“A pile of broken glass is just a pile of broken glass, man.”
As a philosophical statement that doesn’t amount to much. But in context, it’s dramatically astute. The context is the reality show Blown Away (two seasons on Netflix), one of the most peculiar and obscure but praised series on Netflix. A Canadian production, it’s an artisanal-glassblowing competition.
You can make almost any activity into a competitive reality show, but glassblowing artistry is not the first thing that comes to mind. And yet it works, largely because of help from the Craft and Design (Glass) program at Ontario’s Sheridan College. Also, the eye-popping “hot shop” set where the glassblowing gets done, is a huge, historic facility in Hamilton.
One of the reasons the series works as entertainment and education is the sheer weirdness of the reality-TV format imposed on what is a highly skilled, highly technical creative process. That might be one of the reasons why the series – the second season arrived in January – has got so much international attention. A reviewer raving about it in The Guardian admitted it was indefinable, and wrote, “I can’t stop watching it. I am only writing this to make you watch it, so I can have someone to talk to about it.” Time magazine said, “The fiery, delicate work of glass artists makes for more captivating television than cooking or fashion design.”
This is all true. Yet it has a kooky quality that is highly amusing. Host Nick Uhas, a former Big Brother contestant and, apparently a YouTube star, seems completely lost. “What is glass, anyway?” he asks one of the judges in the very first episode. Also he asks the contestants, “Are you ready to play with fire?” You roll your eyes because the people he is addressing are serious artists who will talk about “the conceptual bravery” of a piece somebody creates. Standards are high. One contestant’s piece looks like very accomplished work but a judge sniffs, “It looks like something in an airport gift shop.” Ouch. The judges have the air of people who can’t wait to get back to the seminar where they scowl at the naiveté of students.
What makes it work, apart from the fact that the episodes are short and there are only five per season, is the challenging, intricate work being done before your eyes. Admittedly it is sometimes reduced to sound-bite-length snippets of action, but you can’t help but be awed by the phenomenal amount of skill and dexterity involved. We’re talking molten glass here, people, not three-ways-to-cook-an-egg.
The second season ends in a faceoff between artists Cat Burns and Elliot Walker. I’m not telling you who wins, but in some ways it’s a classic duel of male-versus-female interpretations of the challenge. The work of both is stunning, and the show is stunningly, wonderfully weird. What’s it all about, really? Well, “The humbleness that comes with glass,” as one unlucky participant says.
Frankie Drake Mysteries (CBC, 9 p.m.) has a notable episode. The dopey but enjoyable series – all wisecracks and fab outfits – enters the underground nightclub world of Toronto in the1920s. The episode, called Life is a Cabaret, is co-written by Sharron Matthews, who plays the adorable morgue attendant Flo Chakowitz, and features her prominently. See, Frankie (Lauren Lee Smith) witnesses a murder while she’s canoodling al fresco with a handsome chap. Turns out the murdered man and possibly the murderer had just left an underground gay club. The club must be visited and investigated and Flo takes the lead, and even performs. (Matthews is a renowned cabaret artist.) It’s all very jolly and won’t hurt your brain in the least. It’s also one of the few episodes not entirely stolen by Rebecca Liddiard.
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