If it weren’t for zombies, foul-mouthed cartoon kids, and shirtless warrior slaves, people would be huddled around a warm plasma screen on those cold winter’s nights just taking in reality show after reality show. The most anticipated midseason show — as determined by searches on Yahoo! — is “Dancing With the Stars,” but Season 14 is a hop, skip, and a three-month fox trot away. Then there are the favorite standbys: “The Amazing Race,” “Teen Mom,” and “American Idol.”
While those reap the most online attention, there are some upcoming gems — both reality and fictional — where the buzz is accelerating mighty fast. Consider tinkering with the DVR options to include these shows, coming very soon to a channel near you:
- “Celebrity Wife Swap” (ABC, January 3). Doesn’t Hollywood already do wife swaps? The ante is upped with the celebrity — or notoriety — angle. Possibly the most mind-blowing exchange so surreal that this would air in both reality and alternate realities: the respective missuses of Gary Busey of the no-helmet infamy and Pastor Ted Haggard of the gay-masseuse-but-I’m-still-a-family-man infamy. At least we know both wives must be saints.
- “Downton Abbey“ (PBS, January 8). The spiritual successor to “Upstairs, Downstairs,” the UK series embroils its patrician family and their servants in matters of love and the great war. Starring an ensemble cast that includes Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith and Brendan Coyle, Season 1 captured the attention of one-third of British adults, and huge fans this side of the pond (despite getting 20 minutes less) have helped push up “Masterpiece” ratings 43 percent.
- “The Biggest Loser” (NBC, January 3). The scale is barely back at zero, what with the Dec. 14 live finale, and it’s back at the ranch for Season 13. As if shedding poundage isn’t grueling enough, the new twist is splitting up the familial twosomes who come to the ranch, and matching strangers up. Trainer Dolvett Quince returns for his sophomore effort, but Anna Kournikova is out.
- “American Restoration“ (History, January 11). For those who think the Cinderella story in “Antiques Roadshow” should belong to the object and not the owner, Rick’s Restorations in Las Vegas devotes spit-and-polish and brings back forlorn remnants of Americana to their proper place in history. For Season 3, look for meat slicers and mechanical bulls.
- “Survivor: One World“ (CBS, February 15). What can be possibly new for Season 24? There’s always a first, and this one is having the competing all-female vs. all-male tribes live on the same beach camp from the get-go — but do they share the restrooms? The Samoan grounds will be familiar to long-time fans, but no alumni are coming in to fiddle with the cutthroat game.
- “Alcatraz“ (Fox, January 16). The first drama and freshman show on the list, the J.J. Abrams series got honors as “most exciting new series” at the Critics Choice Television Awards. Now the supernatural prison show finally gets its primetime shot, bumping “Terra Nova,” but without Elizabeth Sarnoff, the writer and co-showrunner behind the pilot. Things can be tough on the rock.
- “Justified“ (FX, January 17). With the largest series premiere ever for FX, star Timothy Olyphant put on his sheriff hat a la “Deadwood,” and gushing critics lined up to praise the Kentucky lawman tale. Look for guests Carla Gugino and Mykelti Williamson (Bubba from “Forrest Gump” and Jack Bauer’s boss on the last season of “24“).
- “Spartacus: Vengeance” (Starz, January 27). Liam McIntyre steps into the calf boots and Roman briefs as the warrior slave. (Star Andy Whitfield died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in September.) What hasn’t changed: rampant beefcake-ism, video-game bloodshed, and lots of battlefield yowling.
- “Merlin” (Syfy, January 6). Another British import, the family-friendly show delves into the warlock’s early days, with the usual palace intrigues, flying dragons, and herbal poisons wielded by power-hungry plotters. Season 4 ended with a duel — between femmes Gwen and Morgana. Camelot’s a whole new kind of place.
10. “Smash” (NBC, February 6). With all the singing competitions and high school glee club comedies, isn’t a wacky church-choir dramedy about due? This ain’t it: The musical series takes on not just Broadway, but also a song-and-dance show about Marilyn Monroe. Taking on the icons are familiar faces Debra Messing (“Will & Grace“), “American Idol” finalist Katharine McPhee, and Angelica Huston, while the Broadway cred comes from Brian d’Arcy James, Christian Borle, and Megan Hilty. Lots of big names behind the scenes, among them Steven Spielberg.