Live sex, human Tetris, baby giveaways, and more.
- By Catherine A. TraywickCatherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.
The late fall doldrums are a dull time for fans of American reality television. Juggernauts like "American Idol," "The Bachelor," and "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" are on hiatus until January; fans looking to get their fix must sustain themselves on lesser fare, like "Storage Wars: New York" or "When Ghosts Attack."
But instead of slogging through yet another iteration of "The Real Housewives," why not venture out of your reality TV comfort zone? FP has compiled a list of the most jaw-dropping reality TV shows we could find from around the world. Settle back into those couch cushions — this YouTube hole is going to be a deep one.
1. Norway: Hours of live knitting.
The NRK TV network, which previously brought Norwegians minute-by-minute coverage of a crackling fire, a seven-hour train ride, and an even longer boat ride, recently aired a live program chronicling the creation of a sweater. It’s the latest in a phenomenon called "slow," in which very ordinary events are broadcast in real time. But the latest show, "National Knitting Evening," was actually more action-packed than its predecessors: Over the course of 12 hours, viewers experienced every step of the sweater-making process, from the shearing of the lamb to the knitting of the garment. It was an attempt on the part of the network to break an obscure world record for knitting currently held by Australia.
Ironically, Norway’s penchant for the slow but steady ensured its downfall, as the knitting team not only failed to break the world record but took more than twice as long as expected to finish their sweater. The show still got pretty decent ratings: More than 1.2 million Norwegians tuned in.
2. Zambia: From working girl to wife.
"Ready4Marriage," a Zambian reality competition show, ordinarily pits couples against one another for the chance to win a wedding sponsorship and a cash prize, but producers decided to change things up during the third season. They brought on a cast of 18 sex workers with the purported aim of readying them for marriage. "A woman who is ready for marriage is a woman who can manage a home," said the show’s host, Master Chimbala, in a network interview. He added that successful contestants should be able to "lead a family, lead a business, [and] manage finances from budget constraints to making investments." Accordingly, the contestants had to sweep floors, clean toilets and iron shirts for the chance to win $9,000 and a wedding sponsorship. Reviews of the show were mixed, but plenty of viewers applauded the contestants’ participation. In the end, the grand prize went to 25-year-old Precious Amukusana, who said she had turned to prostitution to provide for her sisters after their mother had died. (Zambia struggles with low GDP and development levels.) After winning, Amukusana told the Lusaka Times, "I’ve been turned in[to] a real woman, I will never get back to the old life."
3. Pakistan: Holiday baby giveaway.
During Ramadan, Pakistanis are treated to a religious game show called "Amaan Ramazan" (aired on Geo TV) that rewards audience members for correctly answering questions about the Quran. Prizes include kitchen appliances, electronics, motorbikes — and, during the most recent season, babies. The show’s host, Aamir Liaquat Hussain, presented two unsuspecting couples this year with baby girls supplied by an NGO that rescues abandoned babies. One of the newly minted mothers told CNN that while she was "really shocked at first," she was also "extremely happy" to receive the child. The baby episode has been widely criticized as a ratings stunt, but Hussain maintains that the giveaway was a charitable act. Though Pakistan has no legal framework for adoption, both sets of parents who received children were reportedly vetted by producers and the NGO responsible for the infants. A follow-up report by the BBC found that both families were happy and the babies cared for.
4. Britain: Sex in front of a live studio audience.
A new British talk show invites couples to have sex on television in front of a live studio audience. Alas, it’s not as racy as it sounds: The couples copulate in an opaque, soundproof box, and then emerge to discuss the experience with a panel of sexperts. The show, straightforwardly named "Sex Box," is part of a Channel 4 campaign that aims to combat a culture of rampant pornography by promoting dialogue about "real sex." The show aired in tandem with another series, "Porn on the Brain," the first episode of which examined how teenage girls reacted to pornography in contrast to their male peers, finding that the images "provoked emotions of fear, confusion and anger in girls," while boys "mainly felt excitement or happiness." In the clip provided here from "Sex Box," a male couple enters the box, hoping to shatter misconceptions about gay sex.
