Last week I saw a promo for the new Disney+ show The Quest, pitting teens against one another in a fantasy-themed reality TV adventure. I immediately logged The Quest as a “to-watch” and started thinking about the reality competition genre. It has come an incredibly long way since the earliest days, and when you think about it, this unique subset of reality TV has a lot in common with the qualities that make science fiction and fantasy so lovable.
As a huge reality competition buff, I started to notice various connections between the shows I love and the books I devour: Turns out these two hobbies have way more overlap than meets the eye, and there’s a whole lot of SFF goodness to be found in these shows…
Below, I’ll list some of my favorite competition-based reality shows with big SFF energy and tell you where to watch them.
Let’s get the easy questions out of the way: yes, Survivor is still on. Yes, it’s still good. So good. It’s the gold standard for reality TV, if you ask me.
Survivor started it all. On May 31, 2000, the survivalist social experiment changed the television landscape forever, showing us real people enduring intense challenges and navigating a difficult social game. 22 years later, the Survivor community is still thriving. Season 42 just concluded; 43 and 44 will air in the fall of 2022 and spring of 2023, respectively. What better time to see if Survivor is for you?
I’ve extolled the SFF-related virtues of Survivor before, but allow me to sum it up for you here. Survivor has evolved into a complex game. Advantages and hidden immunity idols give players unique power, as though the game has its own magic systems. Fan-favorite players return to play again in “sequel” seasons with fun themes like “Heroes vs. Villains” (season 20) or “Blood vs. Water” (Season 27), which featured returning players paired with family members playing for the first time. Survivor players have agency. They change the game, evolving to adapt to new setbacks and challenges. They change on a personal level, too, learning lessons about themselves. It’s some of my favorite character development available on TV right now.
All that aside, though, the real SFF appeal of Survivor lies in the show’s storytelling. The contestants share their stories through confessionals, in emotional moments at tribal council, or with allies at the water well. The end of each season marks the culmination of a riveting character arc. Season 42, which just ended, features one of the most compelling winners Survivor has seen in 20+ years, proving the game can still surprise us.
There’s a lot to love about Survivor, and my guess is that many (if not most) SFF fans would easily get sucked in, latching on to the various elements that make it great.
My Favorite Survivor Seasons: Season 16: Fans vs. Favorites; Season 20: Heroes vs. Villains; Season 28: Cagayan; Season 40: Winners At War (but beware spoilers); Season 42 (no subtitle)
RuPaul’s Drag Race and RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars (VH1 and Paramount+)
RuPaul Charles has built a drag empire out of his show’s humble beginnings. Now, Drag Race is a cultural force to be reckoned with. Beyond the 14 regular seasons and the seven installments of All Stars, there’s plenty more to enjoy: UK vs The World, Drag Race Down Under, Canada’s Drag Race, Drag Race UK, and other international iterations of the show. RuPaul’s Drag Race is the only show on this list that can come close to Survivor in terms of the sheer amount of content available.
Drag Race relishes in pushing boundaries in smart and hilarious ways. It focuses on where we’re going, offering fresh perspectives on art, drag, gender identity, sexual orientation, and more. The breadth and depth of LGBTQ+ representation on recent seasons of Drag Race is, without a doubt, one amazing reason to watch, as it expands and grows ever more inclusive as the series progresses.
There’s also a distinct SFF flair to Drag Race, especially in the most recent seasons. Drag has embraced the influence of fashion, pop culture, cosplay, crafting, Broadway, and other artistic arenas. In a way, Drag is fantasy, a heightening of one’s personality injected with camp, humor, glamor, and whimsy. Anything goes in the world of drag. Look to a few recent winners for prime examples: Yvie Oddly (season 11) and Willow Pill (season 14) extended the boundaries of the art form and brought elements of fantasy, horror, and science fiction to the main stage.
Like Survivor before it, RuPaul’s Drag Race has changed and evolved over the years. Now, it’s better than ever, moving with the times and serving as a platform for new voices, increasingly diverse perspectives and personalities. Watch any season of Drag Race and you’ll see the cultural crossover between anime, animation, TV, movies, and plenty of SFF content in the mix.
