12 Reality Shows Where The Early Seasons Are Almost Unrecognizable

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Vote up the reality shows with early seasons that feel like ancient history.

Reality shows come and go. A new show might fail to find an audience and end after one or two seasons. Those that gain a fanbase, though, can last for years and become major turning points in the TV landscape, inspiring pervasive memes, signature catchphrases, and legions of copycat shows from other networks.

The longest running reality shows inevitably change and grow, so much so that their beginnings can look like an entirely different show than the more modern era. This list highlights these types of long-running reality shows where early seasons can sometimes feel like cracking open a time capsule to bygone eras. Sometimes that means nicer cameras; other times, it's an entire different ballgame.

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  • 1
    16 VOTES
    Survivor
    Photo: CBS / CBS

    How It Started: Early seasons of Survivor lived up to the name by putting a large emphasis on the "survival" aspect. Plenty of screen time was dedicated to the castaways trying to make fire or feed themselves, since this was considered the core gimmick that distinguished the show from other competition series. Additionally, many strategies that are now considered obvious were revelations in Season 1, like the mere concept of an “alliance.” Many features that fans now consider staples of the show, like hidden immunity idols or other advantages, simply didn't exist, and players had to escape elimination through their strategy and charisma alone.

    What It Is Today: Since the show's became more of a phenomenon, most contestants arrive already super-fans familiar with the strategies from past seasons. Hence, the show itself dedicates much more screen time to players explaining their complicated strategies and alliances, as well as allowing twists in the middle of Tribal Councils that throw off the voting. Other twists like switching up Tribes, allowing eliminated players to return without warning, and so on, have been added to keep players from getting too comfortable with the rules. Fans may miss some aspects of the old seasons, like switching up the location each season (lately, the show stays in Fiji), and the loss of the original intro music, but the core aspects of the show–voting, betrayals, and infamous host Jeff Probst–remain in place.

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  • 2
    7 VOTES
    Big Brother
    Photo: CBS / CBS

    How It Started: Big Brother has always followed strangers locked in a house and have to compete in various challenges to avoid being “evicted.” The host, Julie Chen Moonves, has been there since the start, but early seasons had some other quirks that have since disappeared. For example, there were pets and animals around the house for houseguests to interact with, but that proved too difficult for production to maintain. The early seasons also focused far more on the social aspect of strangers locked in a house, and far less on the competition aspect. Houseguests themselves didn't get to vote on who was eliminated at all; only viewers did.

    What it Is Today: Now, the game has evolved to be a much more complex competition with evolving challenges, rules, and gimmicks for each season. Houseguests fight to win immunity from eviction, the power to be the Head of Household and nominate others for eviction or other privileges. The audience votes have less impact than they did in early years; viewers still get to vote on fan favorites, but no longer get to vote on who gets evicted. The evolution of the internet has also expanded the way the audience can engage with the show with the availability of 24/7 live feeds that show what the contestants are doing in between episodes. Dedicated fans can not only see more content, but also influence the show in new ways, such as when fans questioned the production team about why one contestant's racist remarks that they'd seen on the live feed were edited out of the produced episode. It's not just Big Brother who's always watching, in the newest seasons: the fans are, too. 

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  • 3
    27 VOTES
    The Challenge
    Photo: MTV / MTV

    How It Started: You probably don't remember the first season of The Challenge, because it went by a different name: Road Rules: All Stars. It changed to The Real World/Road Rules Challenge with Season 2 to pull in past contestants from MTV's signature 1990s reality shows, The Real World and Road Rules. Former housemates and RV drivers teamed up together for a series of semi-extreme and sometimes just embarrassing physical competitions to win a cash prize. It wasn't until Season 19 that the title was shortened to The Challenge. Early seasons featured simple games, like rolling down a hill in a hamster ball or performing in an improv show, and lacked the themes that later seasons would become known for, like "Battle of the Exes" or “Double Agents.”

