For better or for worse, the UK is great at reality TV, both at getting its citizens to mug before the camera and producing compelling global formats. And 2010 produced a bumper crop of Brits more than willing to part with a bit of dignity for mass exposure. Others, however, used the reality TV genre to fulfill a much higher calling and effect true social change.
Both sides are represented in our top 5 British reality-TV breakouts of the year. Like their scripted counterparts in yesterday’s actor list, all of these not-so-camera-shy folks have made a big impact in the U.S.
5. Louise Roe, Plain Jane
The CW banked their whole summer on Plain Jane, a not-so-feminist makeover series in which British style queen Louise Roe transforms a dowdy duck into swanky swan – all in the service of getting a guy. Yikes. The show got middling reviews and suitably CW-sized ratings, but all eyes were on Roe as a star to watch. “Roe is as charming a fairy godmother as you’re going to find,” said LA Times critic Mary McNamara. Will Plain Jane be back for another season? Who knows. But I suspect we’ll be seeing the lovely Louise Roe quite a bit in the near future.
4. Jamie Oliver, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution
Brits in reality series have typically been created in one mold: the supercilious taskmaster browbeating pouty, hapless Americans into submission. See Simon Cowell and Gordon Ramsay. But the Oprah-anointed chef Jamie Oliver arrived in the States with a truly benevolent mission – to improve the crap-filled diets of our young people. Oliver previously revolutionized school lunch programs in British schools by offering healthful alternatives, but could he replicate that feat in the trans fat-loving U.S.? Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution followed his quest, even as the former Naked Chef faced resistance from small-town leaders who viewed him as an arrogant outsider with a funny accent. The series became a minor hit on ABC and won Oliver an Emmy.
3. Catherine “Cat” Ommanney – The Real Housewives of D.C.
It’s truly an accomplishment to appear unlikable in an ensemble featuring the almost unwatchable White House gatecrasher Michaele Salahi, and gauche British expat Ommanney did exactly that in early episodes of The Real Housewives of D.C. But as the show’s inaugural season went on, Cat’s lack of a filter became more and more refreshing, entertaining, and plain necessary. When she turned her bluntness against the reviled Salahis in the finale and subsequent reunion special, she had plenty in the audience cheering her on. We’ll forgive all of the tabloid innuendo with Prince Harry and admit we like her. We really like her.
2. Lisa VanderPump – The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills
If we like Cat Ommanney, we simply adore the luxuriously named Lisa VanderPump from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. She’s the best Greek chorus in the entire Bravo franchise: she has the cutting wit of New York Housewife Bethenny Frankel and Atlanta’s NeNe Leakes, but with the regal bearing of a diamond-drenched Joan Collins descending a staircase on an episode of Dynasty. The glamorous restaurateur classily floats above all of drama concerning her Housewives co-star Camille Grammer, soon-to-be ex-wife of Kelsey. “I do tend to see the humor in many situations,” VanderPump says in her Bravo blog, “and I predict with this group of women I will need it to maintain my sanity in the forecoming [sic] months!” Indeed, and VanderPump’s sense of fun makes RHOBH must-watch trash TV.
1. Gareth Malone – The Choir
The Fox musical series Glee has become good for two things – bringing Jane Lynch‘s deadpan brilliance out of the Christopher Guest ghetto, and inspiring the too-cool-for-school to lift every voice and sing. But in Britain, a real-life Will Schuester has been encouraging teenagers to discover their inner Pavarottis and Sarah Brightmans for years now with his show The Choir, as seen on BBC America in 2010. Entering some of Britain’s grittiest schools, the boyish Gareth Malone realized that art education – ya know, that old thing – was a way of potentially transforming the lives of deprived children, and watching his surly, sullen kids find self-confidence as part of a singing community brings entertainment much more moving and substantive than in any Glee episode. And yeah, I said it: Gareth Malone is much cuter than Matthew Morrison anyday.