When the clocks flipped to midnight on January 1, 2020, many of us carried high hopes for that particular brand of energizing possibility only a new decade can deliver. But, just a few months in, it became crystal clear that 2020 wasn’t exactly bringing the positive changes we were desperate for — actually, it was kind of the opposite. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, many of us started spending more time at home than we ever had before. And, stuck indoors perfecting our plant-tending, sourdough-baking, sheltering-in-place skills, we started yearning ever so deeply for an escape in any form. If we couldn’t physically get outside and enjoy reality — or distract ourselves from the exceedingly harsh realities of our new way of life — we were bound and determined to enjoy seeing other people engage with (perhaps a slightly falsified version of) it.
Sure, reality TV hasn’t really built a reputation for integrity or authenticity over the years, but as COVID-19 continued ravaging the globe, we realized that the truthfulness of “unscripted” real-life situations was probably last on the priority list of Things That Really Matter During a Pandemic. Instead, we embraced the genre with open arms, grateful for the sense of normalcy and familiarity — not to mention the distraction — it provided. We got to vogue at drag balls. We cheered on Rosemarie’s absolute queen behavior and “liked the view.” We watched Paul and Prue break bread (and contestants’ hearts) in an idyllic countryside tent. And now we’ll probably always remember these quaranTV greats that gave us something to do, something to look forward to — something that provided the opportunity to actually feel kind of okay — during one of the hardest times we’ve been through together.
10. Girl Scout Cookie Championship (Amazon Prime Video)
If you saw the title and thought, “They’re really running out of ideas, aren’t they?” then you’re probably not alone. Girl Scout Cookie Championship definitely gives off end-of-the-rope vibes if we’re talking about producer creativity. But what could be a better representation of the exasperation we were all feeling after months of quarantining?
If you still haven’t gotten your fill of baking competitions, check out Girl Scout Cookie Championship, which puts five experienced bakers to the test as they try to create edible dishes out of the famously delicious and enduring Girl Scout cookies — and then pawn their creations off on the public like real Girl Scouts. Judges Nacho Aguirre and Katie Lee decide which contestant receives a year’s supply of Girl Scout cookies and a $10,000 trip. It’ll have you longing for the happier times when our favorite always-prepared girl guides were actually allowed to sell their sweet wares from tables outside grocery stores.
Watch the first season on Amazon Prime Video.
9. Love Is Blind (Netflix)
Attempts to attract new significant others during lockdown have been nothing short of a steaming hot mess. But after being forced to get creative in a time when even holding hands is a massive no-no, people have found some clever workarounds and enjoyed socially distant, let’s-cheers-through-computer-screens Zoom dating. It sounds kind of difficult, and it has been — but maybe not as difficult as the dating decision-making on Love Is Blind.
This reality show takes the concept of blind dating to a whole new level. Initially, contestants are allowed to communicate to get to know each other, but they never get to actually see each other — that feels pandemic-appropriate, right? And before they even meet in person, the contestants decide whom they want to propose to. Love Is Blind also follows the couples’ journeys as they eventually meet in person and figure out if their emotional connection is matched by an equal physical attraction…after they’re already engaged. There’s an air of desperation here that anyone who’s spent quarantine alone will identify with.
Love Is Blind has one season available for viewing on Netflix.
8. Making the Cut (Amazon Prime Video)
Whether as a last resort to stave off boredom or a first resort to finally indulge in hobbies we never previously had time for, lockdown saw many of us turn to crafting to figure out how to channel all that nervous energy — and, okay, the pent-up creativity — into something productive. But when our hands got tired and our brains still wanted more designing and doing, Making the Cut came to the rescue.
This resuscitated version of Project Runway is hosted by none other than Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn and follows 12 established designers from across the world as they compete to make a name for their fashion brands. On each episode, the designers participate in challenges that are judged by a panel of notable celebrities, including Naomi Campbell and Nicole Richie. Making the Cut‘s first season aired in 2020, but its familiar formula and faces are packed with enough 2005-ish nostalgia that you might feel transported to a different, COVID-free time — if only for a brief moment.
Watch the first season on Amazon Prime Video.
7. Celebrity Watch Party (Amazon Prime Video)
Teleparty was an undeniably super-fun way to stay in touch with friends and family in the early days of sheltering in place. But as the weeks passed, being “on” for everyone all the time — all that showering and looking presentable not only for work conferences but also for digital de-stressing with our pals — started to get old. We embraced pajamas as workwear; we just didn’t want everyone else to know. What better reason to let it all hang out (in secret) with our favorite A-listers?
Enter Celebrity Watch Party, the only show on this list that made us feel like we were having a sleepover with Tyra Banks. The main premise of Watch Party is that it, well, is like having a watch party for a TV show, but with a famous person and in an appropriately socially distant manner. Tapping into the same type of intrigue as watching YouTube reaction videos, it’s all about seeing celebs lounge around while viewing shocking or funny clips of TV shows — think Dr. Pimple Popper and The Masked Singer — to see what their responses are. It might sound a little voyeuristic, but it’s mostly just about having a good time.
Watch the first season on Amazon Prime Video.
6. Dear… (Apple TV)
Just like the only consistency in our day-to-day quarantine existence seemed to be inconsistency, not every reality TV show we marathoned fell into the neat categories of “fun” or “competitive.” Dear… is a perfect example of one of those undefinable, often-emotional shows that gave us a break from traditional reality TV formats. The docuseries, produced by Apple TV, profiles 10 “game-changing icons” — titans like Spike Lee, Stevie Wonder, Gloria Steinem, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Big Bird — and highlights their accomplishments through the reading of letters written to them by the people they’ve influenced.
