When Emmy nominations come out, I can’t stop ranking and re-ranking which nominees deserve to win most — which is not the same thing as a prediction. This practice is a compulsion and a gift (or something), and today I’m cementing my personal picks for one of my favorite categories: Outstanding Reality Competition. I’m so passionate about this hokey topic, I’ve even added a seventh nominee out of pure frustration. The actual nominees are The Amazing Race (ugh, sigh), The Voice, Top Chef, Project Runway, So You Think You Can Dance, and Dancing with the Stars. We’ll rank those in a second, but for argument’s sake, here’s my pick for a seventh-place show.
7. American Idol
I’m of two minds when it comes to the topsy-turvy, talent-heavy, routinely annoying twelfth season of American Idol: The level of competing distaff talent was astonishing, and we witnessed bankable performances by budding popster Angie Miller, countrified old soul Kree Harrison, and the deeply talented, fearsomely commanding Candice Glover, but we were also served an unnecessary feud between Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey (my goddess), not to mention a male contestant pool that never connected with the judges, viewers, or their own material. Still ranked in the Top 10 of the year’s biggest shows, Idol still claims one of the greatest assets in reality TV: the hosting chops of the preternaturally capable Ryan Seacrest. He can be a bit snide at times, but the karaoke competition feels totally in control when he’s striding about the stage. Face it. He’s got some of what Dick Clark had. Really. I still hope this show takes the big prize one day; better yet, I hope it gets nominated at all next year with its revamped panel.
6. Project Runway
Trust me, back when I worshiped Jay McCarroll in season one, Santino Rice in season two, or even Leanne Marshall in season five, I never thought I’d actively root against Project Runway’s Emmy chances. But how weird and unsettling would it be if Tim Gunn’s sartorial circus racked up a win this season? With the judges’ crazy fixation on the ululating Patricia, the dubious team challenge setup, and a forgettable finale, it’s just not the greatest version of Project Runway we’ve seen. I do love that Heidi Klum and Mr. Gunn are both billed as hosts, and therefore both are nominated for Outstanding Reality Host this year, but we suffered through too much dubious judging and enough uninspired challenges to declare this season one of the show’s least successful.
5. Top Chef
I’m still glad Top Chef walked off with an Outstanding Reality Competition Emmy in 2010, but I think we can agree that the show’s tenth season was no more thrilling than the past few years’, and that its web series spinoff Last Chance Kitchen felt fresher than the actual show. Unlike Project Runway, though, Top Chef’s most recent season boasts the best version of its judging panel to date. That’s a feat American Idol and Project Runway are still working on. I sometimes daydream about Zac Posen furiously applying self-tanner to himself in an effort to recreate Michael Kors’ damp, root beer glow.
4. The Amazing Race
Look, my contrarian streak wants to hate this show. It’s won even more Emmys than Cloris Leachman has in her entire career (Every award in this category since its inception, save that Top Chef victory, has gone to this show), but I can’t deny a slickly produced spectacle when I see one, if none of the featured teams grabbed me this year. The show featured a controversial leg from Indonesia to Vietnam this season, and Phil Keoghan is still as amiably stern as I require him to be.
3. The Voice
Let me be clear: I think there are serious format issues with The Voice, most notably during the battle rounds, which still feel stilted and soulless to me. While the addition of the judges’ “steals” was a novel shift, I questioned the transition between former (for now) judge Cee-Lo and current judge Usher. Thankfully, the transition from Christina Aguilera to Shakira is glorious: Shak is cheeky and personal and obviously brilliant, and to have her sympathetic, smart commentary on TV is a true primetime get. Have you ever heard her speaking about the conception behind her album Oral Fixation? Because she may just be smarter than everyone and everything you know.
2. Dancing With the Stars
Every time I watch Dancing With the Stars, I think the same thing: How on Earth is this live? The flawless production of this convoluted, Terpsichorean carnival is the kind of stuff Emmys should be made of. Call me biased, but the the adorable Kellie Pickler of American Idol and the sweet-as-hell Disney star Zendaya (Have you heard her single “Replay” yet? Because it should be the summer 2013 super-jam), are probably the show’s most likable final two dancers in the past five seasons. It’s so shocking how you can be invested in the dance-centric journeys of celebrities you’ve barely ever thought about. Remember when Nicole Scherzinger vaulted to a supreme victory in her season? I swear I feel like I know her because of it. And for that strange feeling of audience empathy and knowing ironic distance, Dancing With the Stars should be a fierce candidate for Emmys.
1. So You Think You Can Dance
Could there be any other #1? No other reality competition demands as much of its contestants or its judges, and no other show has the utter ace of a host that is Cat Deeley. Season nine of SYTYCD, compressed to once-a-week airings for the first time ever, delivered to us unbelievable contestants in Eliana and Chehon, not to mention close (and dead sexy) competitors Cole Horibe and Witney Carson. The actual sense of dancer camaraderie and sincere support from the judges (and guest-judges — Christina Applegate’s finest TV work might be her stints on this show) make SYTYCD the rare show that is both earnest and gritty, majestic and freakish. How does The Amazing Race have a million more Primetime Emmys than this live, vivacious, wholly inspired contest?
Now your turn. Which deserves to win? And which will win?