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A Comprehensive Guide to British Reality TV

In addition to readymade sandwiches, after-work drinks, and classism, Britain has really perfected the art of reality TV. Here is a handy guide to help you through the madness.

by Monica Heisey
Aug 20 2015, 5:10pm

Image via Stocksy

There are a lot of things you might expect the United Kingdom to do better than America. Tea, for instance. "Crisps." Upper-class homoeroticism. But did you know they're also absolutely destroying the reality TV game? If you've watched every season of The Hills and just can't even comprehend that Survivor is still on, use this handy guide to find a better, British show with which to binge away the remaining hours of your precious youth, divided by genre. Go on luv.

Classic British Reality TV

When it comes to reality television, nothing beats watching shitty strangers fight and/or have sex with each other until some or all of them become famous, or at least infamous. The UK's been running Big Brother for years to great effect, but also branched out into The Hills-style reality shows, following groups of amazing dickheads from all walks of life in their home environments. There's Made In Chelsea if you like your dickheads rich and named "Binky" or "Caggie," The Only Way is Essex if spray tans turn you on, Geordie Shore for those looking to see someone's extensions get pulled out, and finally, The Valleys. If Geordie Shore is Jersey Shore on drugs (and it is), The Valleys is like Geordie Shore took a party bus to a small Welsh town and burned it to the ground... on poppers. Each show comes with its own vernacular and cast style, and the sheer range of perfect British slang just waiting to be adopted is reason alone to tune in. Also: UK reality shows don't blur nudity (nudity is also much more frequent), and everyone on these shows is much more honest about how often they're drunk (i.e., all the time) and how drunk they are (i.e., extremely).

Best Show in this Genre: The Valleys

Why It's Great: This Welsh take on party reality shows is utter carnage. It takes a few episodes of practice to fully understand what everyone is saying through their accents, but once you've cracked it, it's totally worth it. The cast's no-big-deal bisexuality and constant group experimentation, as well as their outing-nude, on a party bus, in the middle of the day-to get tattoos (of sheep!) (on their vaginas!), plus their collective dreams of being glamour models and DJs make them just the best thing you could possibly watch with a hangover.

When to Watch: Absolutely braindead.

Educational British Reality TV

The UK being the home of the BBC and "A Levels," there's also a lot of reality television with an educational bent. Many of these programs bring in real-life experts to discuss and dissect whatever themed topic is at hand, adopting the light-hearted tone of that professor in your first year lit seminar who seemed to really love their job. In a situation that says a lot about the British people as a group, the two most popular subjects for these shows are history and sex ed. The historical ones tend to involve people dressing up and living in the style of a certain historical era, as seen in 1900 House, The 1940s House, 10,000 B.C., Wartime Farm, and The Edwardian Country House. These are all fine, but the true star of educational British reality television is Tudor Monastery Farm, a show that takes three sweet, excited academics into the everyday life of farmers from the 1500s. Ruth Goodman, Peter Ginn and Tom Pinfold are all severely jazzed to be there. (According to the Daily Mail, Ruth Goodman didn't want to return to living in the present.) It enables you to learn a lot in a way that is not horrible! It's very soft, gently educational, barely entertaining, soothing programming. Watching this show is what I imagine it would feel like to have Mandy Patinkin read me a bedtime story. I love it and so does the rest of the UK. In fact, the show was so popular they ran a second season: Secrets of the Castle with Ruth, Peter and Tom, placing our old friends at the building site of a medieval French castle. The title card is in Papyrus font. God save the Queen.

The sex education shows are a whole other ballgame. Health television is quite big in the UK, with shows like 24 Hours in A&E, Bizarre ER and Junior Doctors: Your Life in Their Hands. My very favorite is called Embarrassing Bodies (formerly Embarrassing Illnesses), where regular Brits with disgusting health problems (think boils, chronic butt acne, a yeast infection in the folds of one's stomach) strip naked in front of the cameras and presenter, Dr. Pixie McKenna, in order to get diagnosed on TV. There's also Sex Box, a show where actual couples go into an illuminated cube in front of a live studio audience, have sex in it, then come out and talk to a panel of television personalities about the sex they had. It has recently been adapted for American television.

In the past few years there's also been a slew of social education shows, including My Transsexual Summer, a mini-series following seven trans people as they transition, Benefits Street, a show about residents of one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Birmingham (itself a very impoverished city), and Educating Yorkshire, which depicts life in a northern school. Even the aggressively shmaltzy production of these shows and the completely tone-deaf names ("My Transsexual Summer," seriously) can't stop them from being legitimately moving viewing experiences.

