Tag Archives: Reality TV

Season Premiere: Work of Art: The Next Great Artist – “Kitsch Me If You Can”

“Kitsch Me If You Can”

October 12th, 2011

As we drew closer to the season premiere of Bravo’s Work of Art, I began to get very nervous.

Last summer, I wrote a number of pieces that I think accurately capture my general obsession with this show, a complex and enormously flawed exercise that revealed things about the artifice of reality programming, the perils of reality editing, and the challenge of combining reality competition structure with something as purely subjective as fine art. However, while these difficulties may make it problematic within the fine art community, as a television critic I found Work of Art to be one of the most truly satisfying reality series I had ever seen. Each episode showed us something new about the artist, and their personal narratives were constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed numerous times over the course of the season. So whether I was writing about the show at large, or about two of its contestants (Miles Mendenhall and Jaclyn Santos), I had a lot to say.

Sadly, I will not have time to say as much this fall simply due to time constraints, but going into tonight’s premiere I wondered if I was going to have anything to say at all. For some reason I became profoundly worried as of late that the show wouldn’t be able to catch lightning in a bottle twice, especially since it didn’t seem like the show did so on purpose last time around. The tension that once sat at the center of the show could easily be diffused with a production staff now aware of the series’ flaws, and a set of contestants who fully understand what it is that the show is trying to accomplish.

While I have not seen beyond tonight’s premiere, I feel as though I can state with some authority that all has not been lost. “Kitsch Me If You Can” is an extremely strong opener, managing to introduce the artists while simultaneously focusing almost exclusively on their process rather than their personalities. Although “The Sucklord” may be larger than life, for the most part the cast seems to consist of artists with points of view who will be tested and tested again over the course of the competition.

And the results, at least in tonight’s finale, were pretty fantastic.

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Back to the (Reality) Future: “Unfinished Business” and “Redemption Island”

Back to the (Reality) Future: The Amazing Race and Survivor

February 20th, 2011

Watching the Survivor: Redemption Island premiere, I listened to Jeff Probst with a certain degree of skepticism. His argument was that Rob and Russell both had their own form of unfinished business, having played the game multiple times without ever having won. However, really, their presence is not about their story – they are there because Survivor needed a hook, and pitting two of its most infamous players against one another. While I think Russell probably believes that he is there to prove something, I think that Rob is just there to have fun, which for me makes him much more enjoyable to watch.

The fact is that seeing reality contestants try to “prove” something holds very little value for me. I appreciate a good reality storyline, and I think that every great reality show needs a great narrative or three in order to sustain itself. What is always difficult about all-star driven seasons, like both Redemption Island and The Amazing Race: Unfinished Business, is the way in which the narrative is defined for us: in the latter case, the teams are all introduced based on the reason they lost, and the season becomes more about them moving past that initial defeat than anything else.

I know my Amazing Race history, and so I remember almost all of these teams (like many others, Amanda and Kris were too short-lived and too generic to make an impression, but I did remember them eventually). There are also many stories here that I am inherently attached to: Zev and Justin’s early exit thanks to a lost passport and Mel and Mike’s charming father/son dynamic were two narratives that ended too early, and that I was excited to see more of. On the other hand, the idea of seeing more of Margie and Luke is somewhat terrifying, given the fairly odious behavior which characterized their more tense moments back in Season 14.

The difference between Redemption Island and Unfinished Business is simple: while the former has the ability to create new narratives early on, both based on the minimal all-star presence and the structure of the game, the latter is not built for the same type of instant narrative. This does not make it a failure, as the opening episode is filled with spectacle designed to highlight the switch to filming in HD, but it does mean that the season’s real value won’t be certain until we get a bit deeper into the race and see if any new narratives might be able to emerge.

Although there is evidence to suggest that the show is well aware that you can’t coast your way to the finals with just Unfinished Business.

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Making History: The Amazing (and Reductive) Race for an All-Female Winner

Making History: The Race for an All-Female Winner

December 12th, 2010

Tonight, there is a 2 in 3 chance of history being made on The Amazing Race.

For a show in its seventeenth season, it sorts of seems like it should be past the point of “making history,” but the fact of the matter is that no all-female team has ever won The Amazing Race (or at least the American version of the Amazing Race).

