The early 2000s was a completely different time. Social media (in the form of Myspace) was barely starting, "influencer" was not a job description, and Kim Kardashian was still organizing Paris Hilton's closet. TV producers had just figured out that they didn't need scripts to make good entertainment, and they started turning out low-budget reality TV shows in droves. These shows, with their insane concepts, complete lack of political correctness, and bizarre contestants proved essential and formative viewing for the teens and tweens of the time. Reality TV may never be as bonkers or as joyful as it was in the early 2000s, but we will never forget these 17 long gone shows that, for better or worse, shaped a generation.
The Swan first premiered on FOX in 2004. Like many reality TV shows of its era, it was deeply problematic and paid little attention to the consequences of its own actions. The premise was this: a group of plain women competed to see who could be transformed into the most beautiful "swan." The transformation involved extreme dieting and plastic surgery. The show culminated in a beauty pageant in which the women would be judged on their new appearances. Full yikes. The show's premise went on to inspire a slew of similarly problematic shows that focused solely on the physical aspects of their contestants' appearances. Let's just say we're not clamoring for a reboot anytime soon.
Boy Meets Boy, which premiered on Bravo in 2003, was one of the first reality TV shows that highlighted a gay star searching for same-sex love. Before you start seeing this a victory for representation, just wait. While the star of the show had 15 contestants to chose from, the twist was that he wasn't aware that all of the contestants weren't actually gay. Yeah, that's right, some of the contestants were straight men who were actively trying to fool the lead. If one of the straight men was chosen, he got the entire prize and the lead got nothing. So yeah, this one was totally messed up.
Do you like outdated gender stereotypes? Then this reality TV dating show, which premiered on The WB network in 2005, might be for you! In Beauty and the Geek, beautiful but supposedly superficial and unintelligent women were paired with supposedly smart, but socially awkward guys. We guess that the point was to learn there's more to everyone than what meets the eye, but this show actually did more to enforce gender stereotypes than it did to make any statements on the perils of judging a book by its cover. If you want to know the deep depravity of early '00s reality TV, just know that this show went on for a full five seasons . We promise to never complain about the Kardashians again.
Regina Wagner/Future Image/WENN.com
The cultural dominance of the Simpson sisters is a strange quirk of the early 2000s that is often forgotten. While Ashlee Simpson never achieved the same cultural ubiquity as her older sister Jessica, she was relevant enough to merit her own reality show, The Ashlee Simpson Show, which aired on MTV from 2004 t0 2005. The first season of the show chronicled the writing and recording of Ashlee's first album, Autobiography, which debuted at number one on the Billboard charts. On the show, Ashlee tries to carve out her own niche, separate from her sister and other teen bubblegum pop artists of the 2000s. We can probably credit Ashlee and her TV show for inspiring an emo phase in legions of younger sisters who wanted to prove that they were different.
It's important to remember that in 2003 when Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey agreed to do a reality TV show documenting the beginning of their marriage, it wasn't seen as trite money grab of the sort that The Bachelor alums and D-list celebs do. It was new! It was exciting! People really wanted to know all the details about the marriage between these two hot young musicians. Unfortunately, Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica would become a cautionary tale for every couple who was tempted to let cameras into the inner workings of their relationship. Leveraging your relationship to make reality TV drama doesn't exactly work out. Jessica and Nick filed for divorce in 2006 after three seasons of Newlyweds. Luckily, Jessica's infamous confusion over whether tuna is chicken or fish will last forever.
Pimp My Ride, which aired on MTV from 2003 to 2007, was ludicrous, 2000s fun all the way through. The premise was simple enough — each week a customer would come in with a boring, run of the mill car, and the team would turn it into some sort of themed, impractical monstrosity. It was *wonderful.* A Surfer got a clothes dryer in his backseat while a badminton player got a net installed in his car. The show was hosted by rapper Xzibit and occasionally guest stared Chamillionaire. It spawned multiple overseas adaptations, including a Pimp My Ride UK and made every teenager ultimately dissatisfied with their perfectly normal and perfectly functional ride.
We truly did not deserve the masterpiece that was Punk'd. The MTV show, which ran in its original format, hosted by the beloved Ashton Kutcher, from 2003 to 2007, pranked all of our favorite celebrities. Punk'd was really the best of a robust genre of prank shows and it was delightful both for its audacity and the fame of its guests. We loved seeing normally calm and collected celebrity guests swept up in bafflement, confusion, and occasionally terror as they tried to make sense of what was going on around them. It was nice to know that no matter their level of fame, everyone is just as capable of feeling completely blindsided. It helped that Ashton Kutcher's lovable frat bro demeanor made it feel like Punk'd was all in good fun, not matter how crazy things got.
