February 9th, 2011
I actually have no idea if I’ve blogged about Top Chef All Stars yet, but it’s been pretty great, no? The show has bounced back from its weakest season to return to being incredibly enjoyable, introducing interesting challenges and avoiding mediocrity at nearly every turn. Even moments that I thought would negatively impact the series (like Jennifer being sent home so early) proved to be mere bumps in the road, as other contestants emerged to play their part in bringing the season together. The food has been pretty uniformly impressive, and when it hasn’t been those people have faced the music in the bottom. Outside of the lengthy period where Jamie remained in the competition despite her failures of execution, the show has just been about great chefs cooking in great challenges, which is what the show is all about.
Generally, I’ve been content to just enjoy the season on its own merits, but I want to focus on tonight’s episode because I have a nicely balanced pair of points I want to make about it. The first is an intellectual question about spoiler culture and Jimmy Fallon’s presence in the episode; the other, meanwhile, is just outright giddiness at one of the contestants in particular.
Heating Up Leftovers: Season 7 Finale
September 15th, 2010
Technically speaking, every Top Chef finale is meant to stand alone – for the remaining chefs, it all comes down to the meal of their lives. However, for the audience sitting at home the finale is the end of a journey, and usually the end of a season of narratives; whether they be rivalries or redemptive arcs, there should be some sort of story coming to an end during each season of the show.
However, Top Chef D.C. never quite found a narrative that it knew how to work with, and the finale is a perfect example of that. Despite the fact that there were a number of potential narratives to build upon, the finale was left to stand entirely on its own without any real connection to previous outings. Sure, the surefire rivalry ended when Kenny left early, but after last season’s finale felt like the show finally getting the showdown we had all been waiting for, the showdown between Angelo, Ed and Kevin felt like leftovers, except that they were leftovers that you don’t remember having but still seem old and tired regardless.
And while the cooking itself wasn’t impacted by this particular concern, my emotional attachment to the conclusion most definitely was.
The Irony of Monotony: Why SYTYCD’s Season of Reinvention Still Feels Stale
July 22nd, 2010
Earlier in the seventh season of So You Think You Can Dance, I commented at length on how the All-Star structure seemed to take away some of my favourite parts of the series, including seeing the contestants develop chemistry as a team and working together to overcome challenging choreography. However, as the season has gone on, the show was willing to break up the All-Star format to allow the dancers to pair up with each other, which helped bring some of that chemistry back to the table even if we didn’t get to see it develop over the weeks.
And yet, I think that the structure of the season has run into another roadblock tonight: when I heard word that they had chosen to send no one home, sparing an injured Billy Bell and a struggling Jose from their potential exits, I realized that the show’s biggest problem this season is how monotonous it has become. Sure, I’m not the kind of fan who has that moment of relief when my favourite is saved and gets to dance another day, but the biggest problem with So You Think You Can Dance this season is that even with all of the various reinventions I’m getting really tired of seeing these people dance.
Which I think is more of a reflection of the way the season has been structured than a reflection of the dancers themselves.
Turning Over the Keys: Musical Guests in Reality Competition Programming
July 9th, 2010
LeBron James’ decision to join the Miami Heat in the fall isn’t half as interesting as his choice (nay, demand) to announce this decision on live television after twenty-eight minutes of hilariously awful build-up in which television sports journalism lost a great deal of credibility. Frankly put, ESPN had no idea how to string together a show around such a crass act of self-promotion, which to their credit isn’t a particularly easy task: this was an hour-long special built around a ten second announcement, taking what could have been some interesting pre-decision and post-decision analysis and blanketing it with hyperbole about how this will forever change the game of basketball. This wasn’t ESPN covering LeBron James (which has become nauseous in and of itself), but ESPN turning itself over to LeBron James, which at the very least will have media scholars talking for a long time (or, about as long as it took Jim Gray to actually ask LeBron the question of the night).
And in what is the most shameless segue you’re likely to see all week, this same problem of “turning one’s self over” plagues reality competition programming (oh yes, I went there). For shows like American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, and So You Think You Can Dance, it’s necessary for time purposes to turn over part of their results shows to a musical guest or some other type of performer who kills some time, promotes their record/show, and moves on with their life. These performances can occasionally be quite interesting, but the fact remains that there’s a tension between the narrative unfolding (the elimination of a contestant, in most instances) and the musical performance, and watching tonight’s So You Think You Can Dance (which, in my defence, I watched immediately after tuning out from “The Decision” at the half-hour mark) a few thoughts came to mind about how shows work to keep these musical performances from seeming disconnected from the series itself.
Invasion of the Fan Perspective: SYTYCD’s Top 8
July 7th, 2010
You could argue that tonight’s episode of So You Think You Can Dance is, in itself, fan service: after some have complained that the series’ switch to an All-Star format has taken away from the audience’s engagement with the dancers, the series took an opportunity with the Top 8 in order to bring back the old format as dancers performed two dances (one with an All-Star, and one with one of their fellow competitors). As someone who has been underwhelmed by the supposed benefits of the All-Star format, I was pleased to see the series return to its roots, and I actually quite liked the balance between the individual and paired performances – it was a twist of sorts on the “Paired Dance + Solo” structure the show has worked with in the past, and I preferred it to those episodes as I’ve always found the solos to be pretty uniformly boring.
