I feel it necessary to add my two cents to the swirling pool of opinion on the recent events in Penny Arcade’s web-cartoonist reality show, Strip Search.
First, a summary of what happened:
Essentially, after a challenge, the latest winner selects two participants to go up for elimination. These two then compete one-on-one in a timed drawing contest to see which one stays, and which one goes. Pretty standard reality TV fare, as I understand it.
But here’s where it got messy. In the latest elimination round, the judges, Mike and Jerry (or Gabe and Tycho, as they are pseudonymously known) decided they didn’t like either contestant’s drawing. So they scrapped the established rules, told them they were both the loser, and brought back another contestant who had already been eliminated.
Their argument, and a fairly obvious one at that, is that the system had clearly failed them, and that the already-eliminated contestant, Lexxy, was a more skilled webcomic artist than either Nick or Mac, the co-losers, of the new elimination round. The purpose of the show was to pick the most talented webcomic artist out of all the initial contestants, and it would be unfair to everyone if that did not happen due to a flawed system. Therefore, revise the system.
Here’s the problem with that argument: it’s kind of bullshit. Here’s why:
1. The purpose of an Apprentice-style reality show, where a group of contestants compete for a job in a shared field of work, is not to pick the most qualified candidate for the job. That is the purpose of job interviews, of resumes, and references, and hiring departments. The purpose of such a show is to pitch a cast of compelling and relatable individuals (who possess varying character traits and personalities) against one another in a series of entertaining, unexpected, and often totally absurd competitions, and to see which one, by skill, endurance, creativity, and, yes, luck, comes out on top. It is obvious that Lexxy deserves a job at Penny Arcade. This does not mean that she should automatically win Strip Search.
2. A large portion of the appeal of such a game/reality show is that, as the viewer continues to watch, the structure of the competition becomes comfortable and familiar. One can begin to make predictions about which contestants will perform well under certain pressures, and which challenges will have what effect on the body of contestants. If the creators of the show present you with such a system, and give every indication that it is fixed, constant, set in stone, the viewer believes them. They map out in their heads whole complicated brackets of outcomes, calculating odds as to how long each contestant will last, what rivalries will spring up, and who will be the ultimate victor. If the creators/judges of the show abruptly up-end this fixed system in the middle of the season- the middle of an episode, in fact- the viewer loses the understanding and familiarity with the show that allows them to connect with it, and that makes it compelling in the first place. It stops being a game show; it becomes a sort of sadistic improv-by-proxy. The judges no longer look like judges; they look like gods, and not only the contestants, but the viewers, are totally at the mercy of their whims.
3. Lexxy, the resurrected contestant, is a highly talented and versatile artist. During her participation in the show, she displayed the capability to make amusing, interesting cartoons. However, as of now, she is not, nor was she ever, a career webcomic artist. She is an “up-and-coming,” and already quite successful, for-hire illustrator and graphic designer. Her body of work consists primarily of the sort of rich, vivid, evocative digital art you see on Magic the Gathering cards, or the covers of science fiction novels or comics. She made it clear that she has an idea for a webcomic, has drawn up a whole bunch of concept art for it, and wants to participate in, and win, the Strip Search competition to allow her to pursue this project in earnest. But she was, as of the start of the show, primarily an illustrator and designer; she already had a decent number of clients, too. Nick and Mac both have webcomics, and are webcomic artists through and through.
4. If Mike and Jerry wanted to find the most talented graphic designer and illustrator, as it now seems, they should have advertised as such, and they shouldn’t have made a show with the ostensible focus of pitting webcomic artists (i.e. people who both art and word) against each other. They claimed not to be looking for the next Mike, nor for the next Jerry, but for the next potential Mike/Jerry hybrid. Lexxy’s work would suggest that this is not what she is trying to be. She is a profoundly talented multimedia artist and designer. She has contributed, both in art and merch design, to the mighty behemoth that is Homestuck, as well as many other things. She did this fucking picture of Jade. But she is not, first and foremost, a webcomic artist. She does not, as closely as her two eliminated competitors, fit the criteria that the audience were given, and that the participants are supposedly judged by.
If the makers of a reality show realize, mid-season, that they have fucked up (if Lexxy’s elimination was, in fact, a fuck-up), they run with it, and they do not break the illusion of structure existent outside of their authority. Doing so not only shifts the focus from the contestants to the creators; it also makes the creators look dumb.
Come on, Kraholkihulikins. Don’t be dumb.
A Note to the Esteemed Alexandra Douglass:
Lexxy, I love you. You are awesome. This rant was directed squarely at the PA folks. I am still in awe just from the realization that you did that picture of Jade. It’s basically synonymous with Homestuck. And I like me some Homestuck. I am totally in support of you doing the Cloud Factory- I’d still back you if you stopped doing commissioned work and became solely a webcomicker. I anticipate your upcoming comic, and the rest of your future work, with great relish.
Last note to Mikerry Kraholkihulikins: You could have just given her a job after the show ended anyway! It’s not like Strip Search was going to determine the last employee you ever hired!
(This rant brought to you by Speeth, Inc., wholesalers of vitriol to whoever’s buying.)