Reality Show Movies that Signaled the Reality TV Boom

Death Watch

What counts as reality TV today, worlds removed from the social experiment of Seven Up!, began in earnest with the 1991 Dutch show Number 28, the first to put a group of strangers together in a closed environment and film the ensuing drama. Several factors, including advances in video editing and sensational footage from the O.J. Simpson case, branched off into a multitude of sub-genres ranging from glitzy talent shows to grueling tests of endurance.

And no wonder: Reality TV costs little to produce and makes for compelling, even addictive, viewing. Reality TV in all its various forms, has become ubiquitous and the predominant cultural phenomenon of the age. Not surprisingly, it has seeped into other media–The Hunger Games novels by Suzanne Collins, for instance, and TV shows like Korea’s Squid Game and the UK’s Black Mirror. But, as the list here shows, reality TV  has had its most far-reaching influence on movies, often as a handy plot device but equally often as the subject for parody, running the gamut from gentle ribbing to out-and-out satirical assault. Explore the reality show movies that foresaw the future.

The Truman Show (1998)

Jim Carrey in The Truman Show (1998)
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Jim Carrey stars as Truman Burbank, a sweet-natured everyman living the smalltown dream, blissfully unaware that everything around him is a sham and that he has, since birth, been the unwitting star of a must-see TV show created by a megalomaniacal producer (Ed Harris). This is a touching satire that caught the cultural zeitgeist even before it became the zeitgeist. The Truman Show itself also foreshadowed other reality show movies and the disturbing trends that would accompany the real thing.

The Hunger Games (2012)

The Hunger Games
Image Credit: Lionsgate.

Risen from the wreckage of what was once North America, Panem is a nation divided into 12 districts, each of which must send two tribunes, a girl and a boy between the ages of 12 and 18, to compete in the Hunger Games, a televised event in which tribunes fight to the death until only one remains. Brilliant, era-defining adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ YA novel that takes reality TV to its logical apocalyptic conclusion, and became one of the biggest hits among reality show movies, spawning five sequels to date.

Rollerball (1975)

James Caan in Rollerball (1975)
Image Credit: United Artists.

The year is 2018, and multinational corporations rule the world. Personal freedom has become a thing of the past. The only entertainment available is the hyper-violent sport of Rollerball, a cross between roller derby, hockey, and a good old-fashioned punch-up. James Caan plays Jonathan, a favorite with the crowd whose popularity and rebellious nature pose a threat to the powers that be. Rollerball spawned a legion of imitators, endless video games, a chess variant (yes, really), and an unwatchable 2002 remake starring Chris Klein, Rebecca Romjin, Jean Reno, and LL Cool J.

EDtv (1999)

Matthew McConaughey in Edtv (1999)
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

Appearing a year after The Truman Show, and further predicting reality show movies, EDtv stars Matthew McConaughey as an amiable ordinary Joe – an ordinary Ed, to be more precise – who agrees to have his life filmed 24/7 for the edification of the viewing public, still a somewhat novel premise in the dying days of the last millennium. The show’s a dud until Ed catches his brother Ray (Woody Harrelson) cheating on his girlfriend Shari (Jenna Elfman). Charming, but only moderately amusing hijinks ensue.

The Running Man (1987)

Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Running Man (1987)
Image Credit: Tri-Star Pictures.

Another grim view of the future, more totalitarian overlords, and another deadly pseudo-sport to keep the hoi polloi placated, this one pitting trained assassins against convicted criminals fighting for a government pardon and a swanky vacation. Based on a short story by Stephen King and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger at the height of his action-hero powers, it has all the ingredients of a first-rate B-movie but never quite gets into gear.

Series 7: The Contenders (2001)

Series 7 The Contenders
Image Credit: USA Films.

Darkly funny, on-the-nose send-up in which six random strangers, selected by a national lottery, are issued firearms, and forced to hunt and kill each other. Series 7 does, however, predict the reality TV boom and the emerging genre of reality show movies, as well as feature a terrific performance by Brooke Smith in the lead.

The Big Game (2020)

Vladimir Veryovochkin and Mikhail Kremer in The Big Game (2020)
Image Credit: Kargo Film.

In this Russian entry to reality show movies, sixteen contestants of a reality show land in the Siberian taiga without food, fuel, personal belongings, or any contact with the outside world. With a prize of a million euros at stake, the group sets aside issues of self-preservation and works in harmony to escape their predicament, ensuring everyone has an equal stake in the reward. It’s a stirring affirmation of human natu… Not really.

The whole thing turns into a dog-eat-dog bloodbath the second the cameras roll.

Death Race 2000 (1975)

David Carradine in Death Race 2000 (1975)
Image Credit: New World Pictures.

