Reality TV these days is no longer just a comforting block of Velveeta sitting on your DVR. It has strapped on a Mexican wrestling mask and peacocks its ridiculousness around the ring.
So it's refreshing when a series does its best to cut down on the histrionics and tries to present some semblance of that experience most of us know as reality. "The Chair," which premieres Saturday, is Starz's first dive into the trough of unscripted programming and thankfully, it's not particularly interested in giving us hissable villains or steamy trysts.
But whether it makes for compelling TV viewing depends a lot on one's interest in the mechanics of independent filmmaking.
The series is a spiritual follow-up to HBO's "Project Greenlight," the three-season make-a-movie reality series produced by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Chris Moore. Moore is back alone as the creator and executive producer of "The Chair," along with fellow executive producer Zachary Quinto.
The mission this time isn't just to put a fledgling filmmaker through a trial by fire, but to see how two untested directors with very different sensibilities can interpret the exact same script. The person who makes the best film, as judged by the viewing audience, will win $250,000.
In his introduction, Moore speaks of his experience producing "Good Will Hunting" for Damon and Affleck, and reveals that before Gus Van Sant signed on to direct, they developed the project for both Mel Gibson and Michael Mann. (The mind boggles).
Unfortunately for cinema lovers, it doesn't appear "The Chair" will be showing us the birth of the next David Lynch. Or even Jennifer Lynch, for that matter.
The trailers for the resulting films don't promise anything more than efficiently made film festival curiosities. This is strictly for lovers of the process.
The two filmmakers are Shane Dawson, a YouTube star whose channel of daily goofy shorts has earned him a following of millions of teenagers, and Anna Martemucci, a struggling screenwriter with a series of short films and one indie feature under her belt.
Based on the two episodes made available for review, neither filmmaker appears to be a strict amateur, like Mark Borchardt of the documentary "American Movie," but neither seems to be a visionary. Instead they are two competent freshman directors struggling with the same troubles of countless others who have been in the exact same position -- money problems, crew problems, script problems (minus the reality show cameras, of course).
It's definitely not life-or-death, or even a portrait of artistic excess. The budgets aren't high enough for that.
The original script, "How Soon Is Now," by Dan Schoffer, is a simple coming-of-age story about two teens returning home for Thanksgiving after their first months away at college.
But under the guidance of Dawson and Martemucci, the films diverge wildly. Dawson's film becomes "Not Cool," an extremely raunchy poop-and-vomit comedy; while Martemucci turns it into "Hollidaysburg," an earnest Zach Braff-ian tale.
"The Chair," meanwhile, provides a wealth of anecdotal context for anyone thinking of pursuing their own independent feature. But "Hearts of Darkness" this is not.
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