Best Show in this Genre: Tudor Monastery Farm

Why It's Great: Ruth flirting with a Renaissance fishing expert while catching eels with a basket she wove that morning out of reeds.

When to Watch: Stoned, sleepy, when it's cold outside. This show is the televisual equivalent of a comforting homemade stew.

American Imports

The British relationship to America is complicated. They seem to low-key hate Americans, but they love America and are obsessed with summer camp; a valley girl-style American accent is British shorthand for "moron," but when I lived there I saw a giant Smirnoff ad that was just a billboard of a city skyline with a vodka bottle in it and the word "NEW YORK." While the general consensus is that America is a silly and bad place to live, the hunger for "American-style" entertainment and food is real. As such, the reality TV landscape is full of British impressions of American originals, including Dance Mums, So You Think You Can Dance UK, Project Catwalk, and Britain's Next Top Model. The latter also included a UK-original spinoff, Britain's Missing Top Model, a controversial modeling talent competition show for women with disabilities. The show's winner, a then-24 year-old woman named Kelly Knox who was born without a left forearm, is now "the UK's leading disabled model," according to Wikipedia.

Best Show in this Genre: Dance Mums

Why It's Great: All the monstrosity of Dance Moms, more accents, worse costumes.

When to Watch: When you've already seen every episode of Dance Moms and watched all the Maddie Ziegler clips that exist on YouTube, but you still really want to see some talented kids acting like sad adults and untalented adults behaving like bad kids.

Dating and Romance Shows

I don't know how it got its refined, proper reputation, because England is the horniest place I've ever been. A widespread appreciation for "banter" and "cheek" has translated well to television, where shows about fucking or talking about fucking thrive. It all began back in the 80s with Blind Date, a UK version of the US show The Dating Game. Blind Date's combination of innuendo, catchphrases, and the promise of consensual if awkward sex has since been applied to dozens of dating shows, all with perfect names like Love Island, Love Shaft, and Gay, Straight, or Taken. On Stand By Your Man, women are presented with five selfies and have to stand beside the selfie they find fittest. Then they all get into a bed with the man the most of them have chosen, and ask him questions like "What would you name my boobs?" At the end of the show, the winning man gets to take one of the women for a curry.

The crown jewel of dating shows is Take Me Out, a competition reality show with approximately 400 catchphrases per episode. Hosted by Paddy McGuinness (a man who is named that and somehow NOT Irish) beckons a lone male down the "Love Lift," while more than a dozen heavily made up women scream and dance in front of illuminated podiums. If the women aren't into the guy for any reason, they turn their light off. The catchphrase for this portion of events is "No likey, no lightey." If all the ladies "no likey," the man has received a "blackout." He will not be going on a date and has to leave the theater alone while all the women wave and sing along to Celine Dion's "All By Myself." If lights remain on, the man and panel of women exchange aggressive innuendo until it's time to give the man the power. After three rounds, the man has the ability to turn off the assembled women's lights until only two are left. One of those two women will be going on a date with the man to the "Isle of Fernando's." Before he chooses, the man is told a surprising fact designed to sway his decision about the two women. A real fact from a recent episode: "One of these two girls is a registered massage therapist." Fine.

In addition to shows about people looking for love, there's an entire matrimonial genre. Most of these shows involve terrorizing brides before or on their wedding days. Don't Tell the Bride leaves wedding planning up to the groom over a forty-eight hour period. Will these hapless husbands be able to arrange a beautiful wedding for their betrothed without her input? Almost certainly not! If you like watching women in wedding dresses cry near chicken wings, this is the show for you. Arrange Me A Marriage is basically exactly what it sounds like, as is Married at First Sight, a show that sets up three couples per episode, who are married the first time they meet each other. After several weeks of married life, couples can choose to stay together or get divorced. This show ends with something akin to love more often than you'd expect, but also features so much crying in wedding dresses, a win-win.

Best Show in this Genre: Take Me Out

Why It's Great: A blackout really is a joy to behold. Also, the Isle of Fernando's is just a shitty nightclub in Manchester.

When to Watch: A drunk Friday night in with takeout and your dirtbag roommates.

Talent Search Shows

In addition to readymade sandwiches, after work drinks, and classism, Britain has really perfected talent search reality shows. This is the country that brought us Pop Idol, after all. Simon Fuller's tyrannical search for singing talent across the UK has wrought Susan Boyle, One Direction and Jedward, not to mention countless one-hit wonders. Winners and even runners up on talent shows go on to have long careers as television presenters, nightclub performers, and spokespeople for weight loss regimes. And even though The X-Factor has been running for what seems like an eternity, everyone still gets pretty into it, live-tweeting and recapping and starting office pools and what have you.

