Motor City Rising

Most television viewing comes down to validation. The person tuning into a particular program often judges a program not necessarily on its quality but rather by their own relationship to the onscreen product. This holds true for scripted programming, but especially for reality television. The word “reality,” of course, is a loaded one: Many so-called reality shows are scripted within an inch of their lives. But few watching those programs tend to see that as a bug. Those viewers don’t always see it as a feature, either. The veracity onscreen is secondary to how viewers position themselves in relation to that program. As many people watch something like The Bachelorette to see which lucky man the latest contestant picks as do those who watch for the sheer pleasure of claiming superiority over the latest pretty mouthbreathers infecting the small screen.

If most reality television gives comfort to those watching at home for all the wrong reasons, then Ovation’s three-part docu-series Motor City Rises will shame those watching at homes for all the right reasons. Too little reality fare exists as anything but shallow spectacle mean to celebrate hollow individuals. Motor City Rises shines a light on the vibrant, entwined artistic culture of Detroit and the ways its denizens are reshaping the disheveled city in ways both small yet profound. Those on display in this series don’t throw drinks in one another’s faces, don’t need to have their latest nipple slip blurred over, and aren’t worried about portraying themselves in the best light in the failed attempt to reboot their long-dormant careers. They live as best they know how. They don’t always succeed, but they are always trying.

By definition, the series’ goals are aspirational. Each person documented has goals or dreams they are trying to achieve. There’s a musician/comedian who is one part of the artistic collective Warehouse 1018. There’s the Russian-born singer/painter. There’s the transplanted graphic designer who saw an opportunity to use her background to help families transition into low-cost housing. There’s the house DJ who also serves as a Big Sister but also city ambassador through her involvement in a roller-derby league.

These are fundamentally good people, who don't spedn the hour trying to best their competitors or undermine each other's successes. But many are going through their own issues nonetheless. That musician/comedian? He has testicular cancer, and has a ticking clock both metaphorical (i.e., his life) and literal (i.e., his health insurance will run out in four months time.). That singer/painter? She fled Russia after the mob killed her parents, and any attempt to return might lead to her own death. These aren’t played as melodramatic moments, but rather just another in the many obstacles these people face in between low-paying, underattended gigs throughout the city.

If there’s one member of this community that stands out in the initial hour, it’s deaf rapper Sean Forbes. Yes, you read that right: Sean has no hearing and yet lays down flows that would humble those with perfect hearing. His sign-language video for Eminem’s song “Lose Yourself” is hypnotic, but his own musical creations stand on their own as well. One musician after another appears in Motor City Rises to sing Forbes’ praise, and it’s praise well-earned. Forbes was raised in a musical family—his father and uncle both served as producers in the Detroit scene—and his no-bullshit attitude toward overcoming a seemingly insurmountable obstacle embodies the ethos of this show.

Another example of this ethos: The transplanted graphic designer turned decorator Tregar Strasberg decorates her 83rd home in tonight’s hour for her organization, Humble Design. A local family of six have moved from a shelter into a low-cost house thanks to a government assistance program. But they don’t have the means to furnish it, let alone fix it up. What Strasberg and her crew of volunteers accomplish isn’t a high end renovation by any means. There’s no bus in Detroit that pulls away to reveal a McMansion. But this Extremely Moderate Makeover is no less important to the family in question, and is far more emotionally stirring than most of what ABC tried to accomplish with its massive resources. That’s to take nothing away from the work ABC did through that program. But the applicability of Strasberg’s model means other people can actually implement it elsewhere, and that makes a world of difference.

If there’s a slight problem in this initial hour, it lies in the lack of economic specificity assigned to the circumstances of its participants. The program opens with a stump speech delivered by President Obama, and is filled with scattered shots of long-abandoned homes throughout the installment. But how do these people actually live on a day-to-day basis? How do they pay rent? How many live together to cut down on costs? Do they need day jobs? How does Strasberg, whose husband seems to be doing fairly well, integrate with those apparently living hand-to-mouth? Focusing on the characters above and beyond the economic realities was a smart move on the show’s part, but a focus on one didn’t have to mean the exclusion of the other.

Still, it’s a small complaint. Motor City Rising packs a lot into its first hour, and promises to follow these people through its short, three-week run. Given the dearth of original, quality programming in the summer, you should definitely give this show a look. Will this show start a revolution? Perhaps not. But the show isn’t interested in mass upheaval. Rather, it focuses on small, achievable projects that most of us are still to lazy to go out and achieve. “I just assume that everyone cares,” Strasberg says at one point. “They just don’t know how to help.” I don’t have as much faith as she does in people. But maybe that’s the problem.   

Stray observations:

  • The Russian-born multi-talented artist goes by the name Nina Friday, and her artwork looks like Betty Boop by way of Tim Burton. It’s pretty awesome.
  • There’s some sense of overlap in the communities depicted tonight, though not enough to really suggest a massively overlapping scene.
  • Forbes and his father Scott also talk about their organization, Deaf Professional Arts Network. (D-PAN). It’s a fantastic and fascinating look at how the deaf community and interact with music in ways many would never have imagined.
  • If you want a taste of Forbes’ music, here’s a full version of my favorite track that appears tonight.

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