Emmy voters looking to shake up the reality races certainly have plenty of choices.
There are more than 20 never-nommed skeins eligible for the reality competition category this year. In the noncompetitive category, the potential for surprise is even greater: “Project Greenlight” is the only show with multiple noms back in the hunt.
Here’s a look at four shows that stood out from the pack this year, even as they flew under the buzz radar:
THE ROAD TO STARDOM WITH MISSY ELLIOTT (UPN)
Hardly anyone noticed this street-smart search for a superstar, and it’s no wonder: Most of its episodes aired around the same time “American Idol” began its fourth season.
Those who did tune in, however, saw a show that took the “Idol” concept, flipped it and reversed it (as host Elliott might put it). While “Idol” takes its sweet time, “Missy” took multitalented diamonds in the rough and immediately put them to work on Elliott’s tour bus. Taking the contenders into the real world produced true drama while presenting a much more raw and realistic depiction of the path to fame. While she didn’t have a memorable catchphrase like “You’re fired,” Elliott was as compelling as Donald Trump as the final arbiter of each round.
PROJECT RUNWAY (Bravo)
It would have been easy to say “sew what?” to this competition-based skein about struggling fashionistas trying to become Seventh Avenue’s next big thing. But the producers of “Runway” took every opportunity to make their show stand out.
Production design was always outstanding, whether the camera was capturing a chaotic fashion show or lingering on a single contestant’s slow-motion meltdown in the middle of a busy New York street. Characters were allowed to be real quirky (vs. TV quirky), and producers took great care with their seasonlong arc: Wendy Pepper’s transformation from lovable single mom to backstabbing bitch willing to sell her soul for a shot at fashion stardom.
AMISH IN THE CITY (UPN)
As soon as it was announced, critics assumed this was a sure sign that reality TV had finally gone too far. After all, what good can come from turning the cameras on the Amish?
Plenty, it turns out. By putting Amish young adults in a house with reality TV stock characters (the jock, the diva, the gay dude), producers of “Amish” ended up with the ultimate culture clash. Once it became clear the show had no desire to exploit either group of kids, the ratings fell off as viewers looking for a trainwreck tuned out. Those who stayed were treated to one of the year’s best soap operas, as the Amish teens weighed returning home or staying in the big city.
JOE SCHMO 2 (Spike)
The first “Joe” skillfully skewered reality TV by staging a fake “Big Brother”-like competition. Round 2 took on dating shows like “The Bachelor,” and the results were nearly as hilarious — particularly when a “contestant” gets wise to the fact that she’s being punk’d.
Still, no skein makes a better argument for rethinking the Emmy reality categories. In addition to “real” people, “Joe” features improv actors and semi-scripted banter. It should be in a reality/comedy category opposite “Simple Life 2” and “Invasion Iowa” rather than duking it out with wish-fulfillment skein “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”