However, fan response to the show’s seventh season invaded the series in another, less formal, fashion in this week’s episodes, as the fans were acknowledged within both the rehearsal packages and critiques for a number of the dancers. The series has acknowledged its fans before, but I’ve rarely seen them viewed as such a force within the competition in both explicit and implicit fashions, which is contributing to what has been a very intriguing (if not necessarily even) season for the series.
All-Stars, No Story: SYTYCD Season 7
June 16th, 2010
When it was announced that So You Think You Can Dance would be changing its structure for its seventh season, in theory there shouldn’t be any complaints: after all, many of the show’s fans were frustrated by the sixth season, where the series felt stale for the first time. However, that staleness wasn’t really the result of the show’s structure so much as the decision to schedule the series in the fall (only weeks after the fifth season ended) and an unfortunate new stage which sucked some of the life out of the series. We were suffering from fatigue more than anything else, and while some small changes could bring us back to the franchise it seems as if Nigel Lythgoe decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
While we’ve known for a while that the series was throwing out its Top 20 structure and going with a Top 10 (in fact a Top 11) and teaming up the individual competitors with All-Stars from previous seasons, it wasn’t entirely clear just how that would work. The show is still a collection of 11 dance routines as it was before, but there are newfound conflicts in who we’re supposed to be paying attention to (the competitor or the All-Stars), and with Mia Michaels sitting in for Mary Murphy there is simply something different in the air.
And it’s proving to be, at least right now, a diversion from what used to make the show so engaging – while my choice of title may make it seem like the problem is that the show is focusing too much on the All-Stars (I couldn’t resist the play on No Guts, No Glory), the truth is that they didn’t focus on the all-stars at all, which is even more distracting and confusing for audiences and judges alike.
“That Girl is Like a Virus”
February 25th, 2010
Well, that’s more pleasant, at least.
Yes, tonight’s episode of Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains featured another brutal physical challenge, and there were certainly some ugly moments on both sides of the competition. However, while last week’s episode was dominated by James’ bullying on Stephenie, this week returned the season to where it was in the beginning: even if the game itself isn’t that interested, our pre-existing relationships with the people playing it make challenges more interesting, make humorous facial expressions more recognizable, and turn a potential mediocre game into something that feels more special than it actually is.
Strategically, the game is as predictable as it was for the past few weeks, but there was enough spontaneity on the fringe to keep things fun, which is frankly what All-Star seasons need to do in the earlygoing.
“Slay Everyone, Trust No One”
February 11th, 2010
Every season of Survivor is effectively the same as the one before: the players might change, but more often than not they bring nothing new to the game that hasn’t been seen in some form before. For every “twist” the producers have tried to throw into the game, it all ends up being the same in the end, which isn’t really a problem since the game is at its most compelling when it finds itself in familiar territory. Because we know what’s happened before, and because we have no idea whether the players involved know what’s happened before, we get to watch them walk in the shoes of the players who came before, either triumphing where they failed or tripping up where others succeeded.
What’s interesting about “Heroes vs. Villains,” the twentieth season of the show, is that it simultaneously reduces the game to a simple battle between good and evil while creating a game structure that is without question the most complex the show has ever seen, layered with subtexts (previous alliances, previous rivalries, personal experiences, etc.) that stretch back far into our memory of the show’s early seasons in a more overt way than ever before. By bringing the tribal competition to the surface, along with the binary that often emerges between those the audience loves to hate and those the audience wants to see go to the end, the show is creating the ultimate mind game: they are forcing characters with more emotional and gameplay baggage than ever before into a game which threatens to rigidly define them, ignoring the various subtexts in such a way that they can’t help but surface the first time anyone dares mention the word alliance or whispers about how successful some players have been in the past.
The result is Survivor at its most confident, pushing all the right buttons and getting some all-time great moments, some substantial comedy mixed with some engaging drama, and enough introspection to quite literally sink any other reality show that wasn’t build for just that sort of psychological inquisition.
Curse or Blessing? Predictability in Reality TV
November 6th, 2009
It’s been a while since I’ve stopped in with a Reality Roundup, which is symptomatic of the fact that my opinions about these three shows haven’t really changed. Survivor has been dominated by a single team to the point of proving downright uninteresting, Top Chef is still being dominated by the same four chefs, and Project Runway is something I didn’t even bother watching for a few weeks, choosing to read recaps instead. This hasn’t been a great season for any of the three shows on the level of really surprising me: in fact, they’ve all to different degrees become predictable (whether in which team will win, which chefs will dominate, and whether the show will be boring, respectively).
All three shows, however, feel ready to confront that sense of predictability in this week’s episodes, as Survivor rushes into a merge and Top Chef present a “volatile” Reunion special in an effort to shake things up a bit. And while Top Chef’s reunion show is predictably dramatic, Survivor’s merge episode is perhaps one of its best ever, unpredictable to the point of having no idea who is going home in the end.
And yet this leaves Project Runway, which has been predictably boring but almost entirely unpredictable in terms of the lack of consistent judging. As such, while the uncertainty of Survivor’s finale is downright exciting, the uncertainty surrounding who will be going to Bryant Park is actually problematic, and the end result dissatisfying if not necessarily wrong.