Michael Slezak is Senior Editor at TVLine
Reality television by its very nature thrives on unexpected twists, shock eliminations, and upset victories. But the most surprising thing about the Emmy race for outstanding reality-competition program over the last five years has been the almost total stagnancy of its pool of contenders. Indeed, from 2007-2011, the same five shows — The Amazing Race, American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, Project Runway, and Top Chef – have maintained a chokehold on nominations in the category. The sole exception to this five-member monopoly came in 2011, when Emmy added a sixth nominee, Fos’s So You Think You Can Dance, to the mix.
But wait. That “kerplunk” you’re hearing might just be the sound of a new contender (or two) dropping into the proceedings. Indeed, the 2011-2012 season found The Voice proving itself a genuine (and genuinely enjoyable) ratings force in its second season for struggling NBC. On Fox, Simon Cowell’s British import The X Factor stormed the U.S. coastline with a combination of flashing lights, aggressive backup dancers, and Paula Abdul’s tears. Will these newcomers force Emmy to redistribute the nomination wealth, or will 2012 be another case of same-old same-old? Let’s examine the contenders, in alphabetical order:
The Amazing Race (CBS)
The globetrotting adventure series has dominated the category like a Rottweiler facing a pack of teacup poodles: Since Emmy first began handing out a Reality-Competition statuette in 2003, TAR has won every year except 2010. And with Season 20 featuring breathtaking footage of everywhere from India to Japan, and Argentina to Azerbaijan, another nomination is the closest thing there is to an Emmy certainty. As for a ninth visit to the winner’s circle? That’d be no surprise, either.
American Idol (Fox)
After nine straight nominations with zero wins, Fox’s ratings juggernaut is developing a reputation as the Susan Lucci of the reality-competition set. And while the show’s reinvigorated 2011 installment (its first with a rebooted, Cowell-less judges’ panel) was widely viewed as its best hope to finally break that losing streak, the recently concluded (and talent-rich) Season 11 proved that, in the words of Randy Jackson, Idol could still be very much in it to win it.
The Celebrity Apprentice
Donald Trump may have taken himself out of the presidential race, but he’ll still be courting votes of the Emmy variety for his Thunderdome of the C-list set. And don’t forget that while this brilliantly awful slice of guilty pleasure may seem like an Emmy long shot, its plebian mothership, The Apprentice, scored nods back in 2004 and 2005.
Dancing With The Stars (ABC)
Another perennial nominee (from 2006-2011) that’s still looking for its first win, DWTS enters the race on the strength of a season that was less about hot-button contestants of the Bristol Palin/Chaz Bono variety, and more about a fun, evenly matched field of hoofers. That Kumbaya vibe may have been a relief to the DWTS faithful, but the subsequent lack of buzz might once again relegate the show to bridesmaid status.
Project Runway (Lifetime)
Thanks to Emmy voters’ obsession with The Amazing Race, the reality competition category is filled with perpetual also-rans, including seven-time nominee Project Runway. Still, if Emmy makes way for some new contenders in 2012, Lifetime’s fashion showdown – coming off of a slightly sleepy Season 9 that felt like an extended love letter from the judges to gorgeous winner Anya Ayoung-Chee – might find itself on the downside of Heidi Klum’s “one day you’re in, the next day you’re out” mantra.
RuPaul’s Drag Race (Logo)
OK, it’s got an ice cube’s chance on a hot summer sidewalk of stealing a nomination from its higher-profile competitors, but Logo’s bawdy, buzzy, bitchy hootenanny really deserves some consideration for using sequins, wigs, and the campiest guest-judging lineup in TV history to create deliciously unpredictable TV magic. To paraphrase the show’s titular host(ess): “Don’t f*** it1 up, Emmy!”
So You Think You Can Dance
It may not pull the ratings of its sister show, Idol, but SYTYCD has a higher degree of difficulty – drawing a mass audience for a dance competition that’s not constructed around pre-existing celebrities. And while Emmy may smell a little blood in the water thanks to Fox’s decision to trim SYTYCD’s results show from its current installment, the show’s glorious Season 8 – with its exquisite Melanie-vs.-Sasha finale – made for sublime television.
The granddaddy of the category hasn’t been nominated for the big prize since 2006 – despite its host, Jeff Probst, scoring Emmy wins in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. And seeing how the “One World” twist of its 24th season was something of a bust, the old dog’s new tricks might not be enough to put it back on Emmy’s radar.
Top Chef (Bravo)
The sumptuous feast of the reality genre finally broke Amazing Race’s seven-year stranglehold on the category with a win in 2010, but ceded the trophy to its old nemesis in 2011. A somewhat unwieldy Texas-set Season 9, however, may have had too many cooks to properly concoct an Emmy-winning soup.
The Voice (NBC)
Last year, NBC proved it’s not an automatic suicide mission to launch a reality singing competition in the midst of Idol season. And Season 2 of The Voice proved there are legs to the show’s mix of blind auditions, spinning chairs, and A-list judges. True, palpable tension between Christina Aguilera and Adam Levine may not have been great for the mentors’ individual reputations, but that controversy – and a diverse crop of vocalists – should be enough to earn the show an initial Emmy nod.
The X Factor (Fox)
The year’s most loudly hyped reality entry drew decent ratings, but felt like a disappointment juxtaposed with head judge/executive producer Simon Cowell’s prediction that it would be America’s No. 1 TV show. When Cowell axed the show’s host and half its judging panel at the close of Season 1, it seemed not only an acknowledgment of critics’ cries of the show’s creative shortcomings, but also a blow to its chances at Emmy love.