Dec. 1, 2009 -- Remember the time before reality TV?
It's hard to think back to a day when competitions for everything from a bachelor's heart to cold hard cash didn't litter the channels like trash on city sidewalks; when soap opera-type dramas stayed confined to the realm of fiction and didn't sully reality. That's not to diss reality TV as a whole -- while some shows that debuted during the decade marked new lows in human depravity, others inspired audiences and showed what good the genre can do.
ABCNews.com rounded up the top 10 series of the '00s, when reality TV came into its own. The following shows may not have drawn the most ratings or critical acclaim, but their influence on pop culture over the past decade can't be contested. Even if they fade from the tube, their effects are likely to be felt long after the new decade dawns.
Man vs. other men vs. wild: that was the format debuted by CBS' "Survivor," which took off from MTV's "Real World" and "Road Rules" formula of thrusting a group of strangers into the unknown by stripping away their bare necessities and adding a pot of gold ($1 million) for whomever made it to the end of the ordeal. "Survivor: Borneo," the first American iteration of the show, debuted in May 2000 and quickly rose to sensation status, reeling in more than 18 million viewers in its second week. As Americans began bandying about terms like "Tribal Council" and "voted off," David Letterman introduced a recurring segment on "Late Night:" Top 10 Things That'll Get You Thrown Off the Survivor Island." While viewership declined over the decade, "Survivor's" still going strong, with season 19, "Survivor: Samoa," to wrap later this month.
Competing for the heart of another almost always begets drama, so why not film the process and call it a show? Such was the logic with ABC's "The Bachelor," which burst onto TV screens in March 2002. The premise: 25 gorgeous women leave behind their lives to hole up in a house and vie for the affection of a prince charming -- perhaps a doctor, perhaps a former pro sports player, perhaps a real-life prince. After whittling down the group through a series of dates and rose-draped elimination ceremonies, he may or may not propose to his chosen one at the end of the season -- or, as in the case season 13 bachelor Jason Mesnick, may propose to one contestant and then pull a switch with the runner-up following the season finale.
It should be noted that, to date, none of the couples that got together in any season finale of "The Bachelor" remain together today. But "The Bachelor's" format inspired a host of spin offs, notably, "The Bachelorette," in which scorned "Bachelor" contestants and other similarly-minded single females get to lord over wife-seeking men.
"Flavor of Love"
For the unacquainted, it might seem silly to follow a description of a show about prince charming with a blurb about a dating competition that focused on a washed-up rapper who wears a large clock around his neck. But "Flavor of Love," VH1's 2006-2008 three-season attempt to find Flava Flav a woman who might set him right (contestant Tiffany Polland, better known as New York, almost won his heart but instead won her own "Bachelorette"-esque spin-off, "I Love New York") represents how ridiculous reality dating competitions became in the '00s, and how in the end, no matter who's competing over whom, everyone's worst sides are bound to steal the spotlight.
Want more proof of "Flavor of Love's" pop culture relevance? According to Variety, the 2006 finale of "Flavor of Love 2" was the most popular cable show ever among viewers age 18 to 49. A total of 4.9 million viewers from that demographic tuned in, which at the time, made the show outrank "episodes of original cable series among adults 18-49 on FX, MTV, TBS, TNT, USA and all other" cable networks.
As with contests for a heart, contests for a job can get ugly. Enter NBC's "The Apprentice," the "Ultimate Job Interview" in which budding business people vie for $250,000 and a chance to work with captain of industry and Monopoly man personification Donald Trump. Like "Survivor," "The Apprentice" was the brainchild of Mark Burnett, who emerged as a genius of reality TV during the decade. When season one debuted in 2004, Trump's star immediately skyrocketed, as did his signature line, "You're fired!" and the profiles of several of "The Apprentice's" fiery first contenders. (Who can forget foul-mouthed Omarosa?)
The show also bred a bevy of like-minded series -- household icon Martha Stewart started her own version on NBC; rap mogul Diddy took to VH1 with "I Want to Work for Diddy." "The Apprentice" ran in its original form for six seasons; the seventh and eighth iterations featured celebrities competing for charity. A ninth go around is scheduled for the coming spring.
