 3 in San Francisco was a refreshingly open treatment of gay cast member Pedro Zamora’s struggle with AIDS (and the first televised LGBT commitment ceremony). 

Watch it: The Real World on Paramount+

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11. Shark Tank, ABC (2009-)

Feel-good or guilty pleasure: Feel-good

Number of seasons: 15

Why it’s worth your time: With its serious premise of entrepreneurs pitching their One Great Idea to a rotating panel of high-profile potential investors (dubbed “sharks”), this remains a quality watch season after season. Like other panel-driven reality competitions, this one has good cops and bad cops (the compassionate Barbara Corcoran, 74, versus the harsh Kevin O’Leary, 69) who inject a bit of reality TV juice to the mix. But the best reason to watch Shark Tank is to witness creativity and moxie get rewarded in a world of corporate calculation.

A real win: Bombas, those socks everywhere on your social media feed, were funded in Season 6 by FUBU founder Daymond John, 54. Shark Tank’s most successful company to date matches every item sold with a similar essential clothing item donated to organizations that help unhoused people — 100 million items so far.

Watch it: Shark Tank on ABC, Hulu

​10. Alone, The History Channel (2015-)

Feel-good or guilty pleasure: Feel-good

Number of seasons: 10

Why it’s worth your time: This under-the-radar reality series pares away the backstabbing politics of Survivor to yield a more truthful, occasionally grim, deeply instructive look at 10 seasonal contestants who must survive completely alone in deep wilderness with scant supplies, plus a camera to capture the experience (except for Season 4, which featured seven teams of pairs). Whoever lasts the longest wins a grand prize of now $1 million; contestants can tap out by choice or be pulled if they fail required medical check-in visits. The psychology is intense, the strategies fascinating.

A real win: Alone’s inversion of what makes a great survivor. Contestants who arrive crowing about hunting moose for their dinner often don’t make it very far, while humbler strategies — like living on seaweed and slugs in Season 1 — go the distance.

Watch it: Alone on History

9. The Amazing Race, CBS (2001-)

Feel-good or guilty pleasure: Feel-good

Number of seasons: 35

Why it’s worth your time: Combining problem solving, travelogue and relationship psychology, CBS’s Emmy-winning reality juggernaut hurtles 13 teams with limited budgets around the world for $1 million in prize money. What makes The Amazing Race so watchable is the Swiss Army knife set of skills that winning requires: mental acumen to solve clues, physical stamina and flexibility to navigate different languages and cultures. Plus, the show is about working together, not knocking someone else down, and that’s an action-packed breath of fresh air. (Season 36 premieres March 13.)

A real win: While plenty of Amazing Race contestants have other reality TV chops, it’s Mike White, 53, later the creator of TV sensation The White Lotus, who captures your heart (but, sadly, not first place) with his father, Mel, in Season 14. 

Watch it: The Amazing Race on CBS, Paramount+

8. American Idol, ABC (2002-)

Feel-good or guilty pleasure: Feel-good

Number of seasons: 22

Why it’s worth your time: Lauded as one of the most influential TV shows in history while launching stars like winners Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, runners-up Adam Lambert and Clay Aiken, plus finalist Jennifer Hudson, this big-voice, hit-every-high-note singing contest where the judges critique but America votes remains relevant even after spawning decades of imitations. Ryan Seacrest continues to helm this cultural mainstay, and the recently announced departure of judge Katy Perry puts the show center stage as America ponders who will replace her.

A real win: While Aiken went on to stardom after Idol, he came in second to Ruben Studdard in Season 2. The pair remain friends and tour together frequently (including the 20th anniversary reunion tour, which wrapped up in early February).

Watch it: American Idol on ABC, Hulu

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7. The Real Housewives franchise, Bravo (2006-)

Feel-good or guilty pleasure: Guilty pleasure

Number of seasons: Varies by program

Why it’s worth your time: To call The Real Housewives a franchise is like calling the Roman Empire a franchise. It all began with the juicy promise, inspired by soap operas like Peyton Place and Desperate Housewives, of real suburban women in Orange County, California, on the verge of constant drama. Real Housewives was programming genius, minting Bravo as TV’s forever home of high-stakes reality storylines and spawning 11 iterations from New York City and Atlanta to Beverly Hills and Salt Lake City. Each has its own passionate following, spin-offs and queens who start high-octane businesses, go to prison and even end up quoted in the Congressional Record. Yes, it’s lowbrow. And yes, it’s absolutely fabulous.

A real win: Talk about staying power: Tamra Judge, 56 (The Real Housewives of Orange County), and Teresa Giudice, 51 (The Real Housewives of New Jersey), have each survived a record 14 seasons and are still going strong.

Watch it: The Real Housewives franchise on Bravo, Peacock

6. Project Runway, Bravo (2004-)

Feel-good or guilty pleasure: Feel-good

Number of seasons: 20

Why it’s worth your time: “Make it work!” The urbane and compassionate Tim Gunn, 70, speaks for 20 years’ worth of fashion-loving viewers who sweat each challenge along with aspiring fashion designers who sketch, shop, pin, drape, sew and hit the runway every week of this Peabody Award-winning elimination competition. A bit of interpersonal drama fuels every season, but it’s really each challenge’s race against the clock that gets the juices flowing. And there’s nothing like former host Heidi Klum, 50, uttering “You’re out” with crisp, Teutonic finality.

