Celebrating The 15th Anniversary Of The Trashiest Time In Reality TV History

Photo: Bob Riha Jr/WireImage.
Right now, Donald Trump, a reality TV star who was elected President of the United States, is involved in a will-they-won’t-they relationship with the leader of a Juche state that has nuclear weapons that could destroy us all. Every morning is a fun adventure about whether or not this will be the last day we see the sunrise. What a time to be alive.
Last week, however, some marvelous news crept through the fog of anxiety. Variety reports that USA network (home of Suits! They gave us Meghan Markle!) is considering reviving Temptation Island, one of the trashiest, most amazing reality TV shows of the early aughts. Variety notes that the show will most likely be changed a bit for the #MeToo era, which is probably a good idea. A 2001 Entertainment Weekly recap of an episode was titled “Heavy drinking leads to steamy lap dances.” That’s what led to trouble on Bachelor in Paradise.
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Nevertheless, the original, pre-woke Temptation Island was glorious in its time. It involved taking four incredibly good-looking couples and splitting them up so the men lived in a house with a dozen women models, and the women lived in a house with a dozen male models. For lack of a better word, temptation was all around them. But for me, the show was also a learning experience. A contestant named Genevieve confessed that she’d gotten her tubes tied, while her partner Tony revealed that he wanted 2.5 kids (it remains unclear how you have half a child). Awkward. But it was the first time I’d heard of the concept of getting one’s tubes tied. Until then, I thought a vasectomy was the only way to induce sterilization. The more you know, thanks to a reality show (do do do doooo).
I’d been slowly getting obsessed with reality shows for a while by the time 2003 rolled around. I used to go to my boyfriend’s house during lunch in high school to watch Blind Date (which ran from 1999 to 2006). I’m sure he was thrilled to be watching TV when we had the house to ourselves, but the heart wants what it wants — and it wanted to see Roger Lodge narrate uncomfortable blind dates before going back for AP Physics. I also forced him to watch Shipmates, hosted by Chris Hardwick, where two strangers had to go on a cruise together. Imagine being stuck on a Tinder date that lasts three days during which you’re stuck on a boat? Nightmares.
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When we hit 2003, though, the networks looked at early successes like Survivor and The Real World and thought “what if we did that, but garbage?” And filth they made. It’s the 15th anniversary of some of the most addictive, trashiest reality shows of all time. Let’s celebrate the shows that aired during that glorious time in 2003 right here.
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Temptation Island (2001-2003)

Network: Fox

As previously mentioned, seductive, sexy singles mingled with couples on a tropical island, yielding drunken hot tub romps and breakups. It was hosted by a man named Mark L. Wahlberg, who is not to be confused with Boogie Nights and The Fighter star Mark Wahlberg. He clearly got his name to SAG first. A bonus: Temptation Island was certainly part of the inspiration for 30 Rock’s show-within-a-show, MILF Island.
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Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica (2003-2005)

Network: MTV

The show that give birth to the question “Is it chicken what I have, or is it fish? I know it’s tuna, but it says ‘chicken by the sea.’” According to Complex (via IB Times), the show was originally conceived for Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley in 1994, which would have been a very different Newlyweds. Instead, it got shelved until 2002, when Simpson’s dadager Joe pitched it to MTV. The docuseries followed Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson, two very attractive singers who had just gotten married. Simpson really leaned into a “dumb blonde” persona (I hate to stereotype, but she did), while Lachey played the ever-henpecked husband. You can buy the show on DVD if you want to revisit the glory days of Simpson and Lachey, who separated in 2005.
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Rich Girls (2003-2004)

Network: MTV

Tommy Hilfiger’s daughter Ally and her best friend Jamie Gleicher were the subjects of this short-lived MTV gem. The show chronicled them being exactly what the name says: rich girls. They flitted around Europe, Nantucket, and New York, and that’s about it. The theme song was fantastic.
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Are You Hot? (2003)

Network: ABC

In the early aughts, there was a website called “Hot or Not,” where you would judge whether people were hot or not. If you’ve seen The Social Network, it’s kind of a prototype for the prototype of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg first invented so that Harvard students could judge the attractiveness of women on campus. At the time, Howard Stern also had a segment on his show called The Evaluators, which would do the same. The point here is that 2003 was a time when we were all about celebrating a very narrow ideal of what constitutes attractiveness, and everyone was okay with it because the body positivity movement didn’t yet exist. All of these factors led to a TV show, the short lived Are You Hot?, which billed itself as “the search for America’s sexist people.” Judges said things like, “You’ve got a really great body, but so what, chicken legs — I’m sure you can work that out.” It was a real self-esteem booster.
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The Bachelorette (2003-present)

Network: ABC

The Bachelor started in 2002, and America has been going on a “journey” with a heteronormative singleton looking to find love among 20-some-odd male suitors since then. While the show was more of an oddity at first, it soon gave way to tens of imitators (and UnReal, a fictionalized behind-the-scenes looks at the nefarious lengths producers will go to get a compelling storyline), all trying to capture that secret sauce of the mansion, dates in exotic locales like Fort Lauderdale, and rose ceremonies. Just like the runner-up in early presidential elections used to become vice president, so, too, does the runner-up in The Bachelor often become The Bachelorette. In 2003, Trista Sutter, said second-place finisher, became the first bachelorette. She is still married to the man she met on the show, Ryan Sutter. They have two children.
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Joe Millionaire (2003)

