Why isn’t everyone watching SyFy’s Face Off?

I talk a lot about getting the kids to read more books, and spend less time with screens. But the truth is that for my family, some TV time is quality screen time. When you’ve got a show that you all enjoy, it’s like you’ve got a weekly date to all get on the couch, Simpsons-style, and experience something together. For us, that show is SyFy’s super fun competition show, Face Off.

If you haven’t tuned in, think Project Runway, but substitute special effects make-up for fashion. Each season, the show culls a group of special effects artists who are trying to break into the industry, and puts them through a series of deadline-driven challenges. As on Runway, the artists are mentored by a knowledgeable industry insider, and judged by professionals who could make or break their careers. Each week, someone gets crowned a winner (and in some cases, is offered immunity for the following week) and someone else is sent home. Like Runway, Face-off offers viewers a glimpse at how things are made, and  in particular, how creative people merge artistic vision with technical skill to make beautiful things.

But thats where the similarities end. Because while the format resembles that of runway, the content is on another level entirely.

My daughter and I (and occasionally our menfolk) used to watch Runway pretty religiously. We are not particularly interested in fashion, but we really loved seeing the process behind making clothing. But as the seasons wore on we grew tired of it. Each season (and especially after the show moved to Lifetime and grew to 90 minutes) there seemed to be less time spent showing people actually making stuff, and more time devoted to interpersonal drama. And ugh, the drama. Each group of designers was more predictable than the last, with contestants clearly casting themselves (or being cast by the show’s editors) into specific roles: they bitchy one, the underdog, etc. While some competitors did prove to be nice ladies and guys, the competition was fierce, in both the literal and Christian Siriano sense of the word: backstabbing, smack-talking, shameless self-promotion, and passive-aggressive criticism of one another seem to rule the day on Runway. Making matters worse, the judging was just infuriating. When Anya’s was crowned winner in Season 9 over Victor (a win that seemed largely pre-ordained by the producers), we thew up our collective hands and tapped out. Clearly, we do not understand fashion. (As the judges might say, I’m just not their girl).

But movies? Movies we get, and Face Off offers a real glimpse into the part of movie making that most of us rarely think about. Unlike the drama-driven bitchfest that Project Runway has become, Face Off presents friendly competition in a largely collaborative atmosphere. The artists showcased on Face Off are not just talented. They also demonstrate the kind of behaviors that anyone who ever wants to work in a creative industry should emulate.  Contestants help one another out all the time, not just on team challenges, but also on individual challenges when their own hides are on the line. On the rare occasion when someone shows up with a chip on their shoulder, they usually don’t last long. The artists turn to one another for advice all the time, and when mentor Michael Westmore shows up in the workshop, they listen to his notes with respect that borders on reverence. The mood continues on the reveal stage, where the judges offer constructive criticisms and encouragement rather than snappy, Michael Kors–style one liners. Contrary to what the producers at most reality competition shows think, really fun to watch a show with your kid where you don’t hate any contestant. In fact, by the time you get down to the top five or six, you kind of want them all to win.

In a sense, they all do. The judges on this show—all major players in the special effects industry–seem to use the show as a proving ground for scouting new talent. So even if only one winner gets to claim the prize, a strong showing by a losing contestant is more likely to get a foot in the door than any backstabbing or scheming would. In any event, I get the sense that there is just no room for divas in this industry. Judges Glenn Hetrick, Ve Neill,  and Neville Page (and in earlier seasons, Patrick Tatopoulos) are among the biggest names in the field, but they are still far from household names. So winners are not competing for fame so much as for chance to get noticed by people who can put them in a position to work for a living.

It makes for great tv that is fun to watch together. For kids (or anyone who has ever watched a movie), it shows just how much work goes into old fashioned special effects, and highlights the importance of time management, teamwork, and thinking creatively. For the family, it not only provides appointment television to share at a time when our kids are less interested in spending time with their parents, but it has given us more of an appreciation for the work that goes into the movies and tv we otherwise enjoy (and we’ve all started doing Glenn Hetrick impressions, noting “this-is-a-very-effective-make-up” whenever a monster or even just an injured patient shows up in the course of a TV show).

Season 8 premiers tonight, with past winners serving as mentors to  new contestants (and all seasons are streaming now at Syfy.com). Let the friendly competition, thoughtful critiques, and teamwork begin!

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