The show has been building towards this piece of history for a while now: Dustin and Kandice, arguably the “strongest” all-female team the show ever had, had two shots at the title before eventually losing out in the finals of their All-Star season (Season 11), while Jaime and Cara are the most recent team to make it to the finals in Season 14. However, the narrative hasn’t been particularly strong within a given season, I would argue, since the All-Star year: there, Dustin and Kandice had no other narrative but the notion that they should have been the first female team, and their eventual loss was one more step back for gender balance within this program.

For the record, I do not particularly care who wins tonight, which probably sounds like I haven’t been invested in this season. However, it’s more that I have no real preference: I like both Brook and Claire (who grew on me as the season went on) and Nat and Kat (who don’t need the money but have proved fierce competitors) enough that I’d like to see them break the streak, but Jill and Thomas rode that fine line between intensity and enjoying themselves which makes them a perfectly acceptable winning team along the lines of Meghan and Cheyne as opposed to a dissatisfying winning team like Freddy and Kendra.

But after the jump, I do want to look at this “all-female team” narrative, specifically the ways in which that narrative could overwhelm all other narratives as they race towards the finish line. [Note: now updated with post-finale thoughts, so Spoiler Alert]

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Season Premiere: The Amazing Race, Watermelons, and the Loss(?) of Uncertainty

“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.

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Jimmy Johnson vs. Survivor: Notoreity and Narrative in Nicaragua

“Young At Heart”

September 15th, 2010

The biggest challenge for a reality series like Survivor is finding a way to make things interesting in the beginning. The show so heavily relies on characters and their interaction with one another that those early moments are almost always less interesting simply because they are not yet characters: at best the castaways are caricatures, limited to their first impressions (which are encouraged and extrapolated by the producers within the opening “No one is allowed to talk” journey to the first locale).

However, with Survivor: Nicaragua there is no room for subtlety in terms of getting to know the contestants: the contestants are divided based on their ages, a key component in first impressions within the series, and two of the contestants are simply unable to remain anonymous for any length of time. What emerges, then, is a focus on the importance of honesty and perception within this game, key themes that emerge within every season of Survivor.

This time around, though, the producers decided to introduce them as early as possible, mostly in order to ensure that these two notable contestants can be successfully integrated into the series’ narrative in future weeks.

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Heating Up Leftovers: Top Chef Season 7 Finale

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.

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Revisiting Cultural Learnings’ Work of Art Trilogy

Revisiting Cultural Learnings’ Work of Art Trilogy

August 11th, 2010

Tonight, Bravo’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist finishes its first season, but unfortunately I won’t be able to cover the finale as a result of some (exciting) personal events which will have me heading cross-country in the days ahead.

When the show began, I never expected I would be so concerned about not covering the finale: I don’t cover Bravo’s other series, Top Chef, on a regular basis, and I didn’t expect for Work of Art to really break that particular trend. I enjoy reality television on a weekly basis, but there are rarely series where there is reason to write about it each week.

However, what I very quickly realized is that Work of Art is a special breed: as flawed as it is fascinating, the series has endless potential which is forced to fight against a limiting structure and a reductive reality construct which is consistently subverted by the actions of the artists and the very process of art itself. And so, after catching up with the series a few episodes in, I sort of became obsessed with the show, and have turned out a lot more academic(-ish) writing about the show than I thought possible.

And so, if you’re just discovering the show now or want to see why I might be so obsessed with it, I figured I’d collect the Work of Art trilogy together in one place. The three pieces cover the conflict within the series’ application of reality competition artifice onto fine art, the complex performance art which its most recognizable contestant has used to dominate the competition, and one contestant’s decision to “go rogue” by offering her own version of events in each episode on her blog in order to reclaim her personal reputation from Bravo’s editors – I might not recommend the show as reality television for which one shuts off their brain, but I certainly recommend it for those interested in the genre as a whole, and hope these pieces capture why.

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

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.

Who is Miles Mendenhall?: Confronting Work of Art’s Engimatic Antihero

Miles sits at the heart of this contradiction, in that he seems to be the most talented artist amongst those remaining but is also the one contestant who is unquestionably “playing the game.” Never before has there been a reality television contestant whose behaviour revealed so clearly the slippery notion of “reality” within these series, and without him I strongly believe that Work of Art wouldn’t be half the series it is. Regardless of your opinion of the way he is playing the game, the fact remains that he has managed to be one of the first reality contestants in history who panders to the cameras while simultaneously subverting the artifice of the reality show he’s taking part of.

Worked Over: Jaclyn Santos’ Online Reclamation of her Work of Art Narrative

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.

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