A real win: Season 4 winner Christian Siriano went on to design for major celebrities, including creating the dress Michelle Obama wore for her speech to the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

Watch it: Project Runway on Bravo, Peacock

​5. The Voice, NBC (2011-)

Feel-good or guilty pleasure: Feel-good

Number of seasons: 25

Why it’s worth your time: Seizing upon the OG appeal of American Idol and paving the way for creative newcomers like The Masked Singer, The Voice made the chair spin a peak TV moment. Here, a “blind” audition features superstar coaches (including Reba McEntire, 68, Alicia Keys, Christina Aguilera, Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, Usher, Pharrell Williams, 50, and Adam Levine, plus Blake Shelton for a commanding 23 seasons) who pick promising singers to mentor without seeing what they look like. From there it’s a series of knockout rounds to a final, with rules changing over the years. But that’s not the beauty of The Voice: It’s those chair spins where talent speaks — or rather, sings — for itself.

A real win: It may not be The Bachelor, but The Voice has caused some high-profile matchmaking. Pop star Gwen Stefani, 54, met Shelton when she joined the show for Season 7 in 2014. The couple fell in love, marrying in 2021.

Watch it: The Voice on NBC, Peacock

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​4. Survivor, CBS (2000-)

Feel-good or guilty pleasure: Guilty pleasure

Number of seasons: 45

Why it’s worth your time: Was there even a time before Survivor? It’s hard to imagine not describing someone as being “voted off the island,” thanks to this long-lived elimination competition that pits strangers against each other in picturesquely threatening tropical locations for a $1 million prize. With its Lord of the Flies meets Swiss Family Robinson vibe, Survivor seasons roil with physical and mental challenges, alliances and betrayals, and the daunting challenge of picking one outfit to last 39 days. The show is credited for inspiring the genre of high-stakes reality TV competitions, and it’s still going strong. The greatest act of survival? Jeff Probst, 62, hosting without missing a beat for 24 years.

A real win: Since the early 2000s, a collection of each season’s props — including flags, mats, torches, immunity idols and the voting urn — are auctioned off for a designated charity (monitor Probst’s social media account for the latest).

Watch it: Survivor on CBS, Paramount+

3. Top Chef, Bravo (2006-)

Feel-good or guilty pleasure: Feel-good

Number of seasons: 20

Why it’s worth your time: With multiple Emmys and Critics Choice awards, plus a James Beard award, Top Chef stands out in the crowded field of food reality TV. The production team that whipped up fashion elimination competition on Project Runway took the same high-road recipe here. As on the runway, the clock ticks and there’s some intramural drama, but mostly Top Chef stays true to rewarding the merits of creativity and grace under pressure. The roster of class acts at the judges table — including Tom Colicchio, 61, Eric Ripert, 58, and Queer Eye’s Ted Allen, 58, along with longtime host Padma Lakshmi, 53, who retired from the post last year — has kept the show a model of how to do reality TV right.

A real win: Season 10 winner, the charismatic chef and author Kristen Kish, returns to the show in the new season as host.

Watch it: Top Chef on Bravo, Peacock

​2. RuPaul’s Drag Race, MTV (2009-)

Feel-good or guilty pleasure: Feel-good

Number of seasons: 16

Why it’s worth your time: RuPaul’s Emmy-studded, iconic competition show is America’s most entertaining reality TV year after year. Every season as the show has bounced from under-the-radar Logo network to VH1 and to MTV in 2023, competing queens bring it on everything: photography, modeling, acting, singing, dancing and managing their elaborate makeup and costumes. The judges are spicy and hilarious, the competitors’ backstories heart-warming and inspiring, and Ru, 63, a monarch for the ages. Because who needs a mic drop when you have the Death Drop?

A real win: Since its inception, Drag Race has also awarded Miss Congeniality to a deserving queen at the end of each season.

Watch it: RuPaul’s Drag Race, Seasons 1-13 on Paramount+, Seasons 14-16 on MTV

1. The Great British Baking Show, Netflix (2010-)

Feel-good or guilty pleasure: Feel-good

Number of seasons: 14

Why it’s worth your time: It’s remarkable for any competition show to be equally popular and wholesome, but that is the secret recipe of this English import that makes Ted Lasso look downright cynical. Genuinely sweet — never saccharine — each season features 12 amateur bakers (10 in Season 1) who do their best to rise to weekly challenges while cheering each other on in the true spirit of camaraderie. A balm for the spirit and an inspiration for how to be civil while striving for excellence, The Great British Baking Show should be required watching for every American.

A real win: Those whimsical illustrations of bakes have been created by the same artist — Tom Hovey — since the series’ inception (and many are available for sale on his website).

Watch it: The Great British Baking Show on Netflix

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