I’m not a huge fan of reality shows, but I recently checked out the Australian version of the show Lego Masters. To my surprise, I found myself enjoying it a lot, and basically just binge watching the first two seasons.
My big issue with food-based reality competitions is that TV is a visual medium. I can see if a meal looks nice or not, but I can’t actually taste it, so a part of the judging is based on something I can’t actually experience. When I do watch this sort of reality game show, I very much prefer it when they contestants are doing something something with a primarily visual appeal – glassblowing, face painting, whatever. Legomaster fits nicely into all that, consisting of pairs of contestants building Lego models of various complexity.
The host is Australian TV and radio personality Hamish Blake who I know by reputation but have never really watched before. He is amusing without being laugh out loud funny. The judge is a professional Lego sculptor who goes by the name of ‘Brickman’. The name seems a little out there, but he reminds me of nothing so much as a high-school woodwork teacher. He patiently circulates around the teams, making comments that are mostly positive but occasionally contain a gentle note of ‘I expect better.’
The contestants are clearly having a blast. I have to admit to not being very invested in them as people, or caring about their backstory much. But a big part of the enjoyment of the show is just watching their enjoyment. They’re hobbyists, and they’re given something that’s cool to do from the point of view of their hobby and their eyes just light up. It’s hard not to be carried away by that. It certainly makes up for some of the tiresome manufactured suspense that reality shows love so much. The episode where the challenge involves Star Wars based Lego is particularly delightful. The sheer ‘kid in a candy store’ joy of the contestants is a wonder to behold.
So when I ran out of episodes, I went to see the original American version of the show and I was astonished to find that I didn’t like it. It should have been fun because it was hosted by Will Arnett — Lego Batman himself — and featured regular guest appearances from American celebrities. On top of that, it was an American TV show, and the odds of an Australian TV show being better than its American counterpart are pretty close to 0.
But American Legomasters just had a bad vibe. It was too competitive. They kept talking about the prize money as if that was the big deal, while the Australian contestants seemed mostly concerned with just staying in the competition until the end, so as to enjoy the ride. They Australian judge put a very strong emphasis on aesthetics as a judging criteria, and perhaps because of that the Australian builds mostly looked a lot better – detailed without being cluttered. And the American version had unnecessary things like animations which didn’t really add anything.
I think the main problem is that the Australian producers just trusted that there would be an audience that enjoyed watching people playing with Lego and the American producers didn’t. In the end, that made all the difference between a fun show and an annoying one.