fall tv 2012

Will Demi Outshine Britney? and Four Other Burning Questions About Wednesday-Night TV

Every day this week, Vulture is picking apart the fall TV schedule, bringing you a night-by-night analysis of the burning questions of the new season. Monday, we looked at shows that are getting a little long in the tooth, and yesterday, we looked at the Tuesday comedy lineup. Which brings us to hump day, home of the shake-up. After an underwhelming first season, The X Factor is busting out the big guns by casting Britney Spears as one of its judges. But is she a good fit for live TV, or might she be outshined at the judges’ table by one Ms. Demi Lovato? American Horror Story has the opposite problem: Can it live up to its audacious, ridiculous, magical first season?

Is American Horror Story Backlash-Proof? In a word, yes. Some might describe the FX horror show as overwrought — sex with a ghost in a gimp suit, masturbation plus crying, and references to mongoloids in last season’s first episode alone, and Ryan Murphy does enjoy a certain number of over-the-top tropes. Critics are mighty split. But judging by our Twitter accounts and commenters, viewers weren’t hate-watching the show into a big fat hit the way they did with, say, Smash. They were just enjoying it! And then the show racked up seventeen Emmy nominations (perhaps by competing in the less competitive miniseries/movies category, but still, an impressive haul), tying for the most with Mad Men. It might be a stroke of genius on the part of FX to okay resetting the show every season. (“What will Murphy think of next?”) If the Harmons’ haunted house wasn’t to your liking (although, it really seems like it was!), this year’s a whole new story, one set in an insane asylum in 1964, reportedly featuring Nazis, aliens, and Jessica Lange as a lustful nun who runs the place. 
Will Demi Lovato Actually Be More Interesting Than Britney on The X Factor? Here’s how we predict it will work: Curiosity about the train-wreck potential of Britney will be tonight’s big draw, but most will want to stick around for Demi Lovato, the former Disney Channel star who doesn’t have conservators and turns out to be everything Britney isn’t — charming, natural, even a crier! She’s like your spunky kid sister and happens to have the No. 1 pop song in the country. Vulture got a sneak peek at The X Factor’s second-season premiere at a Tuesday screening in Los Angeles. As expected, the 84-minute episode was front-loaded with Britney, who spent most of the time making awkward (read: hilarious) reaction faces, clutching herself  or looking a bit dazed while a montage of her “mean” moments convinced us she was anything but. Demi won us over without trying and without being the typical female judge doormat American Idol made popular. She is the feisty one talking back to Simon, calling him an old man and offering him breath mints, leading the crusade to let a drag queen who sings “Born This Way” through (she succeeds), and flirting with the boys both young (she asks if she can have one of a LFO-type trio of teens) and super young (she can’t get over a 13-year-old Bieber lookalike with okay pipes and a Bruno Mars fixation).

Can Nashville appeal to non-country fans? If Smash is any indication (gulp), a genre show doesn’t live or die by its musical numbers: The show itself still has to be good. And Nashville’s cup runneth over with talent, with Connie Britton as Rayna, a conflicted fading star, and Hayden Panettiere as Juliette, the up-and-comer poised to push Rayna right on out of the spotlight, y’all. The music in the pilot is perfectly credible — enjoyable, even, particularly the haunting duet that closes out the episode — but all the twang in the world won’t matter if the show can’t live up to its soapy, melodramatic potential.

Why isn’t The Neighbors a cartoon? 30 Rock and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia are often described as live-action cartoons, shows where incredibly odd or bleak things can happen with little to no consequence. The Neighbors, about a well-manicured subdivision that is actually populated by aliens, could really benefit from the suspension of disbelief we grant shows like The Simpsons or Family Guy — and not because of its alien premise (we happily watched nine years of X-Files) but because of the way the human characters behave. “Our neighbors are aliens, but hey, the housing market sucks, so we might as well befriend them.” When the mom on American Dad follows this logic, we think, Sure, of course. When Jamie Gertz follows it on Neighbors, we think, Yikes.

Will Survivor ever end? This makes us feel old: Next week’s season premiere of Survivor marks the start of the show’s 25th cycle. (And MTV wants us to get nostalgic over the end of Jersey Shore, which is wrapping after just three years!) There’s no doubt CBS’s unscripted pioneer is showing signs of age: Last May’s season finale was the show’s least watched ever, and the 11.6 million who watched all of the crappily titled Survivor: One World marked the smallest audience for any edition of the series. And yet, even at diminished levels, Mark Burnett’s masterwork remains a more-than-respectable Nielsen player. Season 24 actually attracted more viewers than CBS comedies Mike & Molly and 2 Broke Girls, the two most recent editions of The Amazing Race or ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy; among TV’s beloved adults 18-49 demo, Survivor outdrew younger hotties such as Revenge, Smash, and Person of Interest. It helps that Burnett and his team are constantly throwing in new twists to the format (while still maintaining the basic integrity of the format) and are pretty genius at casting memorable (if loathsome) characters. What’s more, like The Real World, Law & Order, and The Simpsons, it seems plausible that Survivor has become such an icon that as long-time fans grow weary of Jeff Probst explaining that “fire represents life,” newer, younger viewers are replacing them. It wouldn’t be surprising if CBS soon decided to cut back the show to once cycle per year or perhaps experiment with putting one of the show’s two annual cycles back into the summer. (And then there’s the fact that Probst is now hosting a daytime talk show. If that succeeds, it may make it tricky for him to shoot both shows, and he has become such an integral part of Survivor that it’s hard to conceive of a replacement host.) But as things stand now, the first big competition-show format of the modern reality TV era may ultimately end up the most enduring, too.

Fall TV: Five Burning Questions About Wednesdays