At once heartwarming and engaging, Dear… isn’t a hard-hitting or deep-diving attempt at making a documentary, and that’s exactly what makes it so appealing. You’ll get invested in that just-right Goldilocks way because it strikes a perfect balance of uplifting and emotional, never crossing into sob-worthy territory. And “not sob-worthy” is kind of an important qualification in times like these.
Watch the first season on Apple TV.
5. 90-Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days (Hulu)
Okay, this one normally wouldn’t be on a “best reality TV shows” list. Would it be on a “worst of” list? Probably. But hear us out. TLC’s Before the 90 Days is responsible for introducing us to one of early quarantine’s most recognizable meme queens: Rosemarie Vega. Season four of this spinoff follows couples in pursuit of K-1 visas who’ve met online but not yet in person — and sees breakout star Rosemarie grow increasingly exasperated with her utter dud of a love interest, Ed, who travels to her hometown in the Philippines from America and begins placing progressively more bizarre demands on her.
But Rosemarie isn’t having any of it, and she defends herself with subtle jabs and biting sarcasm that had us all rooting for her by the season finale. What’s more is that her sardonic soundbytes ended up making for some truly memorable memes — memes that flooded our mid-April social media timelines and ultimately became “remember when?” benchmarks that help us look back on the pandemic’s early days through a lens of fondness. Who could forget the TikTok mashup of Doja Cat’s “Cyber Sex” and Rosemarie’s signature “I like the view”? And who would even want to?
The first five seasons are streaming on Hulu, and other seasons, episodes and clips are available on TLC.
4. Blown Away (Netflix)
Blowing glass seems like it should be meditative and relaxing…right? Not necessarily, as we saw on Blown Away, which takes a hard pivot from traditional competition shows if only because it feels like it’s kind of the last frontier of esoteric reality TV competition topics — barring Flockstars, which is about, you know, herding sheep. But we digress. Despite the seemingly strange, why-would-they-make-this-a-contest aspect of the show, Blown Away is full of dramatic theatrics that’ll shatter your need for programming that’s over the top.
And it’s also just plain cool to watch, shining a light on a lesser-known artform and helping you satiate your need to learn about something new, what with having so much free time on your hands and all. You’ll get embroiled in the contestant drama and in the overall-extreme (Heat! Flames! Dangerous tools!) way the show is shot. And you’ll definitely appreciate what a glasstastic distraction it provides when you’re craving binge-worthy excitement.
Season one is available to stream on Netflix.
3. World’s Toughest Race (Amazon Prime Video)
Miss getting outside and having fun with friends? Long for the days when a face covering didn’t stand between your nose and all that crisp outdoor air? Dream of those times when you could…traverse a dangerous jungle in a homemade raft? You won’t after watching participants on World’s Toughest Race literally tough it out through physically and mentally challenging “adventures” in some of the harshest conditions imaginable. Unless you’re a mega adrenaline junkie, you might pause and feel some gratitude about the fact that you can sit on your couch and do nothing.
World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji is 2020’s revival of the survival competition show that documents contestants as they race around the globe and against the clock for a $100,000 prize. Armed only with a map, compass, crew member and basic supplies, the international teams trek for 24 hours a day to complete a course across global backcountry terrain the likes of which you’ve probably never seen. To make things just a tad more brutal, if a contestant gets hurt or lost, they also get disqualified. If you fancy a little armchair adventure, this is your ticket.
Watch season one of this nailbiter on Amazon Prime Video.
2. The Great British Baking Show (Netflix)
If one thing became clear during the pandemic, it was that we could all use a little more kindness — and copious carbs as coping tools — during such a trying time. But the bread and pasta lost their luster as the pandemic lingered, and it became time to turn to a visual version of comfort food: The Great British Baking Show.
Yes, it’s a cooking competition, but at heart, it’s a touching, gentle, supportive ode to all things crusted, frosted, piped and flambeed. It’s the antithesis of cutthroat, which might be surprising for a show in which people are vying to win a “best baker” title — but it’s a show that’s so deeply about camaraderie and crumbles that it doesn’t even have a cash prize for the winner. And therein lies GBBS‘s appeal. It’s charming, it’s welcoming and it’s even a little funny. It feels like a hug from your favorite grandma, and it’s precisely the antidote we need for pandemic-induced stress.
You can stream various seasons on Netflix.
1. Legendary (HBO Max)
When 2020 started, we were looking for fun. We were looking for energy. We were looking for brightness and boldness — and, sure, maybe a pinch or two of drama. And while the year itself managed to hit us with an energetically bold swerve when it came to just plain having a good time, Legendary was there to swoop in like a stage-stealing savior. The reality competition about drag ballroom walks illuminates an important LGBTQ+ subculture, one that deserves our attention and respect in much more than just the context of a reality competition. But for now, we’ll enjoy this top pick for all the joy it delivers.
Haven’t seen Legendary yet? Different drag houses — found-familial groups of drag performers — compete against each other in a traditional drag ball format, which includes donning amazing clothes and dancing-voguing-strutting-lip syncing-modeling down runways. Judges determine who performs best — which house overall is worthy of “legendary” status — and deserves the $100,000 prize. Whether you love creative choreography or unbridled confidence, you’ll find Legendary captivating and eagerly await the second season.
Season one is available on HBO Max.