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Reality TV Shows That Make You Think — A Little

Reality TV shows are synonymous with trash, and they are America’s dirty secret. If everyone was watching 60 Minutes instead of Jersey Shore, we might talk more about human rights than Haterade. But trash it is, and it’s more popular than ever. Every network has a brand of hillbilly, housewife, or humiliation designed to bring in ratings and advertising. But admitting that you like mindless programming is embarrassing. How can you impress your boss or significant other by explaining the differences between the Bachelor, Bachelorette, and Bachelor Pad? You can’t. The good news is that you can watch reality shows without losing brain cells. A few reality TV shows give you a little more than sarcasm, screaming, and schadenfreude. Tune into these slightly less trashy programs for the drama and the culture.

Culture is a relative term, of course. For survival experts Cody Lundin and Joseph Teti, culture is what happens in the vast and wild lands they conquer on Dual Survival. Now in its third season on the Discovery Network, each episode sets up a survival situation in one of the world’s most hostile places: Africa, Romania, and Nicaragua have been recently featured. The two men have different ideas about how to re-find civilization: Cody is a barefoot bug-eater and Joe hunts for blood. Sometimes they quarrel, but mostly they get along as they iterate the maxim “never leave your partner alone unless you absolutely have to.” You’ll learn how to sterilize pond water, skin a rabbit, heal a wound with ants, carve a canoe from a log, and start a fire with flint. Watch long enough and you’ll want your own man-braids and Baja hoodie. Just don’t forget to sharpen your knife, too.

But culture isn’t always in the wild, as we know. It is also what happens on stage under a spotlight. Such is life for the members of Ballet West, a dance troupe in Salt Lake City featured on CW’s Breaking Pointe. Despite poor ratings in the first run, the young dancers will return in Summer 2013 for another season of blisters, auditions, and group-house living. The documentary style succeeds in dispelling ballet myths: For example, not all male dancers are gay! And the girls aren’t anorexic. In fact, they eat croissants, spaghetti, and ice cream. And gender doesn’t matter when it comes to martinis: this troupe loves to party. The competition among them is more complicated than the tutus, but the dances are stunning. Give it a try.

Reality TV doesn’t have to fun, right? If you don’t mind tapping into tears, head over to Intervention on the A&E Network. This long-running show documents the struggles of substance-abuse addicts about to be confronted by friends and family. For the first half, the featured substance abuser is unaware of the intervention that is about to happen. The camera records a typical day to learn more about what led up to such a sad situation. And then the intervention takes place, usually in a psychologist’s office. Tears flow as the addict’s loved ones read letters begging for change, and the user is forced to decide between rehabilitation or losing all support. Finding a comfort zone with this show can be challenging as viewers are indirectly asked to consider their own substance use or the possibility of intervening on an addiction affecting their own lives. This is a dark side of culture, but one that cannot be ignored.

Another program with a dark side is WE TV’s Secret Lives of Women. Make sure the kids are out of the room when this show starts (you’ll be forewarned by the dancing housewife/dominatrix in the title sequence), but pop some corn for an hour of engrossing expose. This show brilliantly expresses what we all know — people are perverts! And women might be especially so. Topics include polygamy, phone sex, open relationships, mistresses, and fetishes. But it’s not all about sex: Other perversions are shopping, plastic surgery, cults, and body modification. Every episode interviews a few women who admit to pursuing these problematic passions. So, if you ever wondered what it’s really like to be a vampire, then try this out. Secret Lives, which is officially still running, has five seasons with episodes appearing weekly. The network has not announced a new season.

Seasons come and seasons go, but — almost certainly — an Amazing Race will occur with every one. The 22nd race is now heating up on CBS. If you’ve been out of the loop, understand that this program about fiercely competitive globetrotters has been recognized with thirteen primetime Emmys for an outstanding reality-competition show. What’s the appeal? Some might say the travel fantasy that ensues as racers meet up with the world wonders, extreme sports, and mental puzzles leading the path to a million-dollar prize. The contestants confront their Western ways by eating strange food, begging for coins on street corners, bungee jumping from cliffs, executing difficult folk dances, and manipulating cab drivers everywhere from Brussels to Bangladesh.

A sixth show that has potential to stimulate your thinking is Boston’s Finest, on TNT. The first season, still underway, promises an honest picture of life in the precincts of a busy, bustling city. Unlike the crudeness exhibited on Cops, these cadets and officers in blue help us understand the complexities of crime and its sociological and cultural underpinnings.

There’s that word again: “culture.” Go get you some.

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