It dominated the competition like a Rottweiler facing a pack of teacup poodles — winning the Emmy every year from 2003 to 2009 — and then was relegated to bridesmaid status in 2010. But coming off an “Unfinished Business” installment that starred fan favorites from prior seasons and included breathtaking footage of China, India, Switzerland and Brazil, a return to the winner’s circle would be no surprise.
American Idol, Fox
After eight straight nominations with zero wins, Fox’s ratings juggernaut is developing a reputation as the Susan Lucci of the reality set. But after a 10th season reinvigorated by a rebooted judges’ panel, fewer sad-sack auditions, and a diverse, evenly matched talent pool, Idol might just be ready to step up to the podium and receive its confetti shower.
The Celebrity Apprentice, NBC
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.” A screaming Meatloaf, hissing Dionne Warwick, babbling Gary Busey, and feuding Star Jones and Nene Leakes all contributed to a brilliantly awful slice of guilty pleasure for a show whose plebian mothership, The Apprentice, scored Emmy nods back in 2004 and 2005.
Dancing With the Stars, ABC
Another perennial nominee (from 2006-2010) that’s still looking for its first win, DWTS enters the race on the strength of a season filled with controversy (judges Bruno Tonioli and Len Goodman taking heat for off-color comments to female dancers), wacky hijinks (Kirstie Alley losing a shoe; Karina Smirnoff tumbling over Ralph Macchio’s cape), and consistently solid dancing from an extremely likable cast.
The Next Food Network Star, Food Network
OK, it’s got an ice cube’s chance on a hot summer sidewalk of stealing a nomination from its flashier competitors, but unlike so many other reality staples, this one occasionally delivers on the promise of its name — wacky idea, huh? — having launched the careers of Guy Fieri, Adam Gertler, and Melissa d’Arabian, among others. Season 6 was no exception, as delightful champ Aarti Sequeira’s winning idea, Aarti Party, is now a Sunday-morning Food Network staple.
Project Runway, Lifetime
Thanks to Emmy voters’ obsession with The Amazing Race, this category is filled with perpetual also-rans, including six-time nominee Project Runway. For its eighth season, though, Lifetime’s fashion showdown got supersized with 90-minute episodes that packed in more fashion, more contestant treachery (wretched Ivy accusing Michael C. of cheating!), more heart (Mondo’s touching runway revelation of his HIV status), and more hilarious bitchery from judges Nina Garcia, Michael Kors, and Heidi Klum.
So You Think You Can Dance, Fox
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. Plus, it’s really good! If you can get through a performance/results-show combo without reaching for the Kleenex, it’s quite possible your heart is made of stone.
The granddaddy of the category hasn’t been nominated for the big prize since 2006 — despite its host, Jeff Probst, scoring Emmy wins in ’08, ’09, and ’10. The show shook up its format, though, adding a “Redemption Island” twist to its 22nd season, so perhaps the old dog’s new tricks will 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. And a repeat triumph isn’t inconceivable, seeing how the franchise recently completed a creatively satisfying All-Star edition spiced up by huge egos, daring recipes, and plenty of truly evil challenges.
The Voice, NBC
It may only be partway through its freshman season, but a deceptively simple concept — with their backs to auditioners, the show’s A-list judge decide based on singing ability alone whether to throw their hats in the ring as potential mentor to said singer — has already proven an important competitive point: Apparently, it’s not an automatic suicide mission to launch a reality singing competition in the midst of the American Idol season.