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5 things to watch for in reality TV this winter

There’s a lot of reality TV ahead in 2015: more than 70 new and returning reality shows debut in January alone. Here’s a guide to some of the highlights and lowlights, and trends that I’ve spotted among all the reality TV networks are flinging our way.

Twists and changes come to the big shows

The Amazing Race” (CBS, Feb. 25) will, for the first time, bail on the one thing that made it different: casting people with preexisting relationships. While all 11 teams are dating couples, including a former New Kid on the Block and his boyfriend, five of the 11 teams will meet for the first time at the race’s starting line. It seems like a desperate attempt to create even more drama, but it may also be interesting to see how well strangers function as a team during a race around the world.

Survivor Worlds Apart” (CBS, Feb. 25) isn’t celebrating its 30th season with an all-star season, but has instead cast all-new players and will Survivor Worlds Apart: three tribes, divided by background”>divide its three tribes by working class.

American Idol” (Fox, Jan. 7) keeps its successful judging panel from last year but drops Randy Jackson as mentor (record executive Scott Borchetta, who once mocked the series, will take the job). Also, the top 48 will be challenged by performing with a live band in front of an audience at a House of Blues club. But the biggest change is the shift from performance and results shows to one episode per week: once the show gets to its top 10, both performances and results will happen in a single episode. “So You Think You Can Dance” shifted to a similar format in recent seasons, but it’s not yet clear how “Idol”‘s version will work.

When “The Voice” returns in February, Christina Aguilera will be back after skipping two seasons; Pharrell Williams will remain on the show along with Blake Shelton and Adam Levine.

“MasterChef Junior” (Fox, Jan. 6) just concluded its second season and won’t waste any time getting to a new season, but it’ll be the last “MasterChef” with Joe Bastianich, who’s leaving the series but still has his CNBC show “Restaurant Startup.”

Of all the major network shows, “The Bachelor” (ABC, Jan. 5) appears to be playing it the safest, casting a former “Bachelorette” and farmer for its next season, though the previews show a pregnancy test that, as with most “Bachelor” previews, will probably turn out to be nothing. The season has already been spoiled if you want to save yourself the trouble.

Smaller but greater competitions

The new year means the return of one of the most underrated competition series: “King of the Nerds” (TBS, Jan. 23). It’s ridiculous and corny while also being very smart, and has terrific challenges. Last year included a giant version of Battleship and a race to free George Takei from a cell via a blindfolded laser maze.

Syfy’s “Face Off” (Jan. 13) has found itself in a bit of a rut, but it still features really terrific makeup work. There are changes ahead, though: borrowing from all the other shows that have coaches mentoring teams of people, the “Return of the Champions” season will feature three former winners (Laura, Rayce, and Anthony) leading teams of new contestants.

A couple years ago, CBS tried to adapt “The Great British Bake Off” into “The American Baking Competition,” hosted by Jeff Foxworthy, but it didn’t work–and Jeff Foxworthy was actually one of the best parts. Now, PBS is giving those of us in the United States a chance to see the very-popular original, albeit starting with the fifth season and with a dumbed-down title: “The Great British Baking Show” debuts Dec. 28.

Bad titles

Perhaps as a sign of the increasingly desperate attempts to stand out, we have several shows with outrageous, sensational, even inaccurate titles. There’s “Steve Austin’s Broken Skull Challenge” (CMT, Jan. 4), the second season of a show that’s all physical challenges; “50 Ways to Kill Your Mother” (Discovery Life Channel, Jan. 15), a British series on which a daredevil does stunts with his 70-year-old mother; and “World’s Worst Mom” (Discovery Life Channel, Jan. 22), an intervention series for helicopter parents.

On the lighter side of ridiculous titles, there’s “Big Giant Swords” (Discovery, Jan. 13), which is literally about swords–ones made by a YouTube star, “Irish Mike,” who became known for recreating weapons from pop culture.

Star power

High-profile celebrities still find reality television to be an attractive venue to further their careers or just have some fun. That starts with the return of “The Celebrity Apprentice” (NBC, Jan. 4), and its cast of 16 celebrities includes Vivica A. Fox, Shawn Johnson, Kenya Moore, Geraldo Rivera, Terrell Owens, Keshia Knight Pulliam, Gilbert Gottfried, and Kevin Jonas.

Ellen DeGeneres is getting into the reality competition space with “Ellen’s Design Challenge” (HGTV, Jan. 26), a furniture construction competition that she created and will give its winner $100,000.

“Rock this Boat” on the new Pop network (formerly TVGN, Jan. 14), which follows the boy band New Kids on the Block on a five-day cruise with “blockhead” fans. There’s also the return of “Wahlburgers” (A&E, Jan. 7) and its spin-off, “Donnie Loves Jenny” (A&E, Jan. 7), which follows Donnie Wahlberg and Jenny McCarthy.

For a more thoughtful, there’s the TLC series–yes, I said “thoughtful” and TLC–“Who Do You Think You Are?”, executive produced by Lisa Kudrow and featuring famous people learning about their family history. This season includes Bill Paxton, “Big Brother” and “The Talk” host Julie Chen, Sean Hayes, and Angie Harmon.

Finally, there’s “Michael Sam” (OWN, Dec. 27 at 9), the documentary put together from footage shot before plans were cancelled to follow the first openly gay NFL player for a reality series.

Newlyweds in the new year

Last year’s extraordinary new series “Married at First Sight” continues, basically, with “Married at First Sight: The First Year” (FYI, Jan. 13), that follows the two couples whose marriages survived the experiment. If you missed the show itself, definitely watch the first season: it defied its title and premise to be a series that was thoughtful and entertaining, not exploitative but a true exploration of what relationships and marriage are about. That’s a great way to start 2015.
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