Freakshow debuts tonight on AMC at 9:30 p.m. Eastern. Immortalized follows at 10 p.m. Eastern.
The AMC reality brand has comes in two flavors so far: Shows that are either a look inside the constructed family created by niche communities (Comic Book Men, Small Town Security) or a profession with augmented competition elements (The Pitch). These shows are cheaper ways to support more expensive, comparatively low-rated fare and maybe, just maybe, AMC will luck into a Duck Dynasty or a Pawn Stars to call its very own. Neither Freakshow or Immortalized are interesting enough to take on those current titans of reality programming, however.
Freakshow’s problems are common for shows that profile a clan of weirdos. Ostensibly, these people are worth of documentation because their profession or living situation is unique. But that doesn’t necessarily make good television. The best reality television of this ilk is more like a scripted show. There are rising actions, apexes of plot, and stakes. The smart money says there is a team of puppet-master producers pulling strings behind the scenes because no one ever said the reality in reality television had to actually be true. In other words, there’s a reason I watch the full Real Housewives marathon instead of, you know, going outside.
There are no stakes in the first episode of Freakshow, unless the third birthday of a two-headed, six-legged bearded dragon named Pancho and Lefty can be considered high drama. The show centers on the Venice Beach Freakshow, run by former music producer Todd Ray. He doesn’t think the word “freak” is derogatory, or so he says while trying to convince George, the tallest man in the United States, to join Pancho and Lefty’s birthday party. A lack of plot wouldn’t be so distracting if the show was filled with compelling characters. Deadliest Catch is fun to watch because there’s action, but also because there are people you want to root for. There’s a whole cast of freaks in Ray’s arsenal, including Morgue the shock artist, Brianna the indestructible woman, and Creature the tattooed man. But none of them are given the time to be established as characters. Just because these people don’t look like what we see everyday doesn’t mean I want to see their every day. Ray is the featured player, though, and he doesn’t have the charisma or the energy to create a show without characters or plot to prop it up.
Immortalized’s actually has the opposite problem of Freakshow. Where there’s not enough going on to keep Freakshow compelling, there’s too much going on in Immortalized to set a consistent tone. Are we supposed to be creeped out by these people or learn about what they do? There’s no middle ground in Immortalized to find out. Think of Immortalized like Iron Chef, except Immortalized competitors are mounting dead animals, rather than cooking meals. Both of their ingredients are (for the most part) dead. In each episode, one of four experts—awkwardly deemed “Immortalizers”—are paired with a challenger and given a theme to go off of, beginning with “Size Matters.” A panel of judges then deems a winner.
Taxidermy is fascinating if only for its macabre elements, and is seemingly worthy reality-show fodder, but by shoehorning competitive elements into Immortalized, the singular personalities of the Immortalizers (even typing that word is rough) and their craft are muted because the competitive element takes over. There’s no room for personalities or any education about taxidermy because someone has to win. The judges keep referring to two of the Immortalizers (ugh, stop) as rogue taxidermists, meaning they aren’t traditionalists, but that’s a throwaway intro line. Who the hell knew there were rogue taxidermists? Can we learn more about that, please?
Taxidermy lends itself to competition. Skilled taxidermists compete at conventions all over the country, so the rivalrous elements of Immortalized should not feel so out of place, but it fails where mega-popular competition shows like Top Chef and Project Runway succeeded. To up the drama, subjective competition shows often have a time element. It’s fun watching Tim Gunn visit designers in the final week of Project Runway because we’ve gotten to know these people over the course of season. It’s fun watching chefs bitch and bark at each other in order to complete a dish on time because the time crunch makes it exciting. But taxidermy can’t be rushed, making for languid competition prep segments.
No competition is complete without a killer judges panel, but the Immortalized judges don’t add anything to the conversation. Even Brian Posehn, the comic relief of the three-judge panel, doesn’t anything in the way of insightful critique or outsized personality. But that’s not necessarily his fault. Half the fun of reality shows like Top Chef or Project Runway is couch participation. In the successful reality competitions, judges get to pick the winner, but we as an audience are also capable of judging what we see on screen. The audience may not have the expertise of Nina Garcia or Gail Simmons, but we know when a dish looks delicious or a dress is to die for. Taxidermy is an esoteric art so it’s impossible to judge as a layman. Is that technique good? Who knows? It’s no fun if you can’t play along.