    What It Is Today: Since the show's inception, casting has expanded to other MTV and Viacom-produced programs like Are You The One?, Love Island, and even Survivor, no longer limited to only former cast members of The Real World or Road Rules. However, one unique aspect of this show compared to other reality competition is the frequency of contestants returning, like Johnny "Bananas" Devenanzio, who competed on over 20 seasons and won eight times. As players like Johnny Bananas return, they gain a reputation, which affects how new players interact with them. Competitions grew more creative, and more extreme, such as teams trying to detonate sticks of dynamite in an opposing team's bunker without getting blown up themselves. The Challenge has remained one of MTV's most popular reality shows due to giving viewers what they want: more fan favorites, and more crazy feats for them to tackle.

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  • The Real World
    Photo: MTV / MTV

    How It Started: The Real World began with a simple premise: seven strangers living in a house together, as they navigated their jobs and lives. It utilized simple handwritten-style chyrons to remind the viewers of everyone's names. Early seasons were praised for dealing with controversial but relevant topics; for example, Season 3 featured Pedro Zamora, one of the first people on TV to openly discuss his experience living with AIDS.

    What It Is Today: Later seasons retained the same core concept of young adults living together, but there are more structured group activities, such as group vacations, or running a business together. The episode length increased from half-hour to hour with Season 20, and the visual style grew more polished and sleek, with more complex graphics for transitions and introductions. Additionally, the tone of the series has drifted more towards the type of manufactured drama and scandals associated with reality TV as a whole, rather than the more naturalistic discussions it was originally known for. The changes to The Real World may be, in many ways, reflections of changes in our real world.

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  • 5
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    Top Chef
    Photo: Bravo / Bravo

    How It Started: Top Chef has always pitted chefs against each other in culinary challenges, but Season 1 specifically did not cast professionals. Instead, they brought a group of talented home cooks, which resulted in a show that played up personalities as much and sometimes more than the food. Katie Lee hosted the first season, which may be surprising to fans who associate Padma Lakshmi with the show. Lakshmi joined in Season 2, and has been the face of the show ever since. Lee left at the end of the first season, though she later returned as a guest judge. Even then, the first five seasons or so were host to typical reality TV drama like mid-season hookups and an uninvited shaving incident that got a contestant kicked off in Season 2.

    What It Is Today: Once the producers decided professional chefs were fair game, the show pulled contestants with incredibly impressive culinary backgrounds. The length of seasons expanded from 12 to up to 17 episodes, allowing for more contestants per season. With the higher caliber of contestants, the show also shifted its tone almost entirely to focus on the quality of food and culinary technique. Each season focuses on a different city or region's food and cheftestants come in already saddled with James Beard awards and successful restaurants on their resumes. The show has gone past the mundane drama and arguments of early seasons to push the American culinary culture to new heights.

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  • RuPaul's Drag Race
    Photo: Logo TV / VH1

    How It Started: Drag Race has bounced around different networks as it has grown over the years. It began on Logo TV as a cult show with a small audience, catering to those who were already immersed in drag culture. The early seasons relished its underground charm, not as concerned with looking as flashy. Season 1 in particular had an odd visual filter over it that made everything slightly blurry, which was removed in following seasons, to the relief of fans.

    What It Is Today: Over the years, the show broke out into more "mainstream" audiences, gaining attention from people who had never participated in drag culture themselves. With more viewers came bigger budgets, and in its current home on VH1, the show is flashier than ever, with a bigger stage, brighter lights, and more celebrity guest judges. Contestants also arrive with high-end wardrobes that leave early seasons in their dust. The Finale has changed from including the top three competitors to the top four to add more competition at the end, and since Season 5, winners of Maxi Challenges are no longer protected from elimination, as it removed too much tension. Drag Race continues to grow bigger and bolder, as it's gone from an unabashed cult show to an Emmy-winning hit.

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