How to Survive a Pandemic: Notes from the Reality TV Field Guide

Buddies-at-Home is a series of content shared by Buddies staff, working from home during physical distancing – from recipes, to playlists, to musings on living in isolation. This contribution is from our Rhubarb Festival Director, Clayton Lee.

My friend Shannon Cochrane and I have a nightly ritual: at 8:30 pm (or 9:00 pm if it’s been that kind of a day, or, if it’s been that kind of a day, 8:00 pm) we watch two episodes of reality tv. In my pre-COVID world, binge viewing was the default mode. Now, pace has become my strategy for survival. In a moment when time is amorphous and frequently daunting, I use these self-contained, individual seasons to mark time and the passage of it.

For your own time-passing pleasure, I’ve grouped the shows into three categories: What a time to be alive, what a dump, and what… ever. (Some light spoilers below.)

What a Time to be Alive

At the top of this list is The Great Pottery Throwdown, Series 3. In the three or so months since its release, I’ve seen every episode three or four times. What’s not to love? A judge, Keith Brymer Jones, who cries when one of the makes is particularly beautiful; more sexual innuendos than Drag Race; a pair of sheep lamps (SHEEP! LAMPS!), albeit ruined slightly by poor glazing; a contestant whose illustrations look suspiciously like Ness Lee’s; dragons; and the return of the incredible Toilet Bowl Main Make.

(Side note: Series 2 is also excellent. The average skill level of the contestants isn’t nearly as high, but, it’s where the Toilet Bowl Main Make is introduced. And, frankly, the sheer joy of that episode alone is worth the 6 or so hour investment.)

My first and only sleepless night despite all my COVID-related anxieties came after Yul was voted out in Survivor, Season 40. And he wasn’t even my favourite. Say what you will about a show that’s been running for twenty years, but when all the gears are turning, there’s nothing really like it.

I’ve used a sewing machine once in my life. I read somewhere online that pyjama pants were easy to make if you just traced some fabric around a pre-existing pair of pants. So, I made a pair. When I tried it on, the entire thing split in half before it got past my knees. Which is to say, despite my ineptitude, The Great British Sewing Bee (Series 1 to 4) has been a complete discovery. It’s Project Runway without the design component. It’s The Great British Bake-off/Great Pottery Throw Down for home sewers. It’s a history lesson in sewing that ties fashion with feminism, political machinations, and globalization. There’s also a contestant who uses a hot glue gun on her finale outfit. What?

Most importantly, though, you’re tuning in for the trio of host Claudia Winkleman and judges May Martin (and later, Esme Young) and Patrick Grant. If you, unlike me, use unattainable men and the fantasy of them to kill time (and for time to kill you in its turn), then there’s no better place to start than Patrick Grant. What we talk about when we talk about Patrick Grant: Do we keep a mind palace of all his outfits and the way each of them made us feel? Do we trace the latitude and longitude of his cold sore in Series 3 and compare it to the one he has in Series 4? Do we speculate that, in Series 4, when he’s looking a bit tired, it’s because he was about to break-up with his girlfriend of 8 years? And that he’s just, well, heartbroken? Do we wonder if his sausage dog Winston is aptly filling the void? Do we imagine the custom quilt jacket he’d toil over as a gift for us (Shannon) as a post-first date gift, even though quilts aren’t to his taste? Do we draft in Notes how we may and, eventually, will slide into his DMs with the perfect one liner?

What a Dump

The ingredients for Making the Cut, Season 1 seemed extremely promising: Naomi Campbell (“That’s on you, that’s not on me!”), Tim and Heidi’s triumphant return to reality tv, and Amazon’s answer to the not-terrible Next in Fashion. And, yet, there’s nothing more infuriating than an entire show revolving around the judging criteria of “accessibility”. No, not accessibility in the way we think about it, but rather, accessibility as in will this do well manufactured in a sweatshop and made with 100% polyester? (Shout-out to the vers queen polyester, though.) The only redeemable thing to come out of this season is the phrase Sander 2020 (c/o special guest viewer Julian Higuerey Nunez).

I only gave Too Hot to Handle, Season 1 a chance for two reasons: one, I’m a good friend and two, Desus & Mero talked about it. I hate influencers. Truly. The only redeemable quality was special guest viewer Francesco Gagliardi’s “Spot the Irish Girl” game. In the words of Valerie Cherish: “I don’t want to see that!”


Bless LEGO Masters, Series 1, for casting children. They’re put alongside their adult counterparts and are made to compete, and often succeed, in challenges that last over 12 hours.

Sure, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Season 12, has the best casting of recent years. Two lingering thoughts, though: is RuPaul the Jeff Bezos of drag (c/o Kimberly Drew); and, with the fandom, Must get rid of toxic in the community (c/o Cecily Strong, Bowen Yang, and Julio Torres).

Is Master Chef, Season 10, really about the food? There’s a lot of yelling and the show takes a real delight in failure. And, frankly, nothing in this season tops the stunts and shenanigans of the legendary Christina Tosi when she was a judge (ignore the toxic title and description).

Conceptually, The Big Flower Fight, Season 1, is great. I’m a sucker for scale and spectacle. Lots of bizarre casting choices though (minus Henck and Jan), but I’ll watch Season 2 if/when it’s released.

AKA Special Shout-Out

Not a reality show per se, but if you’re looking for joy and want an internet deep-dive, look no further than the Bodega Boys AKA Desus & Mero AKA the number one show in late-night. Their quar game is strong. My friend Elwood Jimmy and I have a routine of sending each other hot moments from the show to quench our COVID thirst: there’s this clip of Desus licking his sneakers (0:45); Mero giving us a too-brief shot of his thighs (2:22); both of them singing with John Legend about their love of ass eating; Desus shooting his shot with Lizzo; and Mero crushing an orange with his hands (0:46) You’re welcome.

Photo of Desus and Mero: Greg Endries/SHOWTIME

Clayton Lee

Clayton Lee the Rhubarb Festival Director at Buddies. He is at home watching Rain on Me and cannot be contacted for further questions.

Read all posts by Clayton Lee

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