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How I went from a smug observer of reality TV to a devotee

a man holds a woman and her leg in a dip dancing position as they both smile
Evan Agostini
Doug Hehner and Jamie Otis from "Married At First Sight" in 2019. The couple announced last month they are expecting twins, who will join siblings Henley, 6, and Hendrix, 3

Hear tt talk more about his reality tv faves in this episode of Cincinnati Edition.

How did I get bitten by the reality bug?

I've never been interested in Survivor or even the MTV OG reality series The Real World. I remember being a smug observer of the American Idol phenomenon when it began to infiltrate the cultural consciousness, but the show never truly held my attention for much more than the occasional song or two.

I suppose my feelings changed when I started dating my future wife (who I met via online dating) and we stumbled upon an early season of Bravo's Top Chef. There was more of a focus on the manufactured interpersonal drama between contestants in high pressure situations (much like the kitchens they were used to operating in), but the real draw derived from the fact that we're from families and cultures that love food and I've got a strong competitive streak that has only grown as I've aged. Watching chefs figure out how to cook and/or bake amazing dishes from around the world while competing for cash prizes and a chance to write features in food magazines was too good to be true. Truth be told, it felt like something I would want to do.

Stepping back from the hype and hysteria of what we typically think about when we talk about reality programming, we should consider the roots of the genre, which is documentary filmmaking. Filmmakers like the late Julia Reichert (a regional legend and documentary world icon) changed fact-based storytelling when they transformed talking head commentary into semi-confessional exchanges that placed audiences inside not just the events as they unfolded, but also deeper into the perspectives of the subjects. It wouldn't be long before television and now streamers sought to create stars out of these figures.

PHOTOS: Julia Reichert through the years

And so, here I am, sharing a few of my guilty pleasures with the hope that maybe, by the time you finish reading this piece, I will have enticed one or two of you to join with me and revel in the challenge of embracing a multi-versal genre that has expanded into something that, at times, is far better than reality.

Love Is Blind (Season 6 recently ended)

Most reality shows live and die based on the underlying premise. Love is Blind pitches itself as a social experiment in which 16 sets of people meet in pods (where they are not allowed to see each other or ask body/identity-specific questions) for what amounts to speed dating round robins until they sift through the riff raff and land on ideally one person they connect with via intimate conversations and decide to get engaged, so that they can finally meet face-to-face and embark on a whirlwind dating period leading up to their wedding. How many couples will make it to their wedding day, say "I do" and enjoy their happily ever after? There's always drama, but the most recent season featured messy romantic triangles, enough insecurities and personal inadequacies to keep a team of therapists busy for decades, and scant few real matches. Maybe love and justice should just hang it up or seek out better eye care because this level of blindness will eventually lead to the extinction of the human race.

Watch it on: Netflix

Married at First Sight (Season 17 recently ended)

Another social experiment and, in this case, no one really discusses the idea of arranged marriage in relation to this show, but for over a decade now, couples have agreed to be paired by three experts and meet their partners for the first time at the altar, followed by a honeymoon and an eight-week period of cohabitation in front of cameras and producers (along with a willing and eager audience), before making the decision to remain together or get a divorce.

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The recently ended season had a few surprises. Five pairs initially met at the altar and one bride decided to say no to the process after only the briefest glimpse of her intended awaiting her. The four other couples said "I do," but another ended things during their honeymoon. The jilted husband — who handled the situation with more grace than anyone had the right to — was given a second chance with a back-up bride weeks into the process. Did any couples make it past decision day? What started as a COVID guilty pleasure has become appointment television as my wife and I watch and compare our experience with online dating to the premise here. We've been together for almost 18 years, but each season of this show — and I'm waiting patiently for a Cincinnati edition — leaves me wondering if we would be able to stay the course under the microscope, especially in this social media age. That's why we watch, right?

