Reality television is notorious for plumbing the deepest depths of the human soul, but some programs take it a little bit too far, ramping up the human depravity until it’s actually difficult to watch. In this feature, we’ll spotlight 10 shows that pushed the envelope in horrific ways, whether by endangering lives or just showing us at our worst. These are the most uncomfortable reality TV shows ever made.
There are plenty of self-improvement reality programs that offer all kinds of services to the insecure, from weight loss to wardrobe makeovers. But none was quite as cruel as "The Swan," which aired on Fox for two seasons in 2004. The premise of the show was simple: women are ugly and they should be ashamed of any tiny imperfection in their looks. Sixteen women got startling plastic-surgery transformations and then competed against each other in a beauty pageant where they were judged on their artificial good looks. It was sadistic, disturbing and justifiably savaged by critics.
The Virgin Diaries
We’re not promoting promiscuity in any way, shape or form, but watching the undersexed protagonists on TLC’s "The Virgin Diaries" is deeply uncomfortable. We knew this was going to be horrific when the promos for the series showed a virgin couple kissing for the first time on their wedding day. Watching their mouths ineptly smash together captivated and terrified America. Since then, "The Virgin Diaries" has made holding on to your V-card look like a one-way ticket to public humiliation. Not a good look in a world where "Teen Mom" also exists.
Flavor of Love
Much respect to Flavor Flav. Dude was the hypeman for the greatest hip-hop group of all time, and he can do whatever he wants in his dotage. But his reality shows have been uniformly painful to watch. Not only is it embarrassing watching Flav mack on women half his age who don’t care about anything but fleeting fame, it trivializes everything that Public Enemy stood for, glorifying crass consumerism and phoniness. Even worse, it served as a platform for several of the show’s ladies to launch reality careers of their own.
When you bring kids into the equation on a reality show, things go from bad to worse. It’s one thing for adults to make the informed decision to air their dirty laundry out for America, but to force your kids into it? Gross. One of the worst on the air right now is Lifetime’s "Dance Moms," which follows the lives of a half-dozen students at a dance academy in Pittsburgh. Sounds uplifting, right? Not when you watch it. The kids are routinely excoriated by their incredibly hateable teacher, who ranks them every episode on a pyramid so the less-talented ones can see how badly they suck. Each episode is awful and very tough to sit through.
Who’s Your Daddy?
Leave it to reality television to take some of the most emotionally fraught moments of an adult’s life and reduce them to cheap laughs. Fox announced "Who’s Your Daddy?" in 2005, only to be met by a firestorm of negative press. The show took a person who had been adopted as a child and put them in a room with 25 men, one of which was the biological father whom they’d never met. If they managed to pick out the creator of half their genetic material, they’d win $100,000. Ask any adopted person what they think of this idea and get ready to hear some cussing. The show was canned after only one episode, as all the controversy didn’t translate to good ratings.
My Super Sweet 16
The lifestyle that shows like "My Super Sweet 16" glorify is basically what’s killing America and, by definition, the world. Running from 2005 to 2008, the show depicted insanely spoiled rich kids getting ready for their 16th birthdays with lavish parties, ridiculous gifts and really snotty attitudes. Almost every person this show featured was a disgusting piece of materialistic garbage, more concerned with popularity and possessions than anything else in the world. The parents of these kids should be ashamed, and yet somehow they never are. Watching it fills you with an insane rage, especially now that we’re in the depths of a hideous recession.
Combining the plastic surgery obsession of "The Swan" with the crazy women of "Bridezillas," this short-lived series on E! brought together a dozen unmarried women and dangled a dream wedding in front of their faces, along with a laundry list of plastic-surgery procedures. In their quest to become the “perfect bride,” the contestants on this show got boob jobs, teeth pulled, noses restructured, liposuction and more, all the while cattily back-stabbing each other and making the sacred institution of marriage look really gross. This show did more damage to the traditions of marriage than a million gay weddings could ever do.
Toddlers and Tiaras
The world of child beauty pageants is a dark and horrifying one, with tens of thousands of kids parading themselves around on rinky-dink stages all over this great country for towering trophies and not much else. This long-running TLC spectacle (which just spawned equally-awful spin-off "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo") takes us deep inside some heavily dysfunctional families, obsessed with grooming their children into robotic stage automatons who exist for nothing but pageants. We’re talking forced tanning, horrific makeup and much, much worse. The fact that five seasons of this mess have been produced is more than enough to condemn our entire society.
What could be more personal than dealing with the death of a loved one? Who cares? Put that crap on TV and throw some money at it. "The Will" was a particularly gross CBS show that starred Arizona multi-millionaire Bill Long. Nearing death, Bill needed to decide who to deed his huge ranch in Kansas to. His wife? His best friend? His kids? The show made them compete for his love from beyond the grave, taking part in challenges to prove that they were the most worthy. It was so disquieting that the network pulled it after just one episode aired.
Next: Mascots Behaving Badly
Married by America
Fox, as a network, is showing up here a lot more often than just about anybody else, but what can we say? They know how to make really unpleasant reality TV. Their 2003 brainstorm "Married by America" took five singles and had voters out in TV land decide how to pair them up. And then they all got engaged on TV, because marriage is a very serious and meaningful thing. After three of the couples were eliminated, the final two got to decide if they really wanted to get married. Thankfully, they didn’t, and the show was swiftly cancelled.