5. Venezuela: Live-streaming socialism.
Every week for ten years, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez hosted and starred in a live talk show called "Alo Presidente," in which he frequently sermonized, ranted about America, forcefully communed with common people, and made sweeping, off-the-cuff policy decisions affecting millions. Each broadcast began at 11 a.m. on Sunday and ran for up to eight hours. One New York Times reviewer described the program as "like a ‘Daily Show’ parody" and "the most real reality TV I’d ever seen." The reviewer also noted her unease upon realizing that "anything [Chavez] decides or does or says on the show instantly becomes the audience’s reality, in a tangible way, regardless of whether they are watching." The last episode aired Jan. 29, 2012.
In this highlight reel, Chavez eats a cookie from inside a child’s mouth, refuses to answer "stupid questions," and tells American "yanquis" to "go to h
6. China: Teaching women to be "perfect."
"Beauty Class" is a Chinese game show in the vein of VH1’s "Charm School" — except sillier and with more nudity. In it, a group of allegedly "ugly ducklings" competes in a series of bizarre challenges that are supposed to transform them into the "white swans" they are inside. "Are you afraid to don low-cut tops?" a promotional post asks. "Scared to wear mini-skirts? No problem — let me teach you to how to develop a sinuous physique and charming personality, and you’ll become a perfect beauty in the blink of an eye." The series is web-only, as Chinese television doesn’t allow such raciness on-air. As one Sina Weibo user remarked, "The most daring [show] in the country is indeed Beauty Class. I sit here waiting for it to be banned."
In the clip here, lingerie-clad women are tied to a bed and tickled with feathers by the show’s male hosts. What this has to do with cultivating the contestants into "perfect beauties" is anyone’s guess.
7. Australia: Virgins for sale.
"Virgins Wanted" is a six-part series following two young people — one male, one female — as they attempt to auction off their virginity to online bidders. Twenty-one-year-old, Brazilian Catarina Migliorini scored the higher bid of $780,000 (from a 53-year-old Japanese millionaire calling himself "Natsu"), while 24-year-old Alex Stephanov earned a comparatively meager $2,600. The controversial project raised questions about the legality of the transactions. Last year, Australian authorities threatened to file sex-trafficking charges against director Justin Sisely if he conducted the auction within the country, while the Brazilian attorney general’s office declared that it would investigate Sisely. The director argues that the participants were their own agents, but in light of the attention, Migliorini has since claimed that she never had sex with her auction winner. She is also, once again, trying to auction off her virginity.
"Virgins Wanted," which takes the viewer from casting to (alleged) consummation, reportedly premiered at an entertainment convention in France this fall. According to Sisely, it will air in Australia next year.
8. Cambodia: Reunited and it feels so… gut-wrenchingly emotional.
Between 1975 and 1979, a cultural revolution imposed by the Khmer Rouge regime left 2 million Cambodians dead and tore apart countless families. Almost 40 years later, a reality show called "It’s Not a Dream" started reuniting those families in front of TV cameras and a live studio audience. Initially, more than 1,000 people applied to be on the show, most looking for family members they’d lost decades before. Those selected are brought on stage and interviewed by host Moung Ramary, who at some point reveals that the long-lost relative is actually standing backstage. This being entertainment, the host goes out of her way to wring tears from every guest that crosses her stage — but the reunions themselves are profoundly raw.
9. Japan: Every game show you could possibly imagine.
Japanese reality television, infamous for transforming acts of humiliation and physical punishment into culturally sanctioned entertainment, usually dominates lists like this one. While we can’t go into every weird Japanese game show that’s ever blown up on YouTube, there are a couple of standouts worth mentioning. For instance, "Gaki No Tsukai ya Arahende" ("This is No Task For Kids") is somewhere between a reality competition and a comedy show, in which hosts and guests compete in a variety of games, contests, and ridiculous bets. Losers are punished severely and creatively: They have been spanked, whipped with a riding crop, and forcibly touched by other contestants’ genitals.
And let’s not forget "Human Tetris" (known in Japan as "Brain Wall"), which became such a sensation on YouTube that it has since been adapted in 45 countries. The premise is absurd. But the execution? All you might have hoped for: Contestants must fit their bodies through increasingly ludicrous wall cutouts. And the wall is moving. And the contestants wear metallic spandex unitards. Enjoy.