My Favorite RuPaul’s Drag Race Seasons: Season 5, Season 13, All Stars 2, All Stars 5, UK Season 1
The Big Flower Fight (Netflix)
In this series, florists and artists compete to construct the most awe-inspiring floral structures and set pieces. That’s the elevator pitch for The Big Flower Fight. It doesn’t play too much with the reality competition formula, but the creations that result are stunning. Plus, Natasia Demetriou of What We Do in the Shadows fame serves as host, which is reason enough to watch if you ask me…
The Big Flower Fight is one of many attempts by Netflix to capitalize on the feel-good reality competition craze that took hold in the wake of Bake Off/The Great British Baking Show. The show largely succeeds in entertaining, and the SFF angle comes via the artists’ creations. The competing pairs create flowery art that feel like something imported directly from a fairy tale or a strange and beautiful fantasy setting.
It’s not the best-produced show, and there’s only one season, but the creativity showcased within the single season is remarkable, sometimes breathtaking. The artists know how to craft otherworldly, escapist art, and it shows. For a quick watch that will satiate your escapist, easy-viewing urge, give The Big Flower Fight a try.
My Favorite Big Flower Fight Seasons: There’s only one!
The Circle (Netflix)
The Circle just aired its fourth season on Netflix, and I’d guess five and six are already on the way. No reality competition feels truer to the 2020-and-beyond experience than The Circle, which sequesters players in apartments and allows them to communicate only through a closed social media ecosystem.
The structure of the show feels dystopian, relegating players to onscreen personas and subjecting them to catfish—players who pose as someone else in the hopes of getting further in the game. The Circle doesn’t lean too far into its sci-fi concept. The editors, host, and contestants all seem intent on making the vibe as happy-go-lucky as possible. This results in ruminations about the nature of social media and a refreshing look at the possibility of real connections made online.
Of course, that’s not a universal reality, and those wrinkles are starting to show. As a fan of The Circle, I’m hoping it evolves into a more strategic game instead of remaining a “social experiment.” Gamifying the show a bit more will engender evolution and change, preventing the formula from going stale too soon.
If you’re an SFF fan, you’ll enjoy The Circle’s webs of intrigue, strategy, and character development. It’s interesting to see what people will or won’t reveal from behind a screen, and the catfish angle lends an air of mystery to the whole affair.
My Favorite Seasons of The Circle: Honestly, they’re all good
Lego Masters (FOX/Hulu)
For my money, Lego Masters is the single best iteration of the light, easy-viewing reality competition formula. The Great British Baking Show gave us a good-natured, feel-good competition without the rampant strategizing of Survivor or The Circle, and Lego Masters carries on that tradition.
Hosted by Will Arnett and judged by two amazing Brickmasters, Lego Masters pits pairs of builders against each other in crazy themed challenges. The SFF facet comes through in the final builds, which showcase wonderful worlds that would feel completely at home in your favorite sci-fi or fantasy book. Seriously, some of these projects have to be seen to be believed.
More than any other show on this list, Lego Masters leans into the storytelling of its primary conceit. Building a Lego model is worldbuilding, and the judges look for that. They want competitors to tell a story, populate their build with characters, and breathe life into their concept. For the most part, contestants exceed expectations, constructing truly awe-inspiring sci-fi and fantasy builds.
Season three is coming up, so it’s the perfect time to hop on the Lego Masters hype train.
My Favorite Lego Masters Seasons: Both of ‘em!
A few other shows deserve mention on this list but didn’t warrant a lengthy write-up. Here are a few stray shows worth your while as an SFF aficionado:
- Cutthroat Kitchen (Hulu): Chefs compete in cooking challenges, but they can purchase various sabotages to crew with their opponents.
- Making It (Hulu): Crafters compete in increasingly whimsical challenges requiring them to put their crafty talents to extensive use.
- Blown Away (Netflix): Glassblowers construct beautiful and artistic pieces, competing for a cash prize and a residency at the Corning Museum of Glass
Are you a reality competition fan? Let me know if there are any SFF-tinged shows I should add to my list!
Cole Rush writes words. A lot of them. For the most part, you can find those words at The Quill To Live or on Twitter @ColeRush1. He voraciously reads epic fantasy and science-fiction, seeking out stories of gargantuan proportions and devouring them with a bookwormish fervor. His favorite books are: The Divine Cities Series by Robert Jackson Bennett, The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, and The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.