Network: Fox

TV executives didn’t have much respect for women in the early aughts. Case in point: shows like Joe Millionaire, which tried to trick them into falling in love with a man pretending to be rich. Isn’t that funny?! Duping unsuspecting women into developing an emotional connection to someone who is lying to them? Hilarious. Fox tried to write off the concept as acceptable because after a winner was chosen, Evan Marriott would reveal his secret to her, and if she chose to stay with him, the couple would be awarded $1 million. So basically, the woman would be walking away with $500,000 (less taxes, so probably more like $200,000) and a man who’d been lying to her for weeks. Cool cool cool.
7 of 16
The Simple Life (2003-2007)

Network: Fox

Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton, the daughters of a world-famous singer and a hotelier, respectively, were rich (they still are). They traveled to places where people in lower socioeconomic classes lived to gawk at them and learn about how the other half lives. This usually involved menial labor and a lot of cow shit and mud. That is not hot.
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Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (2003-2007)

Network: Bravo

Before Netflix dropped “for the straight guy” and launched a new fab five, the original culture gurus made over schlubby, heterosexual men and introduced viewers to vivacious, lovable gay men in the process. At the time, the portrayal of sexuality on TV was still mostly relegated to the straight and narrow, so it was almost revolutionary to see these five men being themselves on Bravo. The show did receive criticism noting that it was inherently implying that gay men were more fashionable and knowledgeable about culture, but for the most part, it was positively received. It won an Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program in 2004.
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Average Joe (2003-2005)

Network: NBC

This is basically the real-life setup of a million sitcoms where a gorgeous, successful woman is married to a layabout guy who says she nags him. On Average Joe, ordinary men tried to win the heart of a beauty queen. The woman was not told prior to the show that her contestants wouldn’t be conventional stunners. Once again, reality shows in the early aughts were not respectful of women as intelligent human beings who deserved happiness.
10 of 16
America’s Next Top Model (2003-present)

Networks: UPN, The CW, VH1

TYRA MAILLLLLLLLL. Tyra Banks and a panel of judges launched their search for the next supermodel in 2003, and they've been looking ever since (with a brief stint of Rita Ora as host). Banks was an honest, sometimes blunt mother figure to the women, who she genuinely cared about succeeding in the industry. In what is perhaps the most memorable moment, Banks disciplined a contestant named Tiffany for her attitude towards the competition.
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The Surreal Life (2003-2006)

Networks: The WB, VH1

In a setup similar to The Real World and Big Brother, celebrities were filmed as they just...existed (and did sporadic activities) in Glen Campbell’s former mansion. It is probably most remembered for the late Verne Troyer’s appearance on season 4.
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Punk’d (2003-2007, 2012, 2015)

Networks: MTV, BET

Ashton Kutcher tricked unsuspecting celebrities in a variety of somewhat cruel scenarios — basically celebrity Candid Camera, but mean. Remember when he made Justin Timberlake cry because he thought the government was seizing his home after he didn’t pay his taxes? That was nice of Kutcher to do. Bill Hader recently went on Watch What Happens Live to talk about how bad he felt punking Ashlee Simpson. Justin Bieber took over hosting duties when the show was revived in 2012. The English language is forever richer now that the word "punk" is also a verb.
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13 of 16
Boy Meets Boy (2003)

Network: Bravo

This queer version of The Bachelor showed promise. It was a step in the right direction for queer visibility on TV. Unfortunately, there was a twist. Sprinkled among the 15 contestants were a few men who identified as heterosexual. Still, executive producer Douglas Ross, who is openly gay, argued to The Advocate that, “We very specifically designed this show to challenge the viewer's preconceived notions about what it means to be gay and to be straight. We really wanted it to be an exploration of sexual politics and not sex.”
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Married By America (2003)

Network: Fox

Today, we have Married at First Sight and 90-Day Fiancé, but the first attempt at forcing strangers to marry on reality TV happened in our glorious year of 2003. Five couples who had just met were voted into engagements. They then went off to spend time on a ranch, during which a couples counselor would evaluate which two couples she thought had a fighting chance as man and wife. The final two pairs got to choose whether or not they would actually go through with the wedding. Neither one did. It did not get a second season.
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Paradise Hotel (2003)

Network: Fox

In what was kind of the proto-Love Island (although the British show is far more successful and addictive), conventionally attractive singles were sent to live in a luxury hotel where the goal was to stay the longest. Couples were forced to pair off and share rooms, and contestants would frequently get ejected from the hotel. The winner was awarded $250,000, which they had to decide whether or not to split with their partners. A very Solomonic choice.
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Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (2003-2012)

Network: ABC

To ease your pain from remembering all of these trashy shows, here’s one that didn’t make you feel like a terrible person for watching it. Ty Pennington hosted this reality confection in which he and a team would make over the home of a family undergoing some type of hardship. They had seven days to complete the work. The materials and labor were donated, and if the house was beyond repair, they would build a new one. Television can be warm and fuzzy sometimes.
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