Watch it on: Lifetime

Somebody Feed Phil (Season 7 currently available)

More of a travel show with a spotlight on food, Somebody Feed Phil offers a truly vibrant take on the world thanks to its host Phil Rosenthal (a producer and writer for Everybody Loves Raymond and Coach) who has an infectious innocence and charm that endears him to any and everyone he encounters around the globe. Quick with a gentle joke, a bright-eyed smile or a giddy dance as he tastes delicious treats, Phil always makes viewers feel like they are right next to him as he shares meals and cultural exchanges with people, whether everyday folks working in markets or celebrated writers, chefs and friends from the entertainment world who Zoom in at the end of each episode to share jokes with him in honor of his father Max. My wife and I, during a trip to Spain, sought out one of his featured restaurants in Barcelona and not only had an amazing meal, but we were able to have our picture taken with the owner, in true Phil style, and I have to say, it felt like a bucket list experience. Thank you, Phil!

Watch it on: Netflix

Top Chef (Season 21 episodes available weekly)

A new season of the granddaddy of cooking competitions finds audiences checking in to see how the show moves on after the departure of celebrity host Padma Lakshmi, who prior to leaving the Top Chef family had already established herself as a staple of the food and travel world with Taste the Nation. Her esteemed co-hosts, chef Tom Colicchio and food writer Gail Simmons, have been joined by Top Chef winner Kristen Kish. Top Chef has not only introduced the world to a number of top-light chefs from around the world, but also spawned a generation of new food stars who have taken over the airwaves. Again, my wife and I are such adherents to the Top Chef brand, when we travel to cities across the United States, we begin our searches for things to do by figuring out if there's a former Top Chef contestant with a restaurant near our destination. That's such a foodie thing to do and there's no shame in our game.

Watch it on: Bravo

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Next Level Chef (Season 3 episodes available weekly)

Speaking of Top Chef alumni, Next Level Chef features two — Top Chef: All-Stars winner Richard Blais and Nyesha Arrington — alongside culinary tough guy Gordon Ramsey as they battle-test professional chefs, home cooks and social media/food bloggers to determine who deserves the opportunity to earn a year-long mentorship from the three of them as well as a ton of cash to fund a dream project. The competition is rigorous and not always fair. There are three kitchen levels (the basement, for instance, looks and feels like a dorm room crime scene where even convenience store ramen goes to die) and a floating platform with ingredients that stops for about 30 seconds on each floor, which is just long enough for contestants to grab three or four items while trying not to fall head-long into the basement with their hands tightly wrapped around that one prized protein capable of securing a coveted challenge win. Despite the manufactured nature of the competition, I continue to marvel at the unparalleled ingenuity and creativity of some of these cooks. Real chops and skills always rise to the top.

Watch it on: Fox

Moonshiners: Master Distiller (Season 5 episodes available weekly)

I had to save the best guilty pleasure for last. Master Distiller is the only one of these shows I watch by myself (and quite gladly). I giddily watch the three moonshining hosts (Mark Ramsey, Tim Smith and Digger Mains) as they lay claim to one of the richest and most American traditions around. The show is a competition, featuring three contestants who either have learned moonshining on their own or work for official distilleries around the country, but I tune in for the knowledge and love of spirits. Much like wine, there is a whole culture built around the creation of liquors, which is endlessly fascinating. As the least handy person I know, the show provides an armchair master's level of education on making a mash, building a still and employing a variety of techniques to produce bold and intoxicating flavors. Sadly, for the folks leading distillery tours in Kentucky, I have become that guy who asks way too many questions about their mashes, as if I know better, but I do it out of genuine love and appreciation. If I could live my life over again, I would dedicate myself to learning spirit distillation to the point that I could shake a jar of liquor and read the beads to determine the proof. It doesn't get more real than that to me.

Watch it on: Discovery

tt stern enzi has spent 20 years as a freelance writer and film critic in the Greater Cincinnati region covering the film industry and film festivals while also earning distinction as an accredited critic on Rotten Tomatoes and membership in the Critics Choice Association.