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Getting Some Feedback: A Top Chef Failure and a Work of Art Worry

Getting Some Feedback: A Top Chef Failure and a Work of Art Worry

July 8th, 2010

I have yet to blog about this year’s season of Top Chef’s seventh season, and I really wish that I wasn’t doing so under these particular circumstances, but “Room Service” was such a failure that I have a few thoughts on where precisely it went wrong (although Scott Tobias has a more complete rundown of the episode at The A.V. Club). The notion of introducing a tournament-style competition in order to send two chefs home isn’t the worst idea, as they’re trying to create competition between the chefs (especially after the hyper-competitive elements last season) and this forces Kenny and Angelo’s rivalry to the forefront and draws further tension from the various chefs. However, the way in which that competition was actually executed failed to actually highlight the weakest chefs, instead punishing good chefs for small mistakes while rewarding weaker chefs for a single quality dish in what was an otherwise disastrous performance.

And while I want to highlight a few problems, one thing I want to focus on specifically is a lack of feedback within the process, which was also central to part of last night’s episode of Work of Art, which I want to discuss briefly as well.

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Point of View: Bravo’s Work of Art a (Fascinating) Piece of Work

Point of View: Bravo’s Work of Art a (Fascinating) Piece of Work

July 7th, 2010

In the second episode of Bravo’s newest reality series Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, a contestant created a sculpture which derided reality television, a sculpture which led to him being sent home.

Mind you, he wasn’t sent home just because he had little love for the form of television in which he was taking part: the sculpture was lifeless and uninteresting, and relied on an inside baseball art joke that not even the contestants/judges (yet alone the home audience) understood. But the fact remains that he wasn’t here to play a game of any sort, unwilling to engage in any sort of drama and, more importantly, not in a position where he would be willing to step outside of his comfort zone in order to compete in what most would consider a competition. Another contestant, eliminated the following week, went home because she refused to take a challenge seriously because it was a commercial “job,” and she doesn’t make art to appease clients; she, too, ended up making something of limited value (and hadn’t done much interesting previous to that piece), but the fact remains that it was her refusal to “play along” which separated her from other failures.

Reality Competition series require participation, not only in terms of creating strong personalities (and the conflict which arises from them) but also in terms of creating compelling narratives for viewers to follow. What I find so fascinating about Work of Art is that it is both a tremendous success and an absolute failure, a series which is flawed by traditional reality competition standards and yet offers ancillary, and unique, opportunities for viewer connection which the show’s structure isn’t built to really capture. While many contestants aren’t participating in the reality series they’ve been cast on, they are participating in a larger quest for creative fulfillment, and at moments the show successfully invites us into their own little worlds and gives us a legitimately fascinating glimpse into their creative process which overshadows the tired machinations of the Magical Elves.

And allows us to find our own point of view on the competition at hand, even if Bravo isn’t willing to fully embrace this sort of potential.

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Trust in Reality TV: A Four-Letter Word? – A Cultural Learnings Reality Roundup

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Trust in Reality TV: A Four-Letter Word?

A Cultural Learnings Reality Roundup

[Since I find blogging about shows like Top Chef, Project Runway and Survivor: Samoa individually somewhat inconvenient, but often nonetheless have things to say about them, I figure we’d lump the three mid-week reality shows together in what we shall now refer to as Cultural Learnings’ Reality Roundup. Enjoy!]

Trust is perhaps the central tenet of reality television.

I don’t mean so much within the game itself, although clearly in a game like Survivor (whose 19th season, Survivor: Samoa, started this week) there is an element of trust between individual players. Rather, I speak of the trust relationship between the show and the viewer. Viewers hope that they can trust the judges on Top Chef and Project Runway to make the right decisions, and they hope they can trust the losing Survivor tribe to vote out the person who is making the new season nigh on unwatchable.

It is a highly tenuous sense of trust, of course: half of the dramatic value of reality television is having that trust violated, and the growing frustration as villains or talentless individuals remain while others go home instead. And, of course, that trust is forever complicated by the existence of editors, learning that the trust you want to experience is being manipulated at every turn.