MTV really pulled more than its weight when it came to reality TV programming in the early aughts. My Super Sweet Sixteen documented the over-the-top sixteenth birthday parties of spoiled teens around the country. We watched half in horror, half consumed by jealousy as the teens featured in the show cried over luxury cars and overspent budgets. While we were proud that we were much more well behaved than the kids on the show, we sort of secretly hoped that we would have equally fantastic birthday parties when our turn came. I mean, who wouldn't want to be carried into their birthday party by a group of hot dudes?
Yet another MTV staple, Parental Control featured parents who were unhappy with their child's choice of boyfriend/girlfriend and wanted to replace them. The parents picked a slate of potential replacements for their son/daughter to date. The unfortunate child then had to go on a series of dates with the parent-approved suitor... while the parents and current S/O watched on the living room TV. At the end of the dates, the child chose between their current boyfriend/girlfriend and one of the parental options. Of course, the kid almost never broke up with their current significant other. The whole thing was clearly scripted and full of terrible actors, but the sheer joy of spending a sick day watching strangers make horrible romantic decisions would kickstart many enduring Bachelor addictions.
Room Raiders was a reality dating series we definitely want to see rebooted. The series, which debuted in 2003, was a dating show premised on the fact that the contestants would never meet. Instead, each week one group would raid the others' rooms and make their decisions based on the rooms' contents. The show also featured a gross segment during which each room was inspected with a blacklight. You can use your imagination to picture what most teenage boy's rooms look like under a blacklight. It's not too pretty. In 2005, the show featured a pre-fame Zac Efron and it is everything.
In Rock of Love, 20 women competed for the heart of rocker Bret Micheals. The VH1 reality series aired for three seasons, and sadly did not end in any long term relationship for Bret Micheals, who turned down the offer of a fourth season in order to film Bret Micheals: Life As I Know It. Never before had reality TV seen such a leading man as the bandana-sporting Bret Micheals, and sadly it never will again. The show was known for its outspoken contestants and their skimpy outfit choices. We miss its wild, anything-goes attitude, which would make the most dramatic of the dramatic on The Bachelor look like a walk in the park.
Like so many dating shows in the early days of reality TV, Next was high risk, low reward. Contestants, who would be 'nexted' off of their date at any time, only earned one dollar for every minute they were on the date. In exchange, they risked being brutally rejected on national television. Next is worth watching for the ridiculous bullet point bios that every contestant had. It's also worth watching in order to reminisce about a world before Tinder and Bumble when such high-speed dating seemed like the height of reality TV ridiculousness.
The Simple Life defined an entire pop culture era. The show chronicled the misadventures of heiresses Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie as they tried to live the lives of everyday Americans. The Simple Life launched Paris and Nicole's much-documented friendship and also introduced the general public to their dumb blonde on-screen personas. The roots of our current Kardashian obsessed culture can be found in The Simple Life, which taught America how much it loved to hate rich girls with TV shows. We miss the campy fun of watching Paris and Nicole gleefully fail at every task they were assigned. Sadly, The Simple Life ended after five seasons in 2007.
You probably don't know this, but modern meme culture owes Flavor of Love a deep and unpayable debt. The VH1 reality show documented rapper Flavor Flav's search for love. But while Flavor Flav never found the love of his life, the internet did find a lasting connection in the form of first season contestant Tiffany Pollard. If you don't recognize Tiffany's name, you certainly recognize her face. Her shocked exclamations about Beyoncé have become legendary meme material, and all of our lives have been made better by Tiffany's presence on the internet. It's also worth noting that Tiffany was the show's runner-up two seasons in a row, which might be an unprecedented feat in the history of reality TV dating. The show ended after its third season in 2008.
Tila Tequila has let us down in too many ways to count. She's publicly antisemitic and pro-Hilter. In 2015, she was kicked off of the British version of celebrity Celebrity Big Brother when antisemitic pictures and comments surfaced from her Facebook page. But in 2007 when A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila aired, we didn't yet know that Tila was a neo-nazi, and the show made waves for being the first major bisexual dating show in the US. We should have known that Tila made chronic bad decisions when she picked Bobby Banhart over the fan favorite Dani Campbell. JS.
In 2001, Fear Factor was the gross obsession that we couldn't look away from. The show, which aired on NBC until 2007 and was briefly revived for one season in 2011, made us seriously question what we would do for $50,000. The show was supposed to be NBC's answer to CBS's wildly successful show Survivor, but Fear Factor had an added edge of being downright gross. Like a slow-motion trainwreck, you just couldn't look away as contestants ate bugs and faced death in order to battle it out for the prize money. Publicly we said, "Yeah, I'd do that." But secretly we knew there wasn't enough money in the world to make us sit in a bathtub full of snakes.
Disney Channel's Bug Juice followed a group of campers over the course of a summer as they navigated all the highs and lows that come with sleep away camp. It was like The Real World, but with kids. The show ran for two seasons between 1998 and 2001 and it hits all of the right buttons on our endless 90s nostalgia. Disney rebooted the series in 2018, this time under the name Bug Juice: My Adventures at Camp. Thankfully for those of us who are still hung up on our camp days, the reboot is slated to return for a second season this year.