Hot Set

Hot Set debuts tonight on Syfy at 10 p.m. Eastern.

Many of us have certain annual traditions. Me? I like pulling out my Lord Of The Rings DVDs once a year and working my way through them. Now, plenty of people probably share this habit, but I don’t actually include the movies as part of the yearly pilgrimage.  Rather, I rework my way through the DVD extras every 12 months. Extras are the determining factor for why I buy DVDs/Blu-rays, much more so than the film itself. Behind-the-scenes footage almost always excites me, since it tends to cover the nitty gritty of crafts in which I have no skill. And since there’s great variety of things in which I have no skill whatsoever, there are a great variety of extras for me to explore.

While the groundbreaking special effects in Lord Of The Rings have been duly recognized, I always found the creation of the trilogy’s miniatures to be its truly remarkable achievement. Watching the WETA team construct those sets in ways to hold up under close scrutiny fascinates me anew each year, which is why I approached Syfy’s new reality competition Hot Set with such high hopes. Did I expect a contestant on this show to build Minas Morgul before my very eyes over the course of an hour? Of course not. But I did hope to learn about the art and implementation of production design within this competitive format. A modest goal, but a goal I hoped was achievable. The similarly themed Face Off shows off real talent within the world of special-effects makeup artists, providing entertainment on top of education in the process.  

But the structure of Hot Set places competition above carpentry, imposing a three-day time limit for two up-and-coming production designers to conceive, execute, and shoot footage upon a set based around a weekly theme. Three Hollywood professionals offer design parameters at the beginning and then grade the sets at the end, with the winner receiving a $10,000 prize. (A “hot set” is one used for actual filming. Thus, the title. The more you know!) Given that this show airs on Syfy, it should come as no surprise that the first challenge forces two designers to create an alien world upon which an astronaut has crashed. Text from an imaginary script is projected upon the floor adjacent to two blank areas upon which each competitor must realize the transformation from written world to filmed world. It’s a striking image, one that suggests a dramaturgical approach toward executing a unique vision. 

But with only 72 hours in which to complete the project, research gives way to rushed concepts and even more rushed production. Both the design concepts themselves and the way Hot Set covers them leaves little room for explanation or exploration. Each designer comes up with an essentially fully formed idea after seeing the text, with problems over the next three days arising primarily through practical concerns instead of conceptual roadblocks. But focusing on drafts of ideas that lead to a final design might not have produced pulse-pounding television compared with a three-day free-for-all. To be sure, the latter would be fine if the audience could understand what might eventually emerge from the ruckus and the rubble. But we don’t have much time to get to know the designers’ personalities, past work, current styles, or the specific ways in which their teams craft these massive sets within the timespan the show allots. 

Watching the sets come together is impressive, no doubt. The frantic attempts to stage a filmed scene upon it as part of the final judging process is also intriguing. But since there’s so little time to get to know the designers or their crew, this sound and fury signifies a lot of nothing. A show like Hot Set should either be a master class in a specific craft or create compelling narratives featuring creative people. Doing both at once would be ideal, but not necessary. 

Instead, Hot Set does neither particularly well. There are tantalizing hints about the way certain aspects of the sets are pulled off, but not enough to do anything more than whet one’s appetite for more information. (There is a brief lesson in using paint to sell a weathered atmosphere, but it’s included almost by accident.) Brief insights into the psychology of the contestants are provided, but not enough to make them three-dimensional figures. (One contestant squabbles with her husband a lot, but that seems more a function of the insane timelines for the show versus a systemic problem within their relationship.) In trying to be both crash course and character study, Hot Set ends up being neither. 

Many reality competitions choose to start with a large playing field and whittle it down on a weekly basis before crowning a winner. Hot Set hits the reset button each week, introducing two new people into the fray in every episode. Part of that is practical, to be sure: The sets built in tonight’s première are huge; building 16 sets (or however many a single season with recurring competitors requires) within the same studio would be a physical impossibility. But while many reality competitions do just fine with a constantly rotating series of contestants, it’s hard to get invested in the anonymous designers in Hot Set. These aren’t people eating bugs on Fear Factor. I don’t  need to know what makes those people tick. But here, there isn’t single sense of what drove these two artistically or professionally. As such, everything onscreen feels perfunctory.

There’s still a kernel of a great show in Hot Set. As stated before, the topic itself is so fascinating that there will always be strong moments creeping to the surface. And future contestants might have a spark that the two tonight simply don’t. It’s a show I want to love, yet barely liked. Watching skilled people perform their crafts under pressure and producing greatness is a strong recipe for success. Hot Set just needs to get the ingredients right before it turns into the show it should be.

Stray observations:

  • The production designers serving as judges are Curt Beech (The Social Network), Lilly Kilvert (The Last Samurai), and Barry Robinson (X-Men Origins: Wolverine). Kilvert’s Tim Gunn-esque interaction with the pair of contestants produces one of the more awkward moments of the entire première.
  • The finished products will probably earn some derision from those that love to mock Syfy’s B-movies, but considering the time crunch, they’re pretty amazing all the same.
  • While we get a good look at the sets through Hot Set’s cameras, there isn’t enough time spent on how they would be shot as part of a movie production. There’s a little bit about how the look of a set influences how it’s shot, but that’s another one of those moments in which I felt like I was learning something, only to have Hot Set take away my textbook.