A look at the storylines that will dominate the upcoming television year
TV changes surprisingly fast. Twelve months ago, who would have thought that Downton Abbey, a historical costume soap opera that airs on PBS, would become household name? Or that the most promising first season of dramatic TV in a long time would spiral into the implausible, frustrating mess like Homeland did? From Britney Spears's ho-hum X Factor debut to Lena Dunham's meteoric rise and epic backlash and backlash to backlash, 2012 was an ... interesting year in TV.
This coming year might be, as well. Here are six stories to keep an eye on.
1. The Rise of Redneck Reality TV
For years now, real housewives, Jersey guidos, love-hungry bachelorettes, and Kardashians have dominated reality TV, creating a cult of followers who drooled over these their famous-for-being-famous idols' opulence and vapidness, and relished in the guiltiness of their pleasures. Not anymore. The Real Housewives franchise is seeing its popularity wane. Snooki and her merry band of juiceheads are finally leaving Jersey Shore for good, and the backlash against Kim Kardashian's televised 72-hour marriage is almost immeasurable.
To find the next great source of unscripted entertainers to satisfy American voyeurs, networks have turned to the heartland. The poster child for this shift is Honey Boo Boo, the pint-sized aspiring pageant star and her rural Georgia family are among this past year's biggest breakout stars. The A&E series Duck Dynasty, about a family that manufactures hunting gear, earns higher ratings than reality juggernauts Survivor and The X Factor, while shows like Pawn Stars, Storage Wars, and Gold Rush are among the most-watched cable series of the year. 2013 will see MTV try to replace that Jersey-sized hole in its lineup with Buckwild, about nine kids raising a ruckus in West Virginia, while TLC will debut Welcome to Myrtle Manor, about life at a trailer park.
2. The Celebrity Judge Backlash
When American Idol re-launched the idea of talent tournaments as TV-ratings gold, few American had heard of Simon Cowell or Randy Jackson, and only slightly fewer remembered that Paula Abdul still existed. Yet this unlikely combination of unknowns (and used-to-be-knowns) made up the most captivating, surprising, and productive judging panel ever seen on reality TV competition shows.
Fast forward a decade to the current glut of karaoke series, and none of those adjectives—unknown, surprising—can be used to describe the batch of judges being cast. The Ellen DeGeneres experiment was a one-season failure, but Idol still hired Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler for two seasons of toothless critiquing. In its third season, the excitement surrounding the quartet of judges on The Voice has softened considerably, with each panelist now more closely resembling a stock character—petulant diva (Christina Aguilera), gee-golly charmer (Blake Shelton), greasy schemer (Adam Levine), and enigmatic cool dude (Cee Lo)—than a judge. Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Nettles, and John Legend were woefully uninspiring on the little-watched Duets, while Britney Spears and Demi Lovato on The X Factor have contributed to what might be the most boring judges' table ever to grace reality TV.
In 2013, Mariah Carey, Keith Urban, and Nicki Minaj join Idol, while Shakira and Usher will fill in on The Voice. Millions of dollars are being thrown at them, and all the commercials for the seasons are touting their involvement. Little promotion, however, is being given to the aspiring music superstars supposedly being searched for on these shows. That's because none of the recent victors, with the possible exceptions of Kris Allen and Phillip Phillips, have turned out to be successful. If that trend should continue, expect audiences to grow tired of celebrity antics on the judging panel, and a move back towards rewarding shows that focus on discovering new talents rather than cashing in on old ones.
3. Chances at Redemption for "Hate Watches"
When the Smash pilot aired last winter, critics loudly praised its production value, invigorating musical numbers, and the thrilling rivalry it set up between two aspiring actresses. HBO's pilot for The Newsroom, while earning slightly more measured accolades, still won over a lot of reviewers with its utter Aaron Sorkin-ness: rousing monologues, astute observations on the state of the media, a killer performance from Jeff Daniels. But the promise shown in both pilots just made the two series' quick creative declines all the more startling. "Hate watching" became the trendy term used to describe viewers' relationships to these shows.