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Before Facebook and Instagram, reality TV
02:43 - Source: CNN

Programming note: Go back to the decade when TV shows broke all the rules: ‘The 2000s’ airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT starting July 8 on CNNTV and CNNgo.

CNN  — 

It’s the year 2000. There’s no such thing as “American Idol” yet, and the Kardashian zeitgeist is still a distant dream. It will be years before the big hair and Brooklyn fades of the Jersey Shore generation infiltrate our country’s beach houses and gym locker rooms. Housewives are still housewives. Bachelors are still bachelors.

But in the year 2000, a little show called “Survivor” changes all of that, and like a big bang filled with hair extensions, white wine and spray-on tans, the next decade explodes with seemingly endless permutations of reality TV.

You may remember it as a renaissance, fellow 2000’s survivor. But it was also a dark age.

Somehow, the decade that brought us enduring franchises like “American Idol,” “Big Brother,” The Bachelor/ette and yes, the Kardashians, also belched forth some of the most cringeworthy, socially problematic shows to ever taint the airwaves.

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The wackiest reality moments of the 2000s
02:05 - Source: CNN

It wasn’t just a matter of bad TV, it was a matter of bad taste – and of using the reinvigorated format of reality shows to play mad scientist with humanity’s most sensitive instincts.

Beauty standards, sexuality, dangerous behavior, ludicrously broad stereotypes and just plain bad judgment were all shaken, stirred, and exploited for maximum effect.

In fact, looking back on some of these unholy creations inspires not blushing nostalgia, but pure embarrassment. How did anyone every think this was a good idea, we ask ourselves in quiet judgment, and why did anyone watch it?

The shameless focus on beauty

Of course plenty of current shows, reality or not, focus on looks. It’s just part of it. But usually they have the common decency to pretend they’re about something else, too.

The 2000s didn’t bother with such pretense, and no discussion of bad reality TV can go anywhere without first mentioning “The Swan.”

This beauty reality competition premiered on FOX in 2004 and featured a group of “ugly ducklings” (plain-looking women) who were all given the chance to be turned into “swans” (hot-looking women). This metamorphosis involved extreme plastic surgery, diet and exercise regimens, orthodontia, metric tons of hair and makeup, and of course, a little therapy thrown in for good measure since contestants couldn’t look in the mirror for several months and when they finally did they saw a complete STRANGER staring back.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t the hastily-installed aftermarket breasts or the shameless premise that worried many contestants and experts who spoke out after the fact – it was the lack of psychological care given to the contestants before and after their “transformation.”

A scene from the Season 2 Premiere of 'The Swan,' in which someone appears to be getting a brand new face installed.

You’d think such a transparent show premise would spell single-season doom, but do not underestimate the depths of 2000s reality show depravity. “The Swan” enjoyed a full two seasons.

Of course, while it was pretty far near the bottom, “The Swan” was in good company when it came to bald-faced superficiality.

In fact, in 2003, ABC dropped all pretense and aired a show called, simply, “Are You Hot?” It was not, and was canceled after one season. The 2000s leaked into the 2010s, too, and produced a show called “Bridalplasty” in which women competed to win both a dream wedding AND a transformative plastic surgery package. Surprise! It too was a one-season wonder.

The glib treatment of sexuality

There are good LGBT reality shows (“Drag Race). There are not-so-good LGBT reality shows (“Finding Prince Charming”). Then, there are LGBT reality shows so unspeakably bad it’s a disservice to call them “LGBT” and we should probably all just go back to forgetting they ever existed.

Enter “Boy Meets Boy.” This 2003 Bravo reality show (whew, 2003 was a bad year) featured one gay bachelor and 15 eager male suitors. How progressive! How necessary! How real!

Oh right, except some of the male contestants were actually straight and the main bachelor didn’t know that. So, if he picked a gay guy, the two got all sorts of fun romantic swag. But if he picked a straight guy, surprise! Straight guy gets the prize and the bachelor gets nothing.

The single season of the show ended with the bachelor, James, choosing Wes, who turned out to be gay. So, you know, thank goodness for that.

"Boy Meets Boy" stars Andra Stasko (who played the role of "the best friend") and James Getzlaff ("the bachelor").

Because we never learn from our mistakes, 2015 brought us a similarly problematic TV special called “My Husband’s Not Gay.” It was about some wives and – you guessed it – their not gay husbands living devout Mormon lives in and around Salt Lake City, Utah. More than 70,000 people signed a petition asking TLC to cancel the special, and GLAAD’s CEO called the premise “downright irresponsible” for the way it portrayed sexuality as a choice.

The caricatures and stereotypes

Did you hear? Women are superficial and money-grubbing and being beautiful means being irreparably stupid! At least, that’s what 2000s reality TV wanted us to believe.

Who could forget “Beauty and the Geek,” the five-season reality show on the WB, and later CW, which paired up beautiful, but seemingly superficial women with smart, but seemingly socially inept men.

By the end, everyone usually talked about how much they learned from each other, but it didn’t change the fact that it hammered home-damaging and gendered stereotypes for both men and women. In season four, the show made a controversial change by pairing a male “beauty” with a female “geek.” But things went back to normal for season five. Couldn’t make that mistake again!

There were also plenty more opportunities to judge women with the several variations of “Millionaire” shows. There was “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?,” “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” and of course, “Joe Millionaire,” in which the twist was that the guy wasn’t actually a millionaire at all! He was a farmer or something! Take that, gold-diggers!

David Smith as one of the 'Joe Millionaire' non-millionaires. You can tell he's just a regular guy because he's standing in front of a hay bale.

To be fair, not all 2000s reality TV was bad – or at least that bad.

In fact, out of the ashes of the countless questionable reality TV tropes of the decade rose the phoenixes of some of the most influential entertainment dynasties of today.

American Idol” began in 2002, and is still limping along after churning out more than a dozen singing superstars. “The Real Housewives of Orange County” kicked off the “Housewives” franchise in 2006, and has pollinated the globe with its little covens of housewife drama from Athens, Greece to Akron, Ohio (or at least that’s how it seems). “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” started in 2007 and honestly it’s hard to remember what life was like before that.

Even some shows that held steadfastly to problematic 2000s-style molds, like the terrible life decisions featured in “Teen Mom” and its spinoffs (“Teen Mom 2, Electric Boogaloo”) have an enduring fandom who see the shows as harmless guilty pleasures rather than cultural oddities that merit a long, hard look in the collective mirror of society.

And you know what? If a grown woman or man wants to unwind from real reality by watching a curated reality in which a 17-year-old tries to make bail for slapping her teen husband in front of their toddler, then so be it! After all, if there’s one thing reality TV has never mastered, it’s reality itself.