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While 2011 may not go down in history as the year in which reality television broke its somewhat staid molds and delivered groundbreaking, outside-the-box programming, there was, by and large, enough tinkering to keep things interesting.
The best new shows of the past 12 months seemed to share in the realization that America is a big, diverse place, with no shortage of interesting subcultures that lend themselves perfectly for episodic television.
The cultural immersion proffered by reality producers this year led us to rediscover places like Dearborn, Michigan, the setting for TLC’s All American Muslim, which has sparked controversy among those threatened by the idea of Muslims among us.
On Bordertown: Laredo, A&E’s gripping look at the rise of Mexican drug cartel smuggling into the U.S., the Hispanic detectives in Texas fighting on the front lines feel right out of a Cormac McCarthy novel.
Thanks to Mob Wives, VH1’s gritty version of the Real Housewives franchise, Staten Island, N.Y. has taken on a new identity as a borough teaming with women who soldier on at life while their husbands, boyfriends and fathers do time in federal penitentiaries.
Simply locating viewers in an unfamiliar landscape isn’t enough to guarantee a successful show, however, especially if its characters don’t bring much to the table.
Lifetime’s Russian Dolls squandered the chance to illuminate the multi-generational complexities of Brighton Beach’s immigrant community in favor of Jersey Shore-esque crassness.
The World According to Paris Hilton, NBC’s short-lived testament to the heiress’ vanity, promised an inside look into its star’s inner sanctum, and turned out to be every bit as banal as its outward one.
Attempting to replicate a successful ratings formula, Basketball Wives: LA, VH1’s expansion of the franchise, showed that even guilty pleasures have their limit. Concocted, forced, and mean spirited, the point of watching grown women scream at each other was even less apparent than the need for the program’s redundant reunion show.
Following that more is less trend, FOX and Simon Cowell’s X Factor seemed to overplay its hand at every turn of its first season in its bid to displace American Idol as the new gold standard in singing competitions. And while it succeeded in generating the requisite buzz that such shows need to survive, the proceedings themselves were often way off key.
Viewers in search of genuine boundary pushing were better off turning to Discovery’s Weed Wars, which thrust the debate over medical marijuana into the homes of millions of Americans in a more graphic way than it had been to date.
So, to recap, producers who keep digging for fresh stories and who are not afraid to tackle potentially controversial material seemed to deliver solid shows in 2011. Those who simply sought to replicate high ratings or who phoned in celebrity status in place of actual dramatic tension, however, did not.
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