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The midseason shuffle: 10 to watch

By Chuck Barney
Contra Costa Times

OK, so maybe giving a starring role to a monkey in a lame sitcom (“Animal Practice”) wasn’t such a good idea. And, in hindsight, “The Mob Doctor” and “Partners” were disasters just waiting to happen.

Yes, the fall featured its fair share of TV blunders. But we’ve now reached midseason, and it’s time to hit the restart button. A wave of new shows is headed our way, and several old favorites are making welcome returns.

Here are 10 midseason developments to keep an eye on:

1. A “Downton Abbey” wedding: The much-anticipated arrival of Shirley MacLaine isn’t the only big news going into Season 3 of the deliciously addictive period drama. After plenty of on-again, off-again anxiety, the show’s primary lovebirds, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew (Dan Stevens), are preparing to walk down the aisle. But will the big celebration come off without a hitch? We’ll believe it when we see it. (“Downton Abbey” returns at 9 p.m. Sunday, PBS).

2. Judging the judges: Can Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj avoid turning “American Idol” into a vicious cage match? Will Usher and Shakira enjoy the ride as they take their chairs for a spin on “The Voice”? It will be interesting to see how famous new judges fit into TV’s biggest talent shows. “Idol” could be in a precarious position as it deals with reports of bitter feuds between Carey and Minaj (who will be joined by Keith Urban). Then again, the animosity just might provide “Idol” with the ratings boost it needs in its 12th season. (“Idol” returns at 8 p.m. Jan. 16, Fox; “The Voice” returns at 8 p.m. March 25, NBC).

3. Sizzling Bacon: One of winter’s biggest gambles is Fox’s “The Following,” a taut psychological thriller starring Kevin Bacon that looks more like a cable drama than a broadcast network show. Bacon shines as a former FBI agent on the trail of an escaped serial killer/cult leader, and the pilot episode has critics raving. But “The Following” is excessively dark and gory for a network series, prompting concern that it may not attract the mass audience Fox craves. (Premieres at 9 p.m. Jan. 21, Fox).

4. A fond farewell to J.R. Ewing: When Season 2 of the “Dallas” reboot launches, fans will have the chance to see Larry Hagman’s final performances as conniving oil tycoon J.R. Ewing. Hagman shot several episodes before he died in November at 81. The show plans to pay tribute to him – and to one of television’s most iconic characters – when it lays J.R. to rest during an onscreen funeral in March that reportedly will be attended by several past and present “Dallas” stars. (”Dallas” returns at 9 p.m. Jan. 28, TNT).

5. Carrie that weight: The producers of “The Carrie Diaries” face a daunting challenge: How do you make a compelling contemporary teen drama without messing with our memories of a beloved character from TV’s past? The show is a “Sex and the City” prequel that focuses on a 16-year-old Carrie Bradshaw (AnnaSophia Robb), who, after her mother dies, ditches suburban life in Connecticut for the glamor of Manhattan. (Premieres at 8 p.m. Jan. 14, The CW).

6. The last laugh for “30 Rock”: Three shows are bowing out this month, including “Fringe,“ “Private Practice” and, most notably, “30 Rock.” Even though it won three straight Emmys (2007-09) as TV’s best comedy, it’s been easy to take Tina Fey’s madcap sitcom for granted. But in its highly enjoyable seventh and final season, the show has been at the top of its game, which makes it even more difficult to say goodbye. (“30 Rock” series finale is at 8 p.m. Jan. 31, NBC).

7. But can it be a smash? The ambitious musical drama “Smash” burst into prime time last winter with a great pilot and even greater expectations. But it became a creative mess – one that viewers loved to hate. Now comes a major reboot, complete with a new executive producer, new faces (hello, Jennifer Hudson), and new music. The supporting characters that annoyed us most are gone: Good riddance, Ellis. (“Smash” returns at 9 p.m. Feb. 5, NBC).

8. Felicity becomes a spy: Several familiar stars will pop up in new roles, including Anthony Edwards, Jenna Elfman, Sarah Chalke and Brad Garrett. But we’re mainly excited to see Keri Russell in “The Americans.” Boasting one of the winter’s most intriguing premises, it’s a Cold War-era saga about two KGB agents (Russell and Matthew Rhys) posing as an American couple in suburban Washington, D.C. (Premieres at 10 p.m. Jan. 30, FX).

9. A fresh start for “Cougar Town”: Over three seasons, Courteney Cox’s hilariously offbeat sitcom survived a dumb name and some shabby treatment by its network. But can it survive basic cable? After ABC axed the show, TBS swooped in for a dramatic rescue. Now the cul-de-sac crew attempts to become one of those rare shows that can thrive in a new setting. (“Cougar Town” returns at 10 p.m. Tuesday, TBS).

10. Southern-fried controversy: Brace yourself for MTV’s “Buckwild.” A reality series about nine young adult pals in West Virginia, it’s the latest example of TV’s newfound love for country folk. It also raises the ire of those who believe it trades in regional stereotypes. Labeled the “Redneck Jersey Shore,” “Buckwild” has been condemned by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. (Premieres at 10 p.m. Thursday, MTV).

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