“They Don’t Call the The Amazing Race For Nothin’!”
September 26th, 2010
Earlier this month, CBS gave away what I would technically consider a spoiler: they released a video of two contestants completing a Roadblock which was fairly clearly taking place towards the end of the first leg. Being generally spoiler-phobic, I resisted the video for a few hours, but then everyone and their mother were talking about it.
And when I finally watched it, I discovered why.
YouTube – The Watermelon Heard Around the World
I chose this version of the video with the highest number of viewers: while CBS’ own upload has 650,000, the copy posted has over two and a half million views. People have been watching this video for weeks, and it seems to have actually created some legitimate excitement around the season. I don’t think that the video is enough of a spoiler to ruin the episode (my usual spoiler-hating self didn’t really emerge), but I do think that it creates a very different sort of viewing experience than what we’re used to.
As a result, I want to ask (and perhaps answer) some questions about the strategy at play, which ended up helping the series to one of its most memorable premieres in quite some time.
Worked Over: Jaclyn Santos’ Online Reclamation of her Work of Art Narrative
August 7th, 2010
In profiling Work of Art contestant Miles Mendenhall, I highlighted how his behavioural multiplicity both serviced and undermined traditional reality show narratives and editing practices; however, at the end of the day, the fact is that even those who find fault in Miles’ behaviour have few issues with his art. The series may have portrayed him as a jerk, but the series never went so far to blur the lines between his actions and his artistic expression.
However, I think artist Jaclyn Santos has a fair case for the fact that the editors were not quite so kind, although it is fairly clear how and why this happened. For better or for worse, Santos’ use of her own image created a direct connection between her behaviour and her artwork, and while this led to some of her most successful pieces it was also a key element in the producers’ efforts to paint her into a box throughout the editing process. If Miles carefully controlled his behaviour to appeal to the basic structure of reality television, Jaclyn purposefully positioned her work as both intensely personal and as a direct subversion of the male gaze, which gave the editors plenty of opportunities to paint her into a corner.
However, Jaclyn’s true subversion has taken place after the competition came to a close: frustrated with how she was being portrayed, her personal blog has evolved from an opportunity to celebrate her appearance on the series to an effort to reclaim her personal reputation and her artistic point of view from what she sees as Bravo’s manipulative editing. Investigating that blog offers a glimpse of something we rarely see: a reality contestant confronting their depiction head on, in the process heightening the series’ clear – and likely unintended – willingness to unearth the contradictions and conflicts inherent in reality television as a whole.
While I’m sympathetic to her frustrations, I think that her post-show efforts to set the record straight has transformed her experience from lemons to lemonade, and furthered the series’ reputation as the most frustrating yet fascinating reality series in recent memory.
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.
Earlier this season, So You Think You Can Dance was creating its own problems: the new format got off to a rocky start, and early efforts to course correct felt like an admission of those problems, making the whole thing seem like a failed experiment. However, I’m willing to admit that the show has pulled it together, as by the time we reached last week’s decision to introduce a combination of All-Star routines and contestant pairings it felt like a natural evolution. The show is still clearly flying by the seat of its pants, but the season no longer feels like it is doing so in an effort to fix the initial setup. The more they adjust, the more it shows that they’re dedicated to finding the right balance, and I’ve been impressed with those efforts.
The problem, of course, is that two injuries have kept the series from really coming together, with two of the early favourites taken out by injury and eventually forced out of the competition. On a show which always features a balance between the power of the judges and the will of the audience, here the decisions are being made by a third partner, fate, which cares not for the quality of dance on display. It’s a sign that the season just can’t catch a break, crippled by these injuries which keep the natural competitive field from developing to its full potential, leaving an imbalanced group of dancers who represent less the best America has to offer and more the survivors of a grueling season.
A few thoughts on the optics of these injuries and the odd organization of the upcoming tour, along with an extension of last week’s piece on musical performers, after the jump.
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.
When we watch reality television, we like to write our own narratives: we like to imagine scenarios where our least favourite team on The Amazing Race gets stranded at an airport, or where the most obnoxious chef on Top Chef Masters fails to make their way into the next round. But I don’t think there has ever been a reality show which simultaneously invites and confounds such narratives as Survivor, a show which crafts such clear heroes and villains that you can’t help but be sucked in even when you know that allegiances and alliances could shift in just a matter of seconds. In reality, we shouldn’t get that sucked into Survivor: we should know that the producers are manipulating the footage, and we should know that it’s a game which depends on the fallibility of social interactions steeped in irrationality, but there is something about the series which has us crafting scenarios to enact justice, punishment and redemption with each passing season.
