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Reality show standbys return for fall

There aren't a lot of new reality shows on the fall schedule, but plenty of popular standbys, including "Survivor," "Dancing With the Stars," and "The Amazing Race," have returned.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

New fall television will arrive throughout the month of September, but as has become the norm for the past few years, networks won't offer much that's new as far as reality TV is concerned.

After inundating prime-time with new unscripted programming over the summer, the networks will return to their old standbys: "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race" on CBS; "Dancing with the Stars," "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," and "Supernanny" on ABC; "The Biggest Loser" on NBC; "Hell's Kitchen" on Fox; and "America's Next Top Model" on The CW.

That's okay: Proven series — even the ridiculous ones like "Top Model" and "Hell's Kitchen" — are better than throwaway summer crap like CBS' boring "There Goes the Neighborhood," NBC's meandering "Great American Road Trip," and ABC's overly scripted "Shaq Vs."

One hangover from the summer is worth watching: ABC's "Shark Tank," which moves from Sundays at 9 to Tuesdays at 8 as of Sept. 15. It's the faithful US version of "Dragon's Den," and although its name makes people think of Discovery's Shark Week, it's actually about people trying to make their business dreams come true. Each hour, several inventors or entrepreneurs pitch their businesses to five real-life multi-millionaires (the "sharks"), who can invest their own money if they like the person and/or the idea. The show moves quickly, and watching the sharks fight with the wannabe entrepreneurs — or with each other for the chance to invest — yields a lot of real-life drama.

Besides "Shark Tank"'s presence on the fall schedule, there is one major change in fall reality television, and that's on Fox, which has continually struggled to find something to air before "American Idol" returns in January.

Enter "So You Think You Can Dance," a competition that will air its sixth season this fall, moving outside of its typical summer timeslot — and an "American Idol" fatigue shadow — for the first time.

Although it has a judge who's fond of screaming (Mary Murphy's signature praise is an eardrum-shattering "wooo!") and another who's a cranky old Brit (Nigel Lythgoe), it's completely unlike "American Idol" thanks to its raw talent. The audition episodes follow the "Idol" template too much, but after they're done, "SYTYCD" is worth watching, starting with the truly awesome group numbers.

Contestants dance in pairs to routines created for the show by Emmy-winning choreographers, and in solos in order to save themselves from elimination from the judges, who get more power than the "Idol" judges do. That's only one of many reasons why the talent showcase on "SYTYCD" just improves as the season progresses.

Cooperating ‘Losers,’ short ‘Models’Besides that, this fall will offer only minor changes to familiar network reality shows. For example, on NBC's "The Biggest Loser," trainers Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper aren't competing against one another for the first time ever. Instead, the overweight contestants work with both trainers, not being assigned to two teams. That will eliminate a lot of the artificial drama that Michaels told reporters "really sucks."

Did "Melrose Place" really need to be remade? Is "Cougar Town" as bad as the title suggests? And is there anyone out there who doesn't love "Glee"? We review the new fall shows.

On The CW, "Top Model" is stocked with models who are under 5' 7" for the first time as Tyra Banks tries to make a point about how short girls are real people, too. Really, though, they're just disposable playthings for Tyra and company's often bizarre challenges and manic judging.

"Survivor" returns to the South Pacific for its 19th season, stranding 20 strangers on beaches in Samoa for the chance to win $1 million. This will be the CBS show's third season in HD, giving even more life to the rich tropical backdrops, but of course, it's the contestants who provide the greatest drama. Previews promise the biggest villain ever, and likely refer to Russell H., who told me his strategy is to make his own tribe miserable by destroying their supplies and food. Genius.

"Dancing with the Stars" dredges the bottom of the celebrity barrel to come up with contestants such as the guy who plays the chairman on "Iron Chef America," Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Donny Osmond, and indicted former Congressman Tom DeLay, who may be polarizing if he politicizes an otherwise apolitical series.

Among the many reality series airing on cable, two excellent competitions, Bravo's "Top Chef Las Vegas" and Lifetime's "Project Runway" (formerly of Bravo) will continue and eventually conclude seasons that began in late August. Animal Planet continues its push into docudramas with its compelling series "Jockeys" and, in October offers both "Superfetch," on which pets are trained to do amazing tasks, and "I'm Alive," which features interviews with survivors of deadly animal attacks along with recreations of those attacks. On TLC, there's more of newly divorced "Jon & Kate" and, in October, "Little People, Big World."

If the more familiar reality programming gives you a headache, try Sundance Channel's reality series "Brick City," which will air over five nights starting Sept. 21. Its groundbreaking format — it's shot and edited like no reality series you've ever seen before, resembling a well-crafted film — is as compelling as its subject matter: a group of citizens in Newark, New Jersey. Those followed for more than half a year by the filmmakers are mayor Cory Booker, the city's police chief, and two gang members who also mentor kids. All want to improve life in their city, and watching their stories unfold is about as real as it gets.

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