"America's Next Top Model"
"You wanna be on top?" The CW's "America's Next Top Model," better known as "ANTM," pioneered that phrase while launching host Tyra Banks' career off the runway. Dumping a group of wannabe fashion icons onto one stage and into one house is a recipe for entertainment. From posing for the camera to crying over makeovers to tugging at each other's hair extensions, the women competing on "ANTM" have what it takes to make it on reality TV, if not in the modeling industry at large. Since the series' 2003 debut, none of "ANTM's" 13 winners have risen to household name status, but Banks parlayed her hosting gig into her own daytime talk show. Guess she's really the one on top.
Some, as in the case of "ANTM's" contestants, are born physically blessed. Others, as in the case of the original "Extreme Makeover's" contestants, are well, not. Hence the 2002 ABC series in which average Joes and Janes volunteered to undergo extensive makeovers often involving plastic surgery, exercise regimens and a new wardrobe. While audiences gobbled up the series the year it premiered -- an average 11.2 million people tuned in for each episode --"Extreme Makeover's" fan base dropped following criticism of the show's encouraging of superficial values and a 2005 controversy in which the sister of a former contestant committed suicide after she was dropped from the show.
Though the original "Extreme Makeover" was taken off the air in 2007, the franchise was already expanding thanks to "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," in which host Ty Pennington and a team of helpers build a new home for families hit by a natural disaster, debilitating illness or other hardship. With both do-it-yourself and feel-good appeal, the show remains one of ABC's most popular reality series.
"The Biggest Loser"
When a contestant's makeover comes courtesy of their taking control of their eating and exercise habits, thus shedding dozens of pounds on national TV, that show becomes a hit. So goes the formula for NBC's "The Biggest Loser," which since 2004 has been chronicling the quest of overweight contenders to drop lbs. and win $250,000. Pushed along by professional trainers and nutrition experts, some contestants have lost as much as 140 pounds while on the show. Along with "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," "The Biggest Loser" pioneered the realm of reality TV for good -- series that spotlight the best qualities in people and hope to bring them out in the audience.
"The Amazing Race"
Another example of how the human spirit can triumph over all: "The Amazing Race," CBS' chronicling of two-person teams as they jet around the world trying to win physical challenges and pocket prizes along the way, all leading up to a $1 million grand prize for the team that arrives before all the rest in the final leg of the journey. Since the teams of two consist of people who entered the competition together and already have a functional relationship, there's little chance for the cattiness and backstabbing that dominates much of the reality competition genre to materialize. It's feel-good all the way on "The Amazing Race," which is part of the reason why the show's won eight Emmy awards since 2001.
There's reality TV for good, and then there's reality TV for the sake of reality TV. That's what brought "The Hills" to life, the MTV show that spun off from "Laguna Beach: The Real OC" when series star Lauren Conrad graduated high school and took to the Hollywood Hills to do all those things a 20-something-year-old girl does when she attempts to "find herself." "The Hills" differentiated itself from the bulk of reality series with its stunning cinematography, featuring panoramic shots of Los Angeles that were visually sumptuous even without the adornment of the flaxen-haired, slim-bodied Conrad and her bevy of beautiful friends.
"The Hills" also spearheaded the convergence of reality and scripted series when multiple media outlets discovered the show re-shot certain scenes to achieve appropriate levels of drama and intrigue. But anyone who's seen the show will likely agree that there's only so much eyelash batting one can watch before putting a script in a reality TV star's hand seems like a better alternative than watching them launch into yet another vacant gaze.
"Jon & Kate Plus 8"
Yes, the kids were cute. Yes, it was a window into a rare household. Yes, it was an exploration of the highs and lows of parenting. But the real reason "Jon & Kate Plus 8" made this list is because it showed just what a wreck reality TV can be. Neither "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire" nor "The Swan" nor any other reality series this decade can compare to the disaster that TLC's franchise became when Jon and Kate Gosselin decided to part ways. Now, the show's off the air, the family's in shambles, and TLC is suing Jon Gosselin for breach of contract. Let "Jon & Kate Plus 8" be a lesson to the millennium's future reality series, as clearly this realm's not going away: even the most popular of them all sometimes take a fall.