It may have begun life as 1956 short story by Danish author Ib Melchior, but this Roger Corman-produced schlockfest, in which drivers compete in a barbaric cross-country rally, earning points for mowing down pedestrians, is basically Rollerball 2: Roadrage Boogaloo. But it’s a lot more fun and a lot less po-faced than other reality show movies.

David Carradine stars as mysterious masked champ “Frankenstein,” with Sylvester Stallone as his archrival Joe “Machine Gun” Viterbo, Roberta Collins as “The Hun,” Martin Kove as “Nero the Hero,” and Corman regular Mary Woronov as “Calamity Jane.” Did someone say cult classic?

Death Race (2008)

Jason Statham in Death Race (2008)
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

This is an efficient if unnecessary remake of the previous film, starring Jason Statham as Frankenstein, which is reason enough to give it a spin.

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

Joel McCrea and Fay Wray in The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
Image Credit: RKO Radio Pictures.

Based on a short story by Richard Connell and starring Joel McCrea and legendary scream queen Faye Wray (King Kong’s original squeeze) this is not, strictly speaking, a “game show” movie, but only because the “show” bit is missing. With a plot involving a group of luxury yacht passengers marooned on a remote island so a mad rich guy can hunt them for sport, it’s the blueprint of sorts for the many Survivor-style reality show movies to come.

The Task (2011)

The Task
Image Credit: Lions Gate Entertainment.

A group of game show contestants must spend the night in an abandoned prison, completing ever more gruesome tasks set by a scary clown to win a not-particularly-generous cash prize. Scary clowns: when will people ever learn?

Teen Spirit (2018)

Elle Fanning in Teen Spirit (2018)
Image Credit: Bleecker Street.

A fairly rote musical fantasy with Elle Fanning as a starry-eyed teen competing in the titular TV talent show, Teen Spirit gets by on committed direction from Max Minghella and a show-stopping performance from Fanning.

Death Watch (1980)

Harvey Keitel in Death Watch (1980)
Image Credit: SELTA Films.

Set in a future world where humanity has almost wiped out disease, a terminally ill woman (Romy Schneider) becomes a media sensation. To cash in on her celebrity, an unscrupulous TV executive (Harry Dean Stanton) has a camera implanted into a member of his staff (Harvey Keitel) to secretly film her final days for a TV show. A somber, thought-provoking precursor to The Truman Show – to the entire phenomenon, in fact – with a top-notch international cast and assured direction from Bernard Tavernier.

Nominated for several awards and well-regarded by critics, Death Watch wreathes itself in tragedy. In a twist worthy of reality show movies, Schneider’s teenage son David, seen playing soccer in one scene, died in an accident shortly after the release of the film. Schneider took to drinking heavily after her son’s death and died of a heart attack in 1982 at the age of 43.

Camp Dread (2014)

Eric Roberts in Camp Dread (2014)
Image Credit: Class of 85 LLC.

The washed-up director of a hit 1980s horror franchise (a marvelously sleazy Eric Roberts) seeks to revive his career by staging a TV talent show in the same location he shot his once-popular “Summer Camp” movies. But when one of the show’s contestants is horribly murdered, it becomes clear that the top prize here is not fame and fortune but survival. Nothing to write home about, but a clever spin on an over-familiar formula of reality show movies, nonetheless.

I Want to Marry Ryan Banks (2004)

Jason Priestley and Emma Caulfield Ford in I Want to Marry Ryan Banks (2004)
Image Credit: American Broadcasting Company.

When Hollywood star Ryan Banks’ career hits the skids, his best friend and manager Todd creates a Bachelor-style reality show in the hopes of reviving his flagging fortunes.

It’s a half-decent premise with a more than decent cast – Jason Priestly as Banks, a pre-Hangover Bradley Cooper as Todd, and Buffy alumnus Emma Caulfield as Charlie, the girl they both fall for – and it gets in some mildly effective jabs at the genre before winding its inoffensive way to a sweet if highly predictable finale. 

Showtime (2002)

Robert De Niro and Eddie Murphy in Showtime (2002)
Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Taking aim at two targets at once, this heavy-handed comedy-thriller manages to miss both. Robert DeNiro and Eddie Murphy star as mismatched LAPD cops forced into an ill-tempered alliance for the purposes of a TV reality show. That the show is happy to distort the truth in a quest for ratings doesn’t raise an eyebrow these days, and the sparring between DeNiro and Murphy comes off as exactly the kind of tired buddy-cop banter the movie attempts to lampoon.

Killer Movie (2008)

Paul Wesley & Kaley Cuoco in KILLER MOVIE
Image Credit: Peach Arch Home Entertainment.

This underrated slasher parody stars Kaley Cuoco as a self-centered celebutante and Paul Wesley as a reality TV director dealing with both a temperamental star and the fact that someone is systematically bumping off his cast and crew.

Author: Simon Braund

Title: Writer

Expertise: Film, music, books