Tag Archives: Reality TV

Who is Miles Mendenhall? Confronting Work of Art‘s Enigmatic Antihero

Who is Miles Mendenhall? Confronting Work of Art‘s Enigmatic Antihero

August 4th, 2010

To take a page out of Mad Men’s book, “Who is Miles Mendenhall?”

In basic terms, Miles Mendenhall is one of the artists on Bravo’s Work of Art, simultaneously the summer’s most problematic and most fascinating reality series. The series is a total contradiction, emphasizing the value of art by subjecting artists to challenges which seem designed to dilute their work and maximize reality television drama, and yet the resulting pressure placed on artists gives us a front row seat to their creative process which would otherwise be impenetrable (I wrote more about this earlier this summer).

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.

Love him or hate him, you’ve got to admit that’s a work of art.

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Walking in Designers’ Shoes: A Shift in Perspective for Project Runway Season 8

Walking in Designers’ Shoes: Project Runway Season 8

July 31st, 2010

It’s fitting that Project Runway’s eighth season began with the contestants “auditioning” for a position on the series proper, as I considered this premiere to be the series’ audition for my time.

After an incredibly rough sixth season in L.A., and a completely unmemorable return to New York in its seventh year, Project Runway is on its way out of my television schedule, and this season was designed to test my attachment to the series: stretching each episode out to 90 minutes makes it an even larger commitment (at least for those of us who ignore Models of the Runway, as we all should), and the series’ fundamental lack of cultural cache – I hadn’t even realized it was premiering – means that giving up on it is unlikely to really impact me in the future.

However, since things are slower now than they will be in three weeks, I figured I would tune into the premiere to see how the show is using its 90 minutes, and to see how they’re trying to shake things up to engage new viewers. And while there’s not enough here to convince me that there aren’t better uses of my Thursday nights once fall programming and life kicks in, there is enough here worth discussing in terms of how the show is looking to shift their point of interest from the competition to the contestants – it may not be enough to keep me watching, but it’s enough to show that they’re starting to understand some of the series’ problems.

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When SYTYCD Art Meets SYTYCD Structure: Stacey Tookey’s Carefully Designed “Mad World”

When Art Meets Structure: Stacey Tookey’s Carefully Designed “Mad World”

July 29th, 2010

I’ve spent a lot of time during So You Think You Can Dance’s seventh season discussing the non-dancing parts of the show, primarily in terms of the producers’ decisions in regards to the changes to the series’ format. I think this is ultimately because I don’t actually know anything more about dancing than what the show tells me, and because this season has (for better or for worse) been defined my competition elements other than dancing – injuries, All-Stars and choreographer conflict have been key topics of discussion, and frankly all of that takes away from the fact that I actually think there are four legitimate contenders for this year’s title of “America’s Favorite Dancer.”

This week, it’s tempting to go down the same path: we have Adam Shankman dropping a “Balls Out,” we’ve got Nigel Lythgoe showing just how much attention he’s paying to this competition as he accidentally drops an “American Idol” in there (which he chalks up to his mind being elsewhere, as he’s returning to Idol as its executive producer for Season 10), and you’ve even got yet another injury, with Lauren being attended to by the medics following her Foxtrot with Adechike (and making for a woeful final sendoff where Cat Deeley has to inform America that the judges, minutes after cheering about the lack of injuries, that they had jinxed it.

And yet, for once I want to focus on the dancing, and one dance in particular. Stacey Tookey’s societal piece with Billy and Ade was perhaps not the most emotional dance of the season, but it by far (for me) the most impressive conceptually. And while I think that part of this has to do with its artistic value, which I don’t entirely feel comfortable discussing what I do want to briefly analyze is how the dance is the perfect mediation of the choreographer’s artistic image and this season’s structural challenges, delivering something which is capable of standing as a piece of art while also being something which seems to absolutely capture not just the vague “spirit of dance” but instead the show’s competitive elements.

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Oy with the Auditions Already: FOX’s Masterchef Less Than Masterful

When I sat down to watch Masterchef, it was largely out of curiosity: I knew of the format internationally, and was curious to see how Gordon Ramsay was translating it into his television oeuvre. The basic premise of the show, taking “amateur” chefs and turning them into culinary professionals, is not without its merit, and it puts Ramsay in his only tolerable mode for me personally. I loathe Hell’s Kitchen because Ramsay’s antagonism is an end in itself: he yells and screams and swears to manufactured a hyper-competitive environment, and his personality overpowers the show’s potential as a cooking competition (which is underdeveloped, since that’s clearly not why people are watching). However, I find Kitchen Nightmares to be quite watchable because Ramsay’s yelling and swearing, while certainly heightened for the American version, eventually gives way to his effort to actually help people, and work towards some sort of meaningful conclusion.

