By Karina Kinik
Depending on whom you ask, reality TV is either one of the best or worst things to conquer the channels. (We happen to think it’s both.)
There’s no denying its prime time appeal, thanks to our culture’s insatiable appetite for personal stories that run the gamut from unknown-underdog-gets-the-well-deserved-limelight to two-bit-celebrity-implodes-on-air. But if you steer clear of shows that wallow in sleaze and self-promotional stunts (anything with a Kardashian, “real housewife,” or denizen of the Jersey Shore or Laguna Beach, for starters), you'll find programming with — gasp! — substance. Here are eight picks that skip the crudeness, conniving, and (for the most part) controversy for more civilized entertainment.
Discovery Channel; Plants airs October 17 at 7 p.m., Creatures of the Deep at 8 p.m., Insects at 9 p.m., and Primates at 10 p.m. (find more information on episodes here or buy the series here; also available on Netflix)
Ages 6 and up
OK, maybe Life isn't technically a reality show because the focus isn't on everyday people (or, actually, people at all), but what could be more thrilling — or real — than watching all manner of creatures and creepy-crawlies in high-definition glory? And learning about their struggle for survival from none other than narrator Oprah Winfrey? A follow-up to BBC's popular Planet Earth series, this 11-part program looks at all groups of animal (and some plant) life on all seven continents in breathtaking detail. Ever seen a Darwin beetle toss rival males — and even his sweetheart — from tree branches with the power of a professional wrestler? Or a school of flying fish soar through the air with the grace of ballet dancers? Didn't think so.
Frankly, this is one of few reality programs that will appeal to younger kids because of the striking visuals and easy-to-follow narrative. That said, as seen near the end of the aforementioned beetle and flying fish clips, episodes don't shy away from depicting animals, ahem, doin' what comes naturally: hunting prey and mating. If you’re worried that either will upset your squeamish children, definitely skip the Hunters and Hunted episode and be prepared to fast-forward through amorous interludes.
Bottom line: An eye-opening natural history series for animal lovers of (almost) any age.
National Geographic Channel, premiere airs November 7 at 8 p.m. (buy the series and accompanying books here)
Ages 6 and up
Animal lovers, rejoice (and make room in your TiVo queue): A new nature series, Great Migrations, is coming to the small screen this fall! And much like Life, this seven-part, Alec Baldwin-narrated program offers stunning high-definition footage of creatures great and small fighting for survival on our perilous planet. (If you think ants in your kitchen are a nightmare, just be grateful you’re not a red crab running afoul of yellow crazy ants on your way to the sea.)
We parents know that nature can be cruel, and Great Migrations doesn’t shy away from depicting what happens to those not strong or lucky enough to survive their arduous journeys. (The demise of one baby elephant in the sweltering African heat gives new meaning to the phrase “a place without pity.”) But if your kids can stomach the sad stuff, they’ll be rewarded with triumphs — and a deep appreciation of these amazing animals’ will to live. More-sensitive kids might want to skip this series.
Bottom line: At times tragic but always stunning, Great Migrations is a must for budding biologists.
Anyone who’s suffered through reality-TV train wrecks like The Swan (“ugly duckling” contestants undergo plastic surgery for a beauty pageant) and Toddlers and Tiaras (the title says it all) or any of the catfighting-, er, dating-themed shows knows that positive female role models are sadly lacking. (Not that men fare much better in this genre, but still.) Shield your kids from skewed stereotypes — and maybe even inspire them to embrace their inner nerd — with the refreshingly intelligent SciGirls. The premise is simple: Each episode features a group of tween girls tackling a science project of their choosing, from building a mini-wind farm to figuring out which horse would be the smoothest ride. No queen bees, mean girls, or wallflowers here — just articulate, curious girls who are too smart to dumb it down.
SciGirls also features sassy animated characters, Izzie and Jake, who introduce and close each episode — and encourage viewers to check out the show's interactive online features, where kids can learn about projects to try at home or submit their own ideas. Who says science isn't fun for girls?
Bottom line: Aimed at tween girls, this show makes science fresh and accessible for any young person curious about how the world works.
NBC, Fridays at 8 p.m. (or watch episodes online)
Ages 7 and up
TV execs and audiences alike love a good makeover show, and what better candidate for a televised transformation than our pitiful public schools? Fresh off the heels of Education Nation, a weeklong multimedia event looking at education reform, NBC is serving up School Pride, a new feel-good series in which communities come together to renovate their broken schools. Of course, this being reality TV, the volunteers only have 10 days to get it done — with a little help from a team of experts including an interior designer, a political reporter, and a substitute teacher turned comedian.
