Esquire Network’s new reality TV: smart, visually interesting, lots of potential

The Esquire network launched last night, replacing Style, whose reality shows may find new homes. During the day, the new network is showing reruns of series such as the amazing Party Down and Parks and Recreation, and reality shows such as the original Million Dollar Listing, project Runway, Flipping Out, and Top Chef.

In prime-time tonight and tomorrow, Esquire is debuting four new reality TV series, all of which share an interesting visual aesthetic (it’s the opposite of ABC’s high gloss) and focus.

To borrow from magazine terminology, most of Esquire’s new reality series feel like shorter, front of the book stories, charts, and lists, not the longer, narrative features that come later in the magazine. They offer interesting and well-packaged information and entertainment, but they also don’t have thoroughly engaging stories or characters to really hook into and feel compelled by, in part because each episode is a one-off, so locations and/or people changes.

Technically, they are nearly flawless, with an interesting, shared color palette–colors are muted but classy and sophisticated–and editing that works to educate but also keeps the focus on people. (The video below includes an overview of the network and then continues on to show longer clips from each of the series.)

Other shows besides these four are coming soon; here’s how Esquire describes them:

“Throughout the fall, Esquire Network will continue to roll out new originals, including previously-announced original series Alternate Route, a trip across the country with photojournalist Matt Hranek to find the people, places and objects that embody timeless American spirit; How I Rock It, a look at style in all its forms, hosted by NBA superstar Baron Davis; Risky Listing, a docuseries set in the exclusive, competitive world of New York nightlife real estate; and White Collar Brawlers, a series that pits office rivals against each other in the boxing ring. Horseplayers, a docuseries that takes place in the high-stakes world of professional horse race handicapping, will premiere in 1Q14.”

In short: I really like what Esquire has done with these first four shows, and think they really up the game in terms of production quality on cable TV. Hopefully, their stories can catch up to their production.

Knife Fight, Tuesdays at 9
This is the best of Esquire’s new shows and by far the most watchable, which surprised me because it stars Ilan Hall, one of my least-favorite people in all of reality TV history, thanks to this and this and this. But the half-hour series works despite his general lack of likability.

It’s basically Chopped with two famous chefs and a rowdy crowd, and is based on actual competitions that Ilan Hall hosts in his restaurant. Each episode is quick and full of action, and also just a lot of fun to watch, from the celebrities in the crowd to the ingredients (in the first episode, that includes live catfish). The pace slows during the judging, and any time the focus goes to Ilan–like during segments where Ilan’s visits each of the chefs–the series deflates, especially because he’s way too timid compared to the “master of ceremonies,” Giovanni Reda. But overall, it’s a strong entry into a well-worn space.

The Getaway, Wednesdays at 9
The Anthony Bourdain-produced series is basically a travelogue, with each episode hosted by a different celebrity–Joel McHale, Aziz Ansari, Aisha Tyler, Josh Gad, Jose Andres, Ryan Kwanten, Rashida Jones, Paul Feig, Eve, and Seth and Josh Meyers–who narrates their exploration of a major city. The show ends up being almost less about their experience than about the place and its history and local culture, illustrated with moments of interaction with locals. Their personalities trickle into the narration and, of course, affect their experiences, and ultimately how enjoyable an episode is depends upon that episode’s star and how relatable they are.

The episodes are clearly heavily planned and choreographed but what happens doesn’t feel inauthentic, fake, or scripted. Despite being so heavily produced, they actually feel pretty effortless and casual, though there’s the sense that, while you’ll learn something and be entertained, there won’t be any major surprises.

Brew Dogs, Tuesdays at 10
The show is very, very similar to The Getaway, it just stars two Scottish beer brewers, James Watt and Martin Dickie, who travel to various beer cities in the United States to make a craft beer and convince people that it’s amazing. While they do that, they explore the place and meet people, just like the celebrities on The Getaway. There’s also a lot of explaining about the process of producing beer, and I’m not quite sure how that’ll affect viewers: I suspect it’s simplified for dummies like me who aren’t invested in the world of beer, but as a result may make the show feel dumbed-down for those who really know and care about their beer.

Boundless, Wednesdays at 10
This is the series with the weakest start yet the most potential, and the show I’m most likely to keep watching week after week. Two friends, Simon Donato and Paul “Turbo” Trebilcock, compete in spectacular endurance races–specifically, “eight of the toughest endurance races in the world,” as one of them says. Those races are in spectacular locations, and the visual language that all Esquire’s reality series share works well to show off those landscapes. Of the four shows, it’s the most documentary style and narrative, and the episodes vary in intensity as a result.

Oddly, the first episode is nearly boring, as most of the episode is running in a foot race in Iceland for which they are well-prepared; it’s impressive but not very exciting. The second episode, however, is a great hour of TV: they are not at all prepared for a paddleboard race in Hawaii, and their experiences training and racing are surprising and interesting. I’m hoping the other six episodes are similar to Hawaii in that the races and landscapes surprise the guys–and us, too.

Review: Married at First Sight

Marriage At First Sight

In an era of Tinder and Grindr, instant acceptance or dismissal of a potential partner, or instant sex with another body, Married at First Sight offers the thrill of watching strangers deal with the very basics of relationships.

Beyond the headline-grabbing premise, the series has turned out to be a stripped-down, authentic exploration of something very interesting. Read the full review.

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.