So, what I find fascinating about this week’s trio of reality shows is that in each instance we are reminded of this trust relationship, and that the “worst Survivor villain of all time” is in fact perhaps the most trustworthy reality character (from a viewer/series perspective) the show has ever seen.

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Season 6 Premiere: Top Chef Las Vegas – “Sin City Vice”

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“Sin City Vice”

Season 6, Episode 1

You might remember earlier this summer when I suggested that I would be spending my free time this summer writing about my first run-through of HBO’s super-serious Western Deadwood, but the lack of posts on the subject would indicate that this plan changed. You see, things got busy at various points in the summer, and during those moments I struggled to find time to sit down and deconstruct/unpack incredibly subtle and evocative hours of television in a style that David Milch truly owns. It was just too much for me to handle, and while I do intend on getting back to the project once my academic projects are finished it just wasn’t the right recipe for when I needed to take a breather from the drudgery of completing a major research thesis.

However, speaking of recipes (oh aren’t I clever), the show that ended up filling that gap (along with some catchup with The Big Bang Theory as well as indulging in the down under stylings of Project Runway Australia more recently) was Top Chef, Bravo’s cooking competition series. Considering my position as a critic, this makes a lot of sense: the show has been quite well-regarded by critics, recently garnered its second straight Emmy nomination, and even got a name-drop on 30 Rock at some point in the last couple of seasons. That’s a solid combination of factors to convince me to track down the first five seasons of the show in preparation for this week’s sixth season premiere.

Of course, there’s one problem…I don’t actually, you know, like food.

I’m aware of how crazy that sounds, but it’s true: I’m an enormously picky eater, my diet consisting of perhaps three entrees and a handful of snack/breakfast/dessert/pastry options, so this show doesn’t appeal to the Foodie or, well, any part of me on that level. While I also lack fashion knowledge, there is a visual element to Project Runway that creates a pretty objective perspective on which to judge the competitors. However, on Top Chef it’s about flavour and about subtle decisions that I really have no context for. I’m (not seriously) considering putting myself out there to the show as a judge under the moniker of the “Paletteless Wonder,” as I really have no context for whether these dishes sound good or terrible until the judges provide their opinions.

But the fact that I not only stuck through five seasons, but also was left frustrated that I couldn’t immediately move onto the sixth which premiered on Wednesday, is a testament to the show’s ability to convey the love of food in conjunction with the personalities of the chefs in order to pull people like me into these competitions. I don’t know if I would have enjoyed Top Chef Masters, where established chefs like Hubert Keller and Rick Bayless competed in the various competitions, as much if I hadn’t already seen other contestants go through it: I may not love food, but there’s something about seeing people achieve greatness in their chosen field that is truly spectacular, especially in the somewhat “out there” nature of Top Chef challenges. Seeing them go where I had seen all of the other chefs go before was a real touchstone for how much I’ve become attached to the show, and how happy I’d be to see it come back for a sixth season.

And as the show takes to Las Vegas, it becomes very clear that this is the same show it was before: sure, there’s plenty of Las Vegas puns (did you hear that the stakes are high?), but at the end of the day this seems like an enormously talented collection of chefs with perhaps the most “notably” established individuals we’ve seen yet. And while I liked the way Top Chef Masters stripped out the tension in order to focus on the cooking, some part of me is glad to see a new collection of oddballs prepared to do whatever it takes to win the title of Top Chef in a very strong premiere.

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The 2008 Television Time Capsule: Project Runway – “Season Four Finale”

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“Season Four Finale”

Season Four, Episode 14

Airdate: March 5th, 2008

I was watching Definitely, Maybe over the holiday break, a charming film that I quite enjoyed, but it fell into a rather frustrating cliché. Narrating a story to his daughter about the dark ages that were the early 90s, pre-internet and pre-cell phone as it was, he adds that it was also a time without reality television.

