On the Lot: A Critique

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The following is an open letter from Time magazine's TV and media critic, James Poniewozik...

Dear Mark Burnett,
We have fond memories of sultry nights watching Big Brother, Project Runway, the first season of American Idol - hell, even American Juniors. So [I[ was quite the receptive audience for On the Lot, your filmmaking competition. I told people I had faith that you could make this into compelling TV; I even said nice things about The Contender, for God's sake. But you're losing me, and here's why:

On the Lot Contestants 1. The Format. You could have gone in two directions with this show: the boutique, Project Runway approach, where you spend most of your time behind the scenes with the contestants, showing the stress and fights and creative challenges; or the American Idol route, where you parade them on live TV for a home voting audience. Ten times more people watch American Idol, so I guess I can't blame you for making the latter choice, but it totally drains the interest out of your 18 finalists, an indistinguishable mass that I now think of as 17 Finalists Plus the One Guy Who Does All the Special Effects and Will Probably Win.

2. The Host. I will never say anything bad about Ryan Seacrest again. I'll never even say anything bad about Brooke Burke again. The choice of host says a lot about your aspirations for the show, and your choice of second-string entertainment-news host Adrianna Costa - oversmiling, emphasizing every other word with upward-pointed index fingers, referring to everyone as "you guys" - says, "Our show's not quite classy enough to get Jillian Barbarie to host it, so let's settle for a Jillian Barbarie type."

3. The Judges. Since when is everyone in Hollywood so freaking nice? You've managed to convene a panel of Paula Abduls. You have Carrie Fisher, turning every judgment into a self-deprecating joke or Star Wars reference; avuncular Garry Marshall, marveling over and over how amazing it is that they let broads direct pictures these days; and the rotating guest judges, whose assessments of even the lousiest clips conclude, "...but it was really well-made."

You need at least one Simon Cowell or Michael Kors type, who is willing to be blunt with the contestants and able to articulate what's right or wrong with their work. Which brings us to...

4. The Movies. I guess I can see why you went with "One-minute comedies" as your first competition theme - that's what people like to watch on YouTube, right? The problem is, it was like watching two hours of so-so YouTube without the ability to click to another video. Even the funniest videos we saw last night weren't really movies: they were well-made commercials. (The bit about the woman taking cell-phone calls during labor needed only a Verizon title card at the end and you could have sold the airtime for several hundred thou.)

I mean, I like a puking alien as much as the next guy, and I fully expect to see one during the first quarter of the next Super Bowl for Bud Lite, but can an actual good filmmaker win a competition like this, or will it just go to the most capably glib hack? Which brings us finally to...

5. The Challenges. Part of the problem with the comedy challenge is that it was just too broad. If you want to show the differences between the contestants, do what Project Runway does and give them more tightly restricted challenges--shooting the same premise, or even the same scene - and let their differences, and characters, emerge in the different ways they pull off the same job. (Speaking of challenges, what happened to the make-a-movie-in-one-hour challenge at the end of the second episode? Were the results that bad?)

I could go on, but judging from the ratings so far, I may be the only one left watching at this point. I'm not completely giving up on On the Lot yet, because I know that reality TV, like moviemaking, is a process. But the dailies are not looking good.

Matt Richenthal is the Editor in Chief of TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter and on Google+.

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