talent shows

Skill-Based Contests Are the Best Kind of Reality TV

A few weeks ago I caught an episode of SpikeTV’s Ink Master, a reality contest show that does for tattooing what Top Chef does for cooking. One challenge and one judging panel later, I was totally hooked. Just what I need: Another show to be obsessed with. But I can’t help it. I’m a sucker for feats-of-skill reality contest shows.

Ink Master ticks each box for the reality-contest checklist: It’s based on an unusual skill in a largely insular industry; the contestants are all passably decent (at least to a layman’s eye); and the judging — by tattoo legend Oliver Peck, Miami Ink alum Chris Nuñez, and, uh, Dave Navarro — is expert, harsh, and hugely informative. It’s the kind of show that at once demystifies a process (oh, that’s how you make a color tattoo really seem three-dimensional!) and deifies its practitioners (oh, and she is really good at it!). Each episode tests the artists on a different facet of tattooing: dimension, shading, old school, new school, cover-ups — even prison tattoos got an episode. When done well, shows like Ink Master (which airs tonight) create an instant hobby. Passion is inherently interesting, even when it’s not a passion you necessarily share. I didn’t mean to care this much about who can do the best photo-realistic features on a portrait tattoo, but here we are.

And Ink is but the latest in a long line of shows that have followed in the footsteps of America’s Next Top Model, which popularized the smaller-scale cohabitation-talent-contest format in 2003. Then in 2004, Project Runway raised the bar of what contestants on a reality show might be expected to be able to do, and that became the new gold standard. There have been shows were people had to, oh, cut dogs’ hair in particular artistic ways. (That was Animal Planet’s Groomer Has It.) Or design and build gorgeous, inventive monster make-up. (That’s Syfy’s fantastic Face Off, which begins its new season August 13.) Or survive harrowing physical demands while improving your professional wrestling technique. (MTV’s Tough Enough, you were too precious for this world.*) Everyone’s high school has a girl who sings well enough that she could certainly hold her own on American Idol. Not everyone’s high school has a marksman good enough to shoot a mini gumball off a golf tee at 35 feet — which two seasons of contestants have done on History Channel’s Top Shot.

These shows also resemble one another far more than they resemble the network shows they ostensibly imitate, like Idol or, god forbid, The Apprentice. Design Star (now HGTV Star), Platinum Hit, All American Handyman, Next Food Network Star and Work of Art, among others, all basically follow the Top Chef format: Most episodes have a short “quick fire” challenge (usually a good way to squeeze in a product placement) followed by an “elimination challenge.” Generally the prize is $100,000 and maybe some sort of position or title. Time management is always a huge factor for the challenges, and the marginal celebrities who serve as hosts all have the same cadence when they say “and your time starts … now.” Everyone lives together, and there are usually shots of a handful of the contestants smoking and gossiping after-hours. Squabbling is part of it, but that takes a backseat to the actual demonstrations of talent.

The other important part of these shows is the judging, and the more obscure the skill set, the more direct and fascinating the judging seems to be. Ink Master and Face Off are probably the best in that arena: The judges are incredibly hard on contestants, pointing out tiny details and making constructive suggestions. That tattoo should face towards his chest, not towards his armpit, they say. Mustache hair does not grow like that; you’ll have to apply that fake wizard beard all over again. For all the professional experiences of the panel on American Idol, they have never given any musical advice that isn’t something novices at home wouldn’t notice themselves. (You were not singing the right notes, for example.) But on these other, better shows, the judging is largely guidance-based, and not just for the contestants. Thanks to Top Design, I turn my nose up at rooms that are under-accessorized. (Get a plant in there for a pop of green, sheesh.) After Shear Genius, I scoff at a haircut that doesn’t “move” enough. I guess I should be embarrassed by how much I’ve learned from all these shows, but I’ll be damned if I don’t put more acids in my dishes since Gail Simmons has scolded every Top Chef contestant for not doing so. (I also use more salt. And taste as I go!)

I find zero joy in humiliation, so audition rounds for Idol or So You Think You Can Dance make me heartsick. I like when people are good at things, and I love that these shows depict how hard it is to be great at something. Most of these people are really good — but a handful of them are better, and that battle between good and great is so much more engrossing than the arbitrary shrieking on, say, Big Brother. So keep your lifestyle reality shows. If I never see another Real Housewife, it will be too soon. I don’t want to vote anyone off, I don’t want to watch alliances form, and I do not care who had the fanciest wedding or flipped the shittiest houses. But twelve people who all do something, competing to see who does it the best? Sign me up.

* The original incarnation of Tough Enough actually aired in 2001, and a lesser revival aired in 2011.

Skill-Based Contests Make the Best Reality TV