I am aware that the vilification of reality television is neither new nor entirely unwarranted, but I remain perplexed that people are still unwilling to differentiate between good reality television and bad reality television. This idea that it is some sort of scourge was, indeed, a potential truth when every network was parading out show after show, but that pattern seems to have largely ended: not only is America’s taste for the genre subsiding, based on recent trends, but what shows have survived have for some reason stood the test of time.

I decided to limit myself to one reality television show for the time capsule (partially as a punishment for the Emmy hosting disaster), and the decision ended up being easy: Survivor has the ratings, The Amazing Race has the Emmys, but Project Runway has a Peabody Award and the distinction of being the show that perhaps surprised me most in 2008. While it was late last year that I discovered it for the first time, since then I’ve watched five seasons (if we count Project Runway Canada) and continue to be impressed.

Yes, the fourth season was far superior to the fifth, and the show is not immune to some of the casting issues that plague most reality series, but by the time the designers get to Bryant Park I care more about fashion than I ever thought possible. More than any other reality show I’ve seen, talent is a deciding factor: while some challenges lead to unfair eliminations based on some wacky expectations, both seasons airing in 2008 ended with winners who felt like they had been on a journey and matured as a designer along the way.

In picking a single episode, it is very easily the show’s fourth season finale, the victorious moment for flamboyant Christian Siriano. The show’s youngest and most cocksure designer, he emerged as a true sensation: talented, entertaining, and full of one-liners and catchphrases. The show’s fifth season largely felt so dreary because everyone, compared to Siriano, felt like an imitation.

But Runway never feels that way, charting its own course in the reality television waters and being all the better off for it. The show is also memorable this year for its off-air wranglings, with Bravo and Lifetime fighting over rights to the series and delaying Season 6. When that is eventually resolved, let’s hope the series stays on the right track.

Related Posts at Cultural Learnings

[For more details on the Cultural Learnings 2008 Television Time Capsule, click here!]

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Project Runway Season Five – “Episode Six”

“Life’s a Drag”

August 20th, 2008

You know, I’m starting to wonder if there’s some sort of psychological condition which takes the most obvious pieces of logic and totally twists them the second you enter the Parsons work room. I’m not saying that the intensive Project Runway schedule (where they’re constantly working, constantly not getting enough sleep, etc.) is not in some way going to be detrimental to their state of mind, but when they’re ignoring even the most obvious ways to succeed in the contest I do have to wonder what exactly is in the water.

When Project Runway gives you a drag competition, you do one of two things: you either go full-out into that fantasy drag outfit you’ve secretly always wanted to make or you adapt parts of your own aesthetic into a drag concept in order to show the best of both worlds. The former gets you into the Top 3, a fact shown as Korto, Terri and Joe all just throw caution to the wind in creating “fabulous” garments that their models seem to adore. And the middle of the pack all create dresses that seem like they are that mediation, of their own ideas with the ideas of drag, in a way that deems them inoffensive while competent enough to understand how this show works.

But the Bottom Three perplex me, and they’ve done it a lot this season: two of them, in particular, just don’t seem to understand that this isn’t just an opportunity to prove you have taste, or to prove you know how to cut out pieces of fabric and attach them to other pieces of fabric in a seemingly random pattern. Instead, this is an opportunity to prove that you’re capable of listening to a single word of the challenge put before you.

And when they can’t do that, why are they even still there?

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Project Runway Season Five – “Episode Five”

“Lipstick Jungle”

August 14th, 2008

After last week was spent pimping out NBC’s Olympics coverage, which has clearly benefitted from the attention (I’m equating its success with Project Runway, as unlikely as that is), so now NBC Universal is turning their attention into my universe: the surprise Sophomore pickup of NBC’s Lipstick Jungle, Brooke Shields’ drama series that is searching for an audience it never quite found.

The result is our first episode to separate our groups into pairs, and one of the most prevalent examples of the producers clearly influencing the celebrity client to select some designers who clearly don’t understand the aesthetic that is required. Kelli and Blayne end up in the Bottom Two for taste more than their execution (Although that was also poor), and chances are that if she had selected a few more appropriate designers we would have seen a far better challenge; but, I’m not convinced that’s what the show is really after.

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