By Josh Wolk
Updated December 26, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

Reality TV Class Of ’03 gives one of the year’s Great Performances

Ever since Richard Hatch strutted around naked on Survivor, critics of reality TV have wondered when the trend would finally peter out. As 2003 closes, we can finally say it: Stop asking, ’cause it ain’t going nowhere!

Reality TV has matured — which, granted, seems an odd term to use in a year when the phenomenally successful first Joe Millionaire subtitled off-camera antics with phrases like ”Ahhh, shhh… (slurp).” But you have to think of reality as an entrenched television genre: Like sitcoms and dramas, it has a ratio of successes (The Bachelor/Bachelorette, For Love or Money, America’s Next Top Model) to failures (Are You Hot?, All-American Girl, Temptation Island 3), and this season unscripted shows account for 5 of the top 30 programs in the 18-49 demographic. An individual disaster is no longer a bellwether of reality’s demise: For every I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!, there’s a Coupling or a Tarzan.

And reality has a range that can please any viewer. The cult of personality surrounding Survivor’s ousted manimal Rupert or Bachelorette Trista’s manicured-nail-biting choice of poetic firefighter Ryan was as dramatically satisfying as any Law & Order plot. And then there was the unapologetically trashy: This summer’s unstable-hottie showcase Paradise Hotel played like an unscripted update of Melrose Place. Paradise’s bug-eyed ”Yahtzee!” yeller, Toni Ferrari, says the first thing fans tell her is that they can’t stand reality TV. But ”the next sentence is ‘I watched [Paradise] once, and it sucked me right in.”’ Yes, this was the year that ”Reality sucks!” took on a whole new meaning.