What we can learn from Blown Away

Photo Credit: Netflix

Photo Credit: Netflix

Blown Away, in many ways, is what reality television should be. The Netflix original series is heartfelt, dramatic and, from what some in the field have been buzzing about in interviews, honours the art and science of glassblowing. The show’s wholesome nature and technical prowess make it an example for other production teams to study moving forward.

In 10 short episodes, the show follows a typical reality TV competition format of one contestant (usually) being eliminated each week. The competitors are given a creative brief, such as creating a piece that captures a sense of bodily movement and features a human body part. They are later judged on how true they stayed to the brief, the techniques used and their creative bravery. They have limited time to make what they want for the challenge out of glass in what the host adoringly calls North America’s biggest hot shop (a workshop for glassblowing).

The most prominent feature of the show that I desperately want other reality shows to learn from is that most of the drama and tension comes from the man versus nature conflict of glassblower versus temperamental medium. It isn’t competitors throwing each other under the bus or sabotaging each other. It isn’t miscommunication, my most hated narrative tool to create tension. The competitors all seemed to like – and more importantly respect – each other well enough. While there were tense interpersonal moments, especially towards the end, it felt like the product of artists in a rigorous skill test, tired from immense physical labour and understandably under some stress. I never felt like the show was intentionally edited to present the narrative, just that it was a naturally occurring tension no different from someone’s piece fracturing from rapid temperature changes.

Further, a friendship arose between competitors Deborah and Momo, both women in a male-dominated industry. When Deborah’s torch died, Momo lent Deborah hers. Typically, pitting women against each other feels like an obvious tool many editors may be tempted, subconsciously or otherwise, to employ. Deborah and Momo, however, were in competition with each other no more than the others in the shop.

The amount of respect between the competitors was so refreshing altogether, beyond avoiding that interpersonal conflict as a narrative crutch. When Momo struggled to get her piece into the annealer, a vault-like device designed to gradually cool glasswork to avoid fracturing or other damage from rapid temperature changes, the door was left open. Ultimately, she risked damaging her piece to shut the door so that others weren’t impacted by her struggle. Even fellow competitor Janusz clarified that he respected Deborah (and her 30 years of experience in the field) immensely between joking about wishing she’d do badly and stopping himself from wanting to pick apart her work. The ultimate competition, the last two standing, still didn’t want to disrespect each other. It really felt like both of them wanted to be the best on their own merit, stepping their work up in the face of talented competition instead of sabotaging or criticizing each other like so many reality TV show contestants.

For years, I’ve watched videos of glassblowing to calm down when stressed, which may be strange but Netflix has just validated me so I don’t care. The wholesome competition and their incredible talent thrived within artistically framed shots. The camera operators did an impressive job in capturing frame after beautiful frame of dramatic moments: flames licking the sides of a piece under the blowtorch, contestants lovingly shaping and moulding their pieces, close-ups of cutting glass and shots of contestants doing what looks like absolute back-breaking labour with clear passion for their work. The editing felt choppy at times, which feels like a necessary evil with 23 minute-long episodes each capturing a full day’s work and the judgement period. The team behind it clearly has experience with reality TV, nailing the formula for a successful show. I don’t know if choppy editing can fully go away when such long periods of time are condensed into such a short episode, but I do feel that, as the production and editing teams get more accustomed to Blown Away’s needs, things will only get better.

Further, I’d be remiss not to talk about how the show addresses social issues. In short, it did pretty well. Instead of attributing intent to an artist, the judges talk about their interpretation of a piece, like with Deborah’s instalment playing with themes of gender. The show allows artists to tell their story, without trying to dial it up for shock value or pity. Tearful confessionals happen, but they don’t feel forced. Crying is just something a bunch of passionate artists who care a lot about their work, their loved ones and issues close to their hearts sometimes do. Momo often draws inspiration from her Japanese roots, like a nod to contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama in the pop-art challenge. In a challenge themed around food, Leah designed serveware with holes in it to make a statement about food scarcity in recovering nations.

Deborah often included feminist themes in her work, making sprouting potatoes in a challenge about botanical-themed pieces to represent her feelings of otherness. Alex, in the same challenge, crafted a dying plant in a traditional jar used to transport specimens in an era past, which felt to me like a statement about how colonialism kills all it touches. Particularly in Deborah’s final installation, which the judges interpreted as a statement about her experience as a woman in a male-dominated field, the guest judge for the episode expressed that he had never experienced what she was talking about, because he was a man, but seeing the softness of the glass egg draping over a pedestal next to the brutal frying pans and various meats suspended from the ceiling, he saw more clearly how she felt. That acknowledgement of privilege and ability to see someone bearing their heart and really reflect on their message resonated with me.

From what I’ve read, it seems like the glassblowing community wasn’t sure what to expect from Blown Away at first. It would have been easier, most likely, for the team behind the show to dial the drama up, use shifty editing to make conflict seem astronomical and showcase the art in a less technical (and realistic) way to appeal to an audience with little knowledge of the craft. However, they didn’t. They partnered with the Corning Museum of Glass to incorporate a residency at the museum in the prize package. They used field-specific terms – don’t laugh when they mention glory holes, you nerds – and provided explanations of their use. They seemed to balance entertainment and technical education well. The competitors didn’t pull punches with the assistants brought in from Sheridan College – they relied on them to do important work in creating the pieces, seemed to mostly treat them well and provided learning opportunities when they arose, like correcting posture when pulling glass.

Overall, this show feels wholesome. In western society, we so often feel disconnected from the crafts that brought us to where we are today. Glassblowing is ancient. It takes intelligence, care and physical endurance. In some ways, it feels at odds with a society that has pushed for so long to standardize all processes, industrialize whatever we can and ensure that everything in our grasp is made quickly and cheaply. Blown Away didn’t land on Netflix with much fanfare, but it still made it to the streaming platform in 2019. It feels like part of a revolution – we have lived in times of fast food, cutting every corner in production of goods and demanding everything in our lives be digitized, industrialized and dehumanized and we are pushing back against it. We want to watch people lovingly craft something that holds meaning for them. While there is a time crunch for them, it is still handmade. It might be too early to attribute this show’s creation to growing anti-industrialist sentiment, like the arts and crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. That said, it feels like a nod to a time when care was valued in craft and craftspeople were known as the respectful and tight-knit community they are.

I hope that more reality TV show production teams and streaming platforms look to Blown Away as an example of a good show. I don’t want to go back to the era of hate-watching shows about hot young people doing stupid, dangerous things. I don’t want to see people ready to fight each other over a televised competition. Reality TV doesn’t need to be trashy or appeal to our more embarrassing primitive urges. It can appeal to healthy competition, wholesome respect for peers, zest for knowledge, passion for a craft and the very primal urge to watch fire do cool stuff.

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