Reality competition shows are usually about surviving, dating, or singing. Maybe even a combination of all three. But sometimes, reality television has tried to enter the realm of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Sometimes it’s worked, other times it’s failed spectacularly.

Here are modern TV’s most fascinating attempts to put genre into reality TV. Be sure to watch our video above for a look at each of the shows (which you probably didn’t tune in for in the first place) and how they fared. Spoilers: Most of them didn’t last that long! It goes to show that reality TV doesn’t really need genre to be fantasy. It does a fine enough job on its own.

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1. Murder in Small Town X (2001)

Back in 2001, Fox tried to capitalize on true crime shows and the reality television craze with Murder in Small Town X. In this show, 10 contestants were brought to the fictional town of Sunrise, Maine to investigate a series of grisly murders—and it was a huge undertaking. Dozens of actors were stationed around the real town of Eastport, Maine, providing clues to the investigators or generally causing drama. And the story was intense, as all the murders turned out to be connected to a decades-long conspiracy involving a secret society.

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Murder in Small Town X may have been a big project but that didn’t equal critical praise or ratings, and the show was dropped after one season. It’s unfortunate as it was a creative idea, but the show doesn’t exactly hold up after almost two decades. Besides, we have escape rooms now.

2. The Quest (2014)

Murder in Small Town X walked so ABC’s The Quest could run. One of the production teams behind Lord of the Rings handed themselves a huge undertaking by creating, well, a giant Live Action Role Play session. The Quest took place in the magical land of Everealm, as 12 players (or “Paladins”) competed in trials set by the queen to prove they were destined to wield the Sunspear against the evil Verlox.

The series was filmed in a giant castle and featured tons of extras—with elaborate monsters, villagers in distress, and lots of fancy words for “brave young heroes.” It was well-received but wasn’t renewed for another season. Luckily, the chapter’s not closed on this story yet: Disney recently announced they’re reviving The Quest for Disney+. Maybe that means we could see a Disney-fied quest for our new heroes, like a reality TV version of Once Upon a Time. After all, that’s basically the plot of Onward.

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3. Opposite Worlds (2014)

Syfy has done plenty of great reality shows for nerds, namely its cosplay and makeup competitions. Then, there’s Opposite Worlds which I personally consider to be one of the worst concepts and executions for a reality show. Opposite Worlds was branded as an “experiment” to see who would emerge as the superior human: A caveman from the Stone Age, or an enhanced being from the future.

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It was no contest: The future won. That’s because everyone in the past was stuck freezing to death in an open cave, wearing scraps of fake fur and eating fish heads. Whereas the folks in the future got treated to a true sci-fi utopia—or at least reality TV’s version of one. It came complete with “pheromone showers,” temperature-changing sheets, and an AI computer that totally wasn’t a producer in the back speaking into a distorted microphone.

The show was plagued with on-set injuries, in addition to the unevenly stacked competition, so it was no surprise it was scrapped after just one season. And good riddance too. Syfy’s better off with the cosplay.

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4. Kid Nation (2007)

Finally, the most infamous of all: Kid Nation. You might think this isn’t a genre reality show because it’s about a bunch of kids in the Old West. You’d be wrong. Kid Nation is full-on Lord of the Flies, venturing on Battle Royale. Seriously, a psychologist said these kids could’ve gone full Lord of the Flies if adults hadn’t been around behind the scenes.

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In this show from CBS, a bunch of kids were sent into a deserted town to build their own society—some became leaders, others laborers. Everybody became party to an awful caste system. Before it debuted, the show was so controversial it lost CBS advertisers and prompted the state of New Mexico to announce an investigation into whether the show violated child labor laws—though it was later dropped. The show had plenty of adults on set to keep the kids safe, but this was not a show that felt especially kind to children. Facing accusations of child exploitation or even endangerment, along with low ratings, CBS canceled Kid Nation.


Did you watch any of these reality shows when they originally aired? Any others you thought were particularly odd ideas? Let us know in the comments.

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Video Editor and Staff Writer at io9. My doppelganger is that rebelling greeting card from Futurama.

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DISCUSSION

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Michael M. Jones

Honorable Mention for Who Wants to be a Superhero?

Shown on the Sci Fi Channel (pre Syfy change), and hosted by Stan Lee himself, this show ran for two seasons in 2006 and 2007, and featured a whole passel of real life would-be superheroes as they competed for their very own one shot comic book and a Sci-Fi TV Movie.

Proving that you can have too much of a good thing, and that most of these people either didn’t get comic books at all, or got them too well, we were treated to such stalwart heroes as Fat Momma, Cell Phone Girl, Hygenia, and Monkey Woman. (Half of the contestants seemed created by committee and were muddled messes, the other half seemed created by Champions-style RPG rules, mix-maxed for your entertainment...) Throughout it all, Stan Lee mugged for the camera and chewed the scenery in typical Stan Lee fashion.

The winner of Season One, Feedback, appeared in the Sci Fi movie... MEGA SNAKE. Because of course he did.

The winner of Season Two, Defuser, appeared in the Sci Fi movie... LIGHTNING STRIKES, starring Kevin Sorbo. Dun dun duuuuuun.

Given that this competition aired before Iron Man even came out and thus before the real superhero movie boom, I can only assume this show was the victim of bad timing, an attempt to capitalize on reality competition shows and/or Stan Lee... even the relationship of this to the real life superhero movement seems awkwardly situated.

There was also a kids’ version which aired in the UK for a season.

If you ask me, it’s past time to bring this concept back and make it even more ludicrous. :)

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