Way too 'Extreme': Trashy reality shows' comeback makes TV revolting again

Kelly Lawler, USA TODAY

You can’t fix systemic poverty with a hug and a kitchen island. 

Also: Losing weight through extreme and unsafe methods can cause harm. Every parent is different. And wives probably belong with the spouses they originally married. 

American TV viewers learned these lessons in the early 2000s when a certain kind of morally odious reality TV show proliferated on network television, epitomized by "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," “The Biggest Loser” and “Supernanny.” These series conjured powerful, primal feelings in their heyday, whether that was loathing, schadenfreude or joy. The producers also exploited anyone who came into their orbit to tug on some emotional heartstrings to deliver ratings.

And for some reason, almost two decades after this unfortunate period of pop culture, trashy reality shows are coming back en masse. 

Host Jesse Tyler Ferguson leads the charge with designers Breegan Jane, Carrie Locklyn, Darren Keefe, as volunteers march to see the Washington family in West Athens, California on an episode of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."

Several reality shows that were popular on the broadcast networks in the 2000s have been revived, mostly on basic cable with flashier 2020 graphic design but decidedly turn-of-the-century values. USA Network revived “Loser” (which aired on sibling NBC from 2004-16) with a supposed focus on health instead of weight loss. HGTV brought back “Home Edition” (ABC, 2003-12) – a spinoff of plastic surgery-focused "Exteme Makeover" – with Jesse Tyler Ferguson as host. Lifetime called dibs on Jo Frost (now with more highlights in her hair) and “Supernanny” (ABC, 2005-11). 

All have returned just in the last two months. Ever since ABC revived Fox's “American Idol” in 2018, we've been besieged with a flurry of these revivals:  Netflix did “Queer Eye,” Paramount Network has “Wife Swap” and MTV sent “Jersey Shore” on a vacation. USA also has "Temptation Island." YouTube is trying to make Paris Hilton happen again with a forthcoming documentary about her life that promises to be a more authentic depiction than the “character” on Fox's hit “The Simple Life” (2003-07). And HBO Max is essentially aping “The Apprentice” (2004-17) with "The Big Shot," a new reality show featuring Bethenny Frankel from the producer Mark Burnett, in which contestants compete to work as her underling. 

Contestants Kristi Mccart, Katarina Bouton, Teri Aguiar, Jim Dibattista, Domenico Brugellis on "The Biggest Loser."

The desire to bring back recognizable titles is understandable in an industry that is desperately trying to adapt to modern technologies and viewing habits: Reality TV is far from the only genre in the remake/revival/reboot business these days. But every rehash’s level of success, both critically and commercially, relies on the ability to update with changing times, and most of the shows on this list have soundly failed to do so. Like low-rise boot cut jeans and butterfly clips, these catty, tasteless series are tied to that era.

Take “Loser,” which has always been dangerous for its contestants and the population of plus-size people, as scientific studies have shown. The new version spouts buzzwords about healthy lifestyles and therapy, but remains singularly focused on weight loss at all costs for its participants, who are still routinely humiliated. 

“Extreme,” at first glance, seems like a natural fit for HGTV’s remodeling-obsessed audience, but it has very little in common with the network’s most successful series, like the recently concluded “Fixer Upper” or "Property Brothers." The inspiration-porn of a TV show ignores a big part of what's successful on HGTV now: Before-and-after reveals, accessible design, and realistic budgets. 

Money is meaningless on “Extreme,” which is built upon bestowing the largesse of a free house on a deserving family (and while we are on the subject of “deserving,” who says HGTV has the right to make that call any more or less than ABC did?)

The design is not nearly as important as the emotion of the family receiving a home, and the camera never lingers on the house, which is often new, rather than a thoughtful, surprising renovation. The designers  aren't nearly as talented as the people behind “Good Bones” or “Property Brothers,” preserving the “Extreme” tradition of building ugly McMansions that celebrate excess (and could potentially lead to financial problems for the beneficiaries, no matter how careful the builders are to keep it within the family's means). 

Full of product placement (far more distracting than it ever was on ABC, thanks to a smaller budget on cable) and constant sobbing, “Extreme” is not easy watching like the rest of the network's offerings. HGTV is made for lounge-around-on-a-couch-you-wish-was-green-velvet watching. Having your heart wrenched is exhausting, and does not lend itself to casual viewing. 

Jo Frost and one of the kids she works with on Lifetime's "Supernanny."

The other programs similarly fail to adapt. “Supernanny” may talk about limiting screen time to keep up with modern parenting fears, but the show is still an exercise in judging people deemed bad parents. “Wife Swap” has remained essentially the same, even as modern marriages evolve.  “Idol” no longer produces superstars on the level of Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood – the music industry finds the next Billie Eilish elsewhere. 

“Queer Eye” stands out as the lone bright spot among the retreads. Although Netflix doesn't disclose ratings, the pop-culture footprint of this reboot far outstrips the others, and has made several of its new "Fab Five" stars household names. The series has eyes for more than merely straight guys in this iteration, adding a welcome diversification of stories. The point of the series is less a physical makeover and more a consumerism-driven therapy session. It’s not perfect, but it doesn’t feel jarring, either. 

It's not just that these series fall flat – audiences are simply not drawn to them the way they were when this kind of reality TV dominated the conversation. Ratings are far lower for the returned series than they ever were at their height, especially in an era of ever-declining live viewing. Fundamentally, the culture has moved on, as TV networks desperately cling to what once worked.

In the past two decades, TV has made monumental strides, and not just in the sheer number of series on the air. Hollywood is starting to be mindful when it comes to  worldviews, whether that means a focus on diversity and inclusion or being accurate about mental health information. But like a toddler desperate to get back to diapers and bottles, there is a seemingly constant temptation to regress to the easier days of irresponsibility and tawdry drama. 

 Eventually, we all have to grow up. 

Reality repeats itself:

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Reality TV: Early 2000s trashy shows are back and worse than ever