Heroes Of Cosplay debuts tonight on SyFy at 10:30 p.m. Eastern.
Having previously tackled special-effects makeup and robot battles, SyFy’s newest unscripted program explores the world of cosplay (that’s “costume play”): the people who dress up in elaborate costumes and attend fan conventions either as a hobby or as a profession. Heroes Of Cosplay is a “docuseries” and not a reality competition—more Real Housewives Of Westeros, less Project Runway: Final Fantasy Edition. The show will air six episodes, with each presumably focusing on a different convention (the première centers on Wizard World Portland) while featuring the same nine cosplayers (five of whom appear in the first episode). The show’sfrustrating adherence to reality-television tropes doesn’t allow much time for insights into the world of competitive cosplay, although the few it does offer are fascinating.
Heroes Of Cosplay takes great pains not to depict cosplayers as socially awkward nerds. All of the players are either married, engaged, or dating someone, and they’re each shown to have thriving social lives that involve going to bars, bowling, and dancing (i.e. normal people stuff). Sure, they drop some Harry Potter references here and there (be warned, this episode contains a major spoiler for Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince), but for the most part the stars of the show are funny, dedicated, hardworking people with a niche hobby. It’s difficult to dismiss cosplaying as a “hobby” when nearly all of Heroes Of Cosplay’s stars have some sort of professional connection to the industry. Winning a cosplay competition doesn’t exclusively entail a cash prize—it’s a launching point for a career, so it makes sense that people looking to compete professionally would spend so much time meticulously crafting their costumes. Professional cosplayer Yaya Han in particular comes off as an intelligent, well-spoken, career-driven woman succeeding in a field she loves. While there is no doubt Yaya is successful in part because she looks attractive in her costumes, her impressive work ethic and knowledge of nerd culture are a big part of why she is so respected in the industry.
While it succeeds at subverting clichés, Heroes Of Cosplay fails to avoid the pitfalls of reality TV. The show spends too much time on seemingly scripted direct-to-camera interviews, which none of the cosplayers are able to deliver convincingly. The première also highlights every “dramatic” turn with heavy underscoring and constant narration. This is probably the only show on TV where you can see a grown woman huddled in a hotel hallway, having a panic attack while dressed as Rainbow Dash from My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.
While the première mostly focuses on amping up nonexistent drama—Will this woman have her head trapped in a plaster mold forever? Spoiler alert: No, she won’t—it does find a few moments to deal with issues specific to the cosplay world. One such issue applies to Becky, the “method actor” among the show’s subjects, who takes on the spirit and voice of her characters in addition to their costuming. Competing as Brave’s Merida, Becky goes to great lengths to perfect her version of the heroine, like spending 15 to 20 hours hand-coloring a blonde wig with a red marker to get the right shade of crimson. Nonetheless, she worries the judges (and the Internet) will look down at her for not matching her characters’ slender physique. The issue isn’t mined particularly deeply—Becky’s courage is restored after she meets a little girl dressed as one of Merida’s fellow Disney princess—but it’s encouraging to see that Heroes Of Cosplay is willing to engage with some of the negative aspects of the culture. There’s also a passing mention of “slutting it up” to get ahead in the competition, hinting at a possible delving into the sexualization and sexual harassment that are the unfortunate dark side of being a female cosplayer.
The highlight of the première is a montage featuring the various cosplayers competing at Wizard World, which provides a scope the first half of the episode sorely lacks. Heroes Of Cosplay’s dependence on reality TV tropes means it dedicates a good amount of screentime to a broken embroidery machine, leaving little room to explain the finer points of the competition. For example, two of the competitors are docked points for using store-bought horns, but earn praise for originality (they cosplay as their Dungeons & Dragons characters). The stars of the show throw around terms like “cloth,” “puppetry,” and “armor,” and while those are all pretty self-explanatory, it’d be nice to get more of an introduction to the vocabulary of cosplay.
Plenty of other question remain: How do judges compare a sewn Sailor Venus costume against a giant robot like Vault Dweller? Does a cosplayer’s costume have to be homemade to qualify for the competition? How much stock do the judges put into the various judging categories (showmanship, craftsmanship, and level of difficulty)? Is it bad form to cosplay in the same costume at multiple conventions? Hopefully Heroes Of Cosplay’s further examinations of its subject will answer questions like these, rather than forcing drama out of cosplayers who may live ordinary lives, but don’t make compelling reality TV stars.