Masterchef is unquestionably that more meaningful Ramsay, but unfortunately I have to say that the series is thus far a pretty big waste of time. I think there’s probably a show in here somewhere, but this opening episode was so poorly designed that I don’t know if I can tough it out for any amount of time. I actually like many of the elements of the series, but the fact of the matter is that we don’t actually get to see anyone actually cook in this week’s episode, which is so focused on personalities and yet ends up making the actual cooking process seem inert and lifeless in 99% of examples. By focusing on these auditions, to the point where they’re being stretched out over two weeks of episodes, the series kills any momentum it could possibly achieve by failing to define its own personality while trying to lay the groundwork for each of the carefully selected chefs who are being allowed into the competition.

And while I may appreciate a good cooking show, I spent more time laughing at the over-the-top production of the show than I did connecting with any of the contestants, which I would consider a bit of a reality television disaster.

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The Irony of Monotony: Why SYTYCD’s Season of Reinvention Still Feels Stale

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.

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Too Much On the Plate: The Bitter Taste of Top Chef Season 7

Too Much on the Plate: The Bitter Taste of Top Chef Season 7

July 22nd, 2010

Based on the first six episodes of Top Chef’s seventh season, I’m not convinced that the Magical Elves (the show’s producers) were watching the same show that I was last year.

Top Chef’s sixth season was, by all accounts, a triumph: four chefs went into the semi-finals cooking some absolutely stellar food, each in a position where they would have deserved to win the competition, and each representing a different style of cooking. The challenges were solid, the Las Vegas setting was put to solid use, and outside of some justifiable complaints about Toby Young the judging was pretty spot on. It was a season without any major controversies, and which seemed to verify my conclusion I had come to after watching the first four seasons in a marathon last summer: Top Chef, like The Amazing Race before it, is a solid foundation which will vary each year depending on the caliber of chefs within the competition.

And yet, it seems that the Magical Elves felt that there was some magic missing: either because they were concerned with the caliber of chefs they had assembled, or because they felt that viewers were no longer responding to the series in the same fashion, the show’s production team has gone out of their way to mess with a good thing this year. Now, on the surface, you may expect me to call them out for deliberately breeding conflict between the chefs, something which has happened more naturally in past seasons and which is one of my least favourite parts of the series when it isn’t pre-existing (as it was between brothers Michael and Bryan last year).

However, the bigger problem is that the show’s production is undermining several cardinal rules of reality competition programming, rules which Top Chef used to follow with expert proficiency. While it has been possible for good chefs to be sent home before weak ones in the past, this year’s challenges seem explicitly designed to remove any opportunity the judges would have to give a chef a second chance, to allow them to bounce back as opposed to sending a chef who will remain mediocre throughout the rest of the competition. Instead, the producers have seized control of the competition in the most backwards of fashions, in that they actually cede any semblance of control when it really matters most to the rule and logic of a series once based on the food rather than the folly.

It’s a season that feels as if it’s been designed by the Elves who make cookies rather than those who make reality television, and it’s managing to take what might otherwise have been a perfectly solid season and turning it into something the series has never been before: a reality series uncertain of its own identity.

Which used to be about food.

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Injury Time: Contestants turned Survivors on So You Think You Can Dance

Injury Time: Contestants turned Survivors

July 15, 2010

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.

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Reality Bites: Survivor’s Fall from Grace with Emmy Voters

Reality Bites: Survivor’s Fall from Grace with Emmy Voters

July 10th, 2010

Anyone who watches Survivor could tell you that this year was its best in a very long time: blindsides became standard, immunity idols became common currency, and Russell (for better or for worse) introduced an entirely new way of playing the game. For fans of the show, it was everything you could hope for, combining the twist and turns of the best seasons with some of the players from those seasons with the “Heroes vs. Villains” structure of the Spring season. Overall, the year was definitive evidence that the Survivor formula is still capable of surprising us, and that twenty seasons into its run Survivor is still a viable reality series.

And so it may seem strange that, after experiencing one of its best years ever, Survivor was shut out of the Reality Competition series category at the Emmy Awards (although Jeff Probst is nominated again in the Host category, which he has won twice). This isn’t a huge surprise, really: after all, The Amazing Race has won this category for seven straight years, so it’s not as if one can expect a great deal of turnaround in terms of the nominees. However, Survivor hasn’t been nominated for the award since 2006, and I think the fact that it’s yet to be nominated again reveals something very interesting about the Emmy voters.

Primarily, it reveals that they don’t actually like reality television.

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Turning Over the Keys: Musical Guests in Reality Competition Programming

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.

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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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