Recently, I’ve caught a few episodes of the SyFy Channel’s Face-Off.  I generally avoid “reailty TV” shows, as most of them seem predicated on embarrassing, humiliating, and generally abusing their contestants.  This show, however, focuses on the creative process, and although the contestants are competing with each other, there’s more onscreen cooperation than rivalry.

If you haven’t seen or heard of the show, it consists of a number of pro and semi-pro makeup artists competing each week to try and fulfill a certain assignment.  Their finished makeups are the presented to a team of pro film character designers and makeup artists who judge them.  Each episode, one design is chosen as the best, and the creator of the worst goes home.  By the end of the season, it’s down to three or so, and the final winner gets all sorts of prize money and a car.

The challenges consist of a variety of “weird” subjects, from the mythological and folkloric to the futuristic and science fictional.  Usually there’s some sort of twist – a fairy tale character in a futuristic setting, a color scheme dictated by by a microscopic photograph, shapes dictated by a plant, and so on.  The show follows various contestant’s process and progress from sketches to final makeup, usually involving a lot of sculpting and casting and painting of prosthetics along the way.

Of course various contestants run into problems – a mold breaks, a prosthetic tears, a model is allergic to some material, a piece doesn’t fit right – any ambitious work that’s on a deadline will always develop last minute problems.  Which is great for the show runners, because it provides the real tension and conflict, and that’s what holds peoples’ interest.  As cool as it is to see the alien or monster gradually develop, understand some of the thinking, the why behind the designs, it’s even more fascinating to see the creative solutions these folks come up with to get around those surprise problems.  Sometimes, the final result is actually the better for it, other times, not so much.

It fascinates me that, slick and Hollywoody as Face-Off is, they don’t follow the usual reality TV approach to providing the most intense drama by pitting individuals against each other to provoke mayhem.  Instead, they focus on the drama of the individual against time, circumstances, and materials, on the creative response to an unexpected challenge.

On several episodes, one contestant’s disaster has drawn the others in to help them recover.  Often there are assignments where they have to work in randomly assigned teams.  While competition is the name of the game, rivalry is seldom seen.  Contestants don’t act like selfish dicks – they generally behave like professionals in a professional setting.  And the judges comments on the work are unflinching and honest, but never petty or demeaning.

Dorky or graceful, brilliant or barely competent, all these people share a passion for their brand of creativity, and that’s what’s at the heart of this show.

There’s a certain cheese factor to the show, sure.  I think it’s in their corporate charter that more than eighty percent of the SyFy Channel’s original content must have a high cheese factor.

They can’t depend on me tuning in every week – I have to budget my TV time, or I’ll fall behind on too many projects.  But I’ll check it out from time to time, and probably catch the season finale.  The show is worth a look.

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