The Nerdist - “The Fades” debuts tonight on BBC America at 10:15 p.m. Eastern.
Transitions and adaptations in pop culture are hardly uncommon: book-to-movie, movie-to-television (or vice-versa), etc. But the podcast-to-television transition is a new one which is why watching what Chris Hardwick and the rest of The Nerdist crew are doing is worthwhile. Podcasts, particularly The Nerdist, are based so much on conversation that the transition isn’t as seismic as others; it’s basically an audio-based talk show. The challenge, then, is to make the shift in format appealing to the viewers, an attempt to give them something that can’t get on the podcast. Airing its third in a series of five made-for-television specials, The Nerdist is making progress in fits and starts as an extension of the podcast (the year-end special did this particularly well which Phil Nugent tackled already) and while the results have been entertaining, they’ve also been a little uneven. It feels like the the television show could benefit from a more concrete identity — more original bits and first-time guests — making it a true “extension” of the podcast rather than just a rehash of the podcast in visual form. The potential exists to push the television specials to a level where it stands apart from anything else in The Nerdist empire, it’s just not quite there yet.
Hardwick has smartly surrounded himself with familiar faces including podcast co-hosts Matt Mira and Jonah Ray, who reprise their podcast role as sidekicks, as well as musical partner-in-crime Mike Phirman who plays Paul Shaffer to Hardwick’s Letterman. As for the guests who have already appeared on the podcast, at least Hardwick shows good taste in choosing them: Colin Ferguson, Matt Smith, Wil Wheaton, Nathan Fillion, and Simon Pegg are among the guests who have appeared on the television show after having already appeared on excellent episodes podcast. Even if their appearance is a bit redundant, the rapport between Hardwick and these guests is quick, fun and familiar.
In this third special, two of the four guests fall into the previous podcast guest category: Community and Mad Men’s Allison Brie and Big Bang Theory’s Kunal Nayyar. The two first-time guests both appear in segments taped on Hardwick’s recent trip to London: brief chats with The Fades actress Lily Loveless and musician Thomas Dolby. While the Loveless segment seems the appropriate length, the Dolby segment is frustrating for its brevity. There are likely, of course, a myriad of reasons why the Dolby segment was so short but what we did see was so interesting that it comes off like a missed opportunity to do an interesting, longer segment.
Not that this is particularly Hardwick’s fault. One of the strengths of The Nerdist podcast is Hardwick’s ability to delve beyond familiar territory with well-known guests and to produce fantastic interviews with the lesser known ones (see: the Neil deGrasse Tyson episode). But the podcast has the benefit of being at least an hour long with no commercial interruption. The television show, however, is much shorter: the first and third specials are only a half-hour (around 21 minutes sans commercials), hardly enough time to let much unfold when so much is crammed into that time. (Example: This particular special is tied to the BBC America debut of the series The Fades with promos teasing talk of horror but that theme, well, fades after the first third.)
Of course, producing a longer show is more expensive but given the talent available, it seems worth the investment. Longer versions of segments like that with Dolby would be beneficial in creating a more balanced mix with previous podcast guests, and other creative original material (which we know the hosts are more than capable of). The success of the longer year-end special — which was given an hour (or around 44 minutes sans commercials) — underscores the point that given the proper amount of time, Hardwick and his pals can churn out entertaining material.
What responsibility Hardwick does have control over is focus. This particular episode feels too rushed, suffering from too many guests and not enough time. By comparison, the first special was a half-hour and only featured two guest — Matt Smith and Craig Ferguson — making for a better paced episode. There were even two short non-guest segments (the animated repurposing of a bit from an old podcast with Kevin Smith and David O'Doherty's visit to The Doctor Who Experience) that provided for good breaks between the conversations. If a half-hour is all he’s given, then than the adage of “doing more with less” would only benefit the show. Hardwick and friends have demonstrated their originality and creativity over the years across a variety of mediums that show how much potential there is to succeed on this platform as well without being too redundant. The continued growth of The Nerdist empire — now an extended network of podcasts, blogs, and writers — is proof the talent is there.
- The above grade is a sort of average of all three specials thus far. If I were to break it down, I'd say the first special was a B, the Year-End wrap-up was a B+/A-, and this third special was about a B- (but, you know, a borderline B- that was almost a B).
- One other issue: what to do with Mira and Ray? They’ve each shown worth as a value commodity on the podcast, particularly in the guestless “hostful” episodes. But with such a condensed format here, there’s not really much for either to contribute as the show is produced now; there’s just not that much for them to work with. Given their talents, here’s hoping the show finds a way to properly utilize the pair in original segments.
- While I stress a desire for less repeat guests from the podcast on future TV specials, the repeat guests that have appeared on the TV end have all been fantastic, particularly Ferguson, Fillion, and Wheaton.
- The television specials have allowed Hardwick to interview a few subjects who haven’t appeared on the podcast including Dolby and the year-end chat with Tennant. This is a good thing.
- Seriously, I hope Hardwick got more material in his conversation with Dolby for a lengthier podcast like he did with Tennant (which was a fantastic idea). I’d love to listen to that.
- One tidbit that Hardwick got from Brie and Nayyar that was hilarious was regarding the porn spoofs of their shows. I would have loved to have heard more from those two about their thoughts on these spoofs (and those spoofs in general). Funny territory for some funny people.
- Speaking of Brie and Nayyar, maybe it’s because Community is so beloved at The A.V. Club office, but since Big Bang Theory regularly trounces Community in their Thursday night time-slot war, I was hoping for some sort of battle, like Hungry Hungry Hippos or quarters, where Brie could seek ratings vengeance.