However, I can honestly say that I do not believe that anyone could have written what went down in tonight’s episode of Survivor. While there were plenty of scenarios that we could write ahead of time to satisfy our perspective on the season, nothing could have been so poetic as what unfolded at the latest in a series of ridiculous tribal councils this season. There’s something in the water in Samoa, as for the second straight year the first episode back from the merge has completely changed the game in ways which confirm why we keep watching this show.
We could write all of the narratives we’d like, but Survivor is ultimately going to be unpredictable, and every now and then something happens which reminds us why we’ve been watching for twenty seasons – tonight was one of those nights.
After the recent exit of Boston Rob Mariano, I was convinced that Survivor’s twentieth season was headed off the rails. Rob was basically single-handedly keeping the fairly over-matched Villains tribe in this game, and his exit signaled that Russell Hantz, a good Survivor player who is unfortunately convinced that he is the greatest of all time, now had control of that side of the game. And while I respected Rob, and enjoyed seeing him try to bring together a rag tag group, I don’t really want to see Russell’s ego run roughshod over the game from this point forward.
So when everyone on the Villains tribe is desperate for a merge at the start of this week’s episode, I’m right there with them: it’s not that I want them to be protected from the inevitably challenge defeats in their future due (partially) to Rob’s absence, but rather that I want the game to shift into a new form of gameplay that regains a sense of unpredictability and shuffles around alliances and the like. And so when that merge doesn’t happen, and the teams are back to competing against one another, I felt like this episode was going to be a complete chore.
Instead, it turns out that even though the merge proved to be wishful thinking, the merge nonetheless remained so on the mind of every single player that decisions, conversations, and strategies were all designed with it in mind. So while the merge will have to wait until next week, it already shook things up enough to keep me interested in this game even with Rob sitting on the sidelines.
Most weeks, The Amazing Race is a show which tends to expand rather than create our knowledge of the various locations it visits. The value of the show as a representation f different cultures is always a little bit limited, translated as it is into gimmicky challenges and pit stop stereotypes, but it’s usually just an expansion – rather than the a creation – of knowledge. And so the show is rarely expected to be providing any substantial cultural education, and while I think that we might visit countries vicariously through the race, we don’t necessarily except to learn about them.
However, this week The Amazing Race went to a place that most of the contestants, and many viewers, may have never heard of: the Seychelles, a series of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean, was a place that I had no previous knowledge of, and if I were to take the Race’s word for it the islands are defined by a sedentary lifestyle represented by tortoises and stubborn oxen. While the Race richly captures – sadly in standard definition – the beauty of the islands, and drops a mention of a large number of shipwrecks, the hectic nature of the race means that you spend more time with the people who are struggling with their new surroundings than you are with the surroundings themselves.
And while it is possible for this to make some sort of statement, for the players’ struggles to adapt to local customs to tell us something about the challenges facing their populations, this week’s episode was so filled with bone-headed mistakes that I wouldn’t be surprised if the people of La Digue island weren’t considered coconut Nazis by the time the hour is over. Finally living up to the potential indicated in the first episode of the season, this season’s group of racers has officially won the title of “Dumbest Season Ever,” and the poor Seychelles were just the setting for their clown-like farce.
Survivor has done episodes like this one before: by sending both teams to tribal council, it means that a single hour becomes packed with wall-to-wall strategy, which is usually when the game is at its best. And, accordingly, “Banana Etiquette” delivers shockers from both the Heroes and the Villains, cramming together one of the most ridiculous tribal councils in Survivor history with one of the most low-key of the season.
The difference, though, is that the presence of two tribal councils means that the editing of the episode played a largely role than usual in terms of guiding the audience to particular conclusions. While the “Villains” drama was just a wondrous stage comedy from the word go, and would have been entertaining regardless, the final “shocker” with the “Heroes” was entirely based on keeping the audience out of the loop in regards to their thinking. It was only surprising in that we had been given absolutely no intention of where things were going.
By comparisons, not even the “Villains” knew how their tribal council was going to end, and that’s the kind of drama that Survivor can’t manufacture.
I don’t know if Mark Burnett and his fellow producers are really excited about the direction that Survivor’s twentieth season is heading in, or if they’re actively concerned about it. What’s interesting about the Heroes vs. Villains premise is that, in Survivor, the tribes are only rarely within the same space, so the rivalry the title implies doesn’t really materialize in most of a single episode. Sure, over time the rivalry between the two sides will grow, but in the short term the show shifts away from that narrative to the systematic deconstruction of both tribes.
On that front, I think the show should be glad that early on the titles of hero and villain are slowly shifting away from their typical classifications, as it means that more of each episode will be particularly engaging. However, the clash of various ego has gone so far this time that I don’t know if they’ll ever be able to fully reclaim that broader feud, the internal divisions growing too larger for one side to group together and pretend that they are any sort of team under any sort of pre-determined classification.
And I don’t know if Mark Burnett wanted that part of this game to go off the rails quite so quickly.