Today is a very special ÆtherFeature as our journalist, Tee Morris, is taking the helm and sharing his thoughts on a new offering in steampunk. Enjoy this spoiler-free review of Steampunk’d, the competition pitting teams of creative steampunks against each other’s imaginations…
This morning, my social networks were humming with after-thoughts on Steampunk’d, the Game Show Network’s latest reality show competition pitting two teams of makers against each other in weekly challenges. With World of Steam’s Matt King, Steampunk Couture’s Kato, and Brute Force Studio’s Thomas Willeford as judges, steampunk takes center stage on GSN Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. EST to both praise and criticism from the steampunk community. Even before the show went live last night, makers, event organizers, and steampunks of all backgrounds dismissed the show as a colossal failure and waste-of-time that pandered to the lowest common denominator. Once again, it would seem, mainstream media would fall incredibly short in its understanding of steampunk.
And this was before the premiere of the show last night.
Let’s just get this out of the way first: Not everyone will be thrilled with Steampunk’d. It’s not set at a convention. It’s not centered around fashion. It’s not centered around prop design. There are going to be steampunk factions who will cast a glance at this show and focus with laser intensity on everything Steampunk’d barely regarded, completely missed, or totally bungled when it came to what steampunk is all about because what they do is steampunk.
I’m focusing on what Steampunk’d got right in their premiere episode.
The Punkyard. Without question, this was my favorite aspect of this show. The Punkyard is as a Maker’s Nirvana: a collection of odds, end, baubles, bangles, and technology old and new, all scattered and jumbled into one enclosed area where our respective teams loaded up with what they needed for the challenge and repurposed it for the task at hand. (If you remember the always-fun Junkyard Wars with Robert Llewellyn, it’s a bit like that.) The Punkyard is what I hope for whenever I hit an antique mall. All this retro-kitsch-obsolete-technology stuff collected in one place, waiting for makers to do something incredibly creative with it. I want a Punkyard of my own now!
The Manor. Challenge shows like this—be it Face/Off, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, Chopp’d, Cake Masters, and the list goes on and on—are sometimes tough for me to invest in as their challenge and endgame seem completely random. “Okay, today we’re concentrating on Asian-Mexican-Barbecue Fusion!” or “Your challenge is capturing the mood of Turquoise.” It’s like playing a game of Dixit with Samuel Becket and Jackson Pollack. In Steampunk’d, the makers have the Manor: an empty house not only needing decoration, but style and story for every room. I find this approach refreshing. There is still a sense of random chance in that you have no idea from week-to-week what room will be next, but we now have an end goal in sight—the most epic steampunk manor ever built. I love this idea.
Accountability. In last night’s premiere, Team JW focused their energies on steering clear of the stereotypical steampunk color palette, an admirable goal; but in trying so hard to go in a unique direction, one of their objectives—a Rube Goldberg device—had been thrown into their design more as an afterthought. It failed miserably and while I may have personally disagreed with the elimination, Team JW did take a major hit for not only half-assing the Goldberg objective but also in not going steampunk enough in their design. These judges are there to push boundaries and abilities, sure, but they also want to make sure the “look” and “feel” are there as well. Not an easy balance to strike, but in the first episode Matt, Kato, and Thomas make it clear: Bring your A-game or go home.
Steampunk Makers of All Backgrounds, Working Together. Confession Time: something that has troubled me a bit about the steampunk community are the amazing amount of makers out there that exist in bubbles. I’ll admit it—sometimes, I’m one of them. I’m a writer, so I make words. That’s my maker ability. Some makers are fabricators that bend brass, iron and steel to their wills while other makers make incredible fashions and then pick up accessories (usually from the fabricators) to give their historical-convention-warping ensemble that final touch. Most of these makers, though, work alone. A stand-out from the premiere was watching people that are used to working alone compelled to work directly with one another to create a final project. While drama is the essence of reality television, not to mention the draw for an audience unfamiliar with steampunk, the friction I saw on Steampunk’d appeared more organic as one artist’s vision and approach to the projects completely clashed with another artist’s vision, all while struggling to work together because they had to in order to advance. This was most evident with “Team Eddie” as Eddie, blissfully unaware he was dismissing Ave with his laid-back but one-man-show approach to the Retro Kitchen challenge when in fact Ave believed more in clear-cut delegation, planning, and progress. I have always believed that creative personalities work better in multimedia projects, and that coming together of talent to turn a concept into a reality is steampunk by nature. A “can-do” attitude where anything you dream up is possible; and this happens most times when stepping outside of the self-imposed bubble and challenging your comfort levels. Steampunk is not just fashion, fabrication, and storytelling, but all of these things at once, which is why these makers succeed when working as a team as opposed to individual artists. I saw a hint of that in the premiere and hope to see more of that.
Steampunk’d shows a lot of promise, and I look forward to future episodes and future challenges. I also feel that the deeper we go into the competition, the more we are going to see how these artists think and approach their unique steampunk style. Remember, these are ten—no, wait, nine (and yes, I’m still pissed about that!)—artists and we as an audience need to get to know them in order to become emotionally invested in them. Steampunk’d still has some road to travel but I found the premiere episode immensely satisfying.
What do you think? Where did Steampunk’d get things right for you?