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Must-see reality TV

Eight reality shows that won't rot your kids' brains (or yours). 100% Kardashian-free!

By Karina Kinik

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Separating the worthy from the unwatchable

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.

Next:  Life »

Karina Kinik is an associate editor for GreatSchools.

Comments from readers

"I know that some Mythbusters episodes can now be seen on Netflix."
"Great article, thanks, please add 'World of Jenks' to the list. "
"Ok the nature programs are one thing, but to include an MTV show loses credibility. There is a reason they say 'so called reality TV.' Those shows are edited to give the audience a specific view. I have heard former survivor contestants talk about how the show is edited. Example; that tribal council is hours long. We did watch Life and we loved it. The first two would be the only ones I would ever recommend."
"Great video! All kids should get a chance to se this."
"How about 'Amazing Race'?"
"One problem I have is labeling the cliques jocks, preps, and hair-dye-loving emos. When I was in high school, some people were more into art and music than others. Some were more into sports than others. Some smoked pot sometimes. Some drank sometimes. Some got good grades. Some were more into clothes than others. There really wasn't anyone who was only one of these things. Most people are on a sliding scale in all of those categories. I haven't seen the show, but the description above makes it sound like it is encouraging kids to be 'understanding' of the other categories, instead of acknowledging that to some extent they are actually in a lot of the other categories."
"I am going to set our TVO to tape as many of these programs suggested in your article as possible! We are already watching 'Teach' which provides an amazing look at school life from a teacher's perspective. Thanks for suggesting all these great programs! "
"There are a ton of kids shows that are far more interactive than the ones here. For example, try 'Fetch' on PBS, a reality show for the younger set where the kids have to solve problems, build things and do reenactments, while being cheered along by Ruff Ruffman a cartoon dog with a wisecracking sense of humor."
"Great Suggestions... don't forget stuff like Pawn Stars (the name is not great, but the show is awesome) and American Pickers. Both shows are a history lesson every episode. My boys, ages 12 and 14 love them! (and so do I, which is also nice, something we can watch together!)"
"For folks who prefer to hear narration by people literate in the subject matter at hand, the BBC has put out a second version of LIFE whose narrator is the preeminent biologist David Attenborough. Having bought this series and compared it to Oprah's, I have to say there really is no comparison. So, to the idiotic rhetorical question in the text above - 'what could be more thrilling or real than learning about struggle and survival from none other than Oprah Winfrey?' - I'd say 'learning about Life from someone who actually comprehends the words coming out of his mouth.'"
"I can't believe you left out Amazing Race! I've learned a lot about geography and culture from that show."