In this age of budget cuts and beleaguered teachers, it's hard to find fault with School Pride's mission of bringing together hope and action. The show's website even provides resources for those looking to get involved and make a difference in students' lives. We certainly don't need to remind GreatSchools readers what's at stake.
Bottom line: If it survives its Friday-night time slot, School Pride could inspire communities across the country to fix our educational system one school at a time.
Discovery Channel, Wednesdays at 9 p.m. (find more information on episodes here)
Ages 9 and up
Now in its eighth year, the Emmy-nominated MythBusters has settled such age-old questions as "Will combining Diet Coke and Mentos make your stomach explode?" (Relax, overprotective parents, it won't — though we certainly can't recommend it as a nutritious after-school snack.) New episodes tackle equally weighty topics like "How long can a person withstand a plane's wind stream?" and "Is it possible to fool a drug-sniffing police dog?" (Find out the answers here and — shaky canine camera alert! — here.)
Given the hosts’ predilection for dangerous experiments with firearms and explosions — they have backgrounds in special effects and model making after all — you may want to chant the following with your kids: “Repeat after me: Do not try this at home!” Nonetheless, the irreverent mishmash of physics, chemistry, biology, and good old-fashioned American ingenuity may spark older kids' interest in pursuing a science-related career.
Even President Barack Obama is a fan: He recently announced that he'll be appearing in an episode slated for December 8. The topic? Whether Greek mathematician Archimedes could've set fire to an invading Roman fleet using only mirrors and reflected sunlight.
Bottom line: This irreverent exploration of popular myths — and the science behind debunking them — is best suited for children who like their danger mixed with dry humor.
A&E, Fridays at 10 p.m. (find more information on episodes here)
Ages 13 and up (mostly because of the time slot!)
Yes, we’re talking about that Tony Danza. What’s the former star of Who’s the Boss? doing in the classroom at one of Philadelphia’s largest high schools? Good question. Whether or not you believe Danza’s explanation that he was motivated to do Teach: Tony Danza by President Obama’s call to service, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for the rookie instructor as he sweats and cries (it’s not a reality show without some tears, right?) his way through a year of teaching English to 10th graders.
Though you may question his credentials and methods — enough with pushing the hand sanitizer already! — Danza’s desire to do right by his students seems genuine. As for whether his good intentions and chatty-Cathy tendencies are any match for the wary teens and school staff, you’ll have to stick with the series to find out.
Bottom line: Parents and teens alike will have a newfound respect for teaching after watching Danza’s very public (and emotional) struggles at a Philadelphia high school.
ABC, Thursdays at 10 p.m. (or watch episodes online)
Ages 14 and up
Another show about doctors balancing emergency-room antics with their neglected personal lives? Yawn. But before you change the channel, keep in mind that Boston Med is far more real than anything you’ll see on Grey’s Anatomy — because the doctors, nurses, and patients are real. A follow-up to the award-winning Hopkins, this series (which originally aired this summer) was filmed over four months at three Boston hospitals. Which means lots of chaos, lots of cutting-edge procedures (two words: face transplant), and lots of blood.
Does your teen dream of becoming a doctor? This might be a good, if intense, introduction to the not-so-glamorous side of the profession, including 80-hour workweeks, potentially tragic outcomes, and the threat of malpractice suits. (The obstacles facing ob-gyn residents are especially daunting.) But understanding the sacrifices required by a demanding career is certainly not the worst lesson for kids to learn before they start college.
Bottom line: Intense and graphic, Boston Med shows teens the highs and lows of real-life hospitals.
MTV, Tuesdays at 11 p.m. (or watch episodes online)
Ages 14 and up
We wrote about this MTV series when it premiered over the summer, and our concerns about broadcasting teens’ real-life struggles and secrets remain. However, given the recent disturbing news about gay bashing and teen suicides, it might be worthwhile to see how the profiled schools tackle behavior that can lead to bullying.
Described as a “reality version of The Breakfast Club,” If You Really Knew Me follows high schoolers from different cliques (jocks, preps, and hair-dye-loving emos being the most common) as they participate in a one-day program to get past the labels that dog them. And whether it’s a small rural school in Washington or a large suburban one near Detroit, the issues are often the same: worries about fitting in and succeeding, varying degrees of social segregation, and lots and lots of drama. By allowing teens who don’t normally hang out to share their often-painful stories (like this sobering clip of a girl revealing her struggles with depression and cutting), program organizers hope to boost students’ understanding of — and empathy for — one another. Is it possible to effect such large-scale change in just one day? Maybe not, but surely efforts to see the person behind the football jersey, designer jeans, or goth garb are a step in the right direction.
Parents should note that swearing and discussions of drug use and sexuality are par for the course.
Bottom line: For teens mature enough to handle frank discussions of heavy topics, this show could change the way they view peers at school — and inspire them to become social workers.