But there are more talents in the world than singing. In addition to The X-Factor, Pop Idol, and Britain's Got Talent, there's also been Fame Academy, Hidden Talent, Bollywood Star, Football Icon, Kings of Comedy, and Soapstar Superstar, as well as a number of shows looking for talented chefs, probably to be yelled at by national hero and angry, sentient mutton leg Gordon Ramsey. And then, because there are more talents than singing but not many more, there's also a series of choir-based reality shows, including The Choir, Côr_Cymru, and Last Choir Standing. Singing!

Best Show in This Genre: Not a show, not a season, just a person: What is Rylan? (If I had to pick, I guess The X-Factor.)

Why It's Great: Watching very wealthy adults crush the dreams of overly-styled teens, Simon Cowell's rude little nipples.

When to Watch: You can probably skip it.

Celebrity Reality Shows

The best thing about England is that it takes almost nothing to be considered a celebrity there. Those who hate the Kardashians would lose their goddamn minds over Katie Price, a television personality formerly known as just "Jordan," and her whole deal. Many celebrities in England have become famous from appearing for the first time on celebrity-themed reality programming. There is nothing the British people will not watch celebrities do. Which is great, because now you too can watch "celebrity garden designer" Diarmuid Gavin participate in Splash!, a Tom Daley-hosted evening of competitive diving. (If we're being honest this is mostly thirty minutes of attractive people falling into water from a height, which is more entertaining than you might expect.)

By far the most popular celebrity-based reality show is Strictly Come Dancing, an offshoot of long-running competitive ballroom dancing show for normals, Come Dancing, which first aired in the UK in 1949. Strictly Come Dancing, or "Strictly" as its called, spruced up the old format by pairing trained dancers with untrained celebrities, and by adding the word "Strictly" in front as an allusion to Australian romantic comedy Strictly Ballroom, because why not I guess. It has had 12 seasons to date, and spawned several Christmas specials, as well as Strictly Ice Dancing, and Strictly African Dancing, a one-off special featuring celebrities of African descent performing African dances? Sure? I mean, sure.

A small sampling of the other celeb-focused shows just waiting for you to love them so much: I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!, which strands celebrities in treacherous locales, CelebAir, which follows a band of celebs acting as airline attendants, Celebrity Wedding Planner, which is self explanatory, and Britain's Worst Celebrity Driver. There's also Celebrity Scissorhands, Celebrity Super Spa, Celebrity Wrestling, Cirque de Celebrite, Commando VIP, Bear Grylls: Mission Survive, and something called I'm Famous and Frightened! Stars: strictly just like us.

Best Show in this Genre: Bear Grylls: Mission Survive

Why It's Great: Bear Grylls forces British celebrities to drink their own piss in the Costa Rican jungle.

When to Watch: When you want to feel superior to celebrities; if you're curious what an Olympic middle distance runner would do faced with the directive to slaughter a live boar.

Honorable Mention to These "Only in England" Perfect Shows

While shows like The Valleys prove the UK can do hard reality as well as any American show, gentle TV really is a special skill. To wit: The Great British Bakeoff, a competitive baking show starring stay-at-home moms and gay teachers from across Britain. The judgers are an 80 year-old cookbook author whose real name is Mary Berry and a silver-haired baker whose real name is Paul Hollywood. It is possibly the softest television ever created. Long-running classic Come Dine With Me is similarly chill, featuring regular Brits hosting pretty basic dinner parties for the pretty meager prize of £1000. From this show I learned that a not insignificant portion of British people consider printing out the lyrics to a song and having your guests sing it a cappella is considered acceptable party entertainment. Lastly, there is Gogglebox. A triumph of meta-reality programming, Gogglebox is a television show about people watching television. Cameras face out from the TV sets of various couples, families and roommates across the UK, and shows them reacting to the hot news stories, plot twists, and celebrity diving competitions of the week. It shouldn't work, but it's literally perfect and if you don't believe me, look at this:

The announcer basically sounds half asleep, and everyone is just very perfect in their own ways. Drunk posh couple, horny and in love elderly Northerners, and Brixton "roommates" Sandy and Sandra are all very good, but the show is so well cast it's impossible to choose a favorite from this army of heroes.

Further Honorable Mention to These Shows I've Never Seen, but Look at Their Names, my God

Animal Airport, Chaos at the Chateau, Flog It!, The House of Tiny Tearaways, Mary Queen of Shops, Boozed Up Brits Abroad, Are You Fitter Than A Pensioner, Death Wish Live.

Happy viewing, mates!

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