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Review: Steampunk’d and the high bar other talent competitions set

Review: Steampunk’d and the high bar other talent competitions set
Steampunk'd host Jeannie Mai in a preview for the GSN series.

Combining a creative, focused aesthetic with interior design seemed like an inspired idea for a reality competition. But GSN’s Steampunk’d has turned out to be a disappointment, mostly because the quality of the work is so low.

Project Runway and other shows have set a high bar for what can be accomplished in a little amount of time. And there have been other interior design competitions—from Design Star to Ellen’s Design Challenge, never mind all the home renovation series—whose contestants have created exceptional work.

So, Steampunk’d enters well-worn space, just as its GSN sibling Skin Wars did. But while the body painting competition followed a well-established template, it made up for its lack of creativity in format with strong challenges and great skill.

Steampunk’d doesn’t have to break new ground; it can just show great work. Unfortunately, while it has promising flourishes—the cleverly named materials space, the “Punkyard”; the steampunk analog clock in the workroom—there is not much to love beyond that.

The first disappointment was learning that its contestants were designing tiny, fake rooms that fit into a soundstage “manor” template that resembles a game show set. (Ads call the space “an ordinary home,” which is rather misleading.) While I would like to see them work in real spaces, I know that it would be difficult to have teams create two kitchens in the same house, for example; adding another house adds expense and logistical challenges. This format allows for everything to be taking place in one room at the same time, which makes production easier than a location shoot.

It also allows for direct comparisons between the two teams’ work–the rooms are identical so we can see the different choices and see the transformations. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to compare.

Steampunk’d doesn’t make it work

The collection of abrasive personalities are forced to work on those two rooms in teams, and the end result has been frustrating at best. The rooms they produce are rarely cohesive, and it’s just conflict, conflict, conflict. The contestants spend a lot of time arguing about how great they are at some thing, and then generally fail to deliver on that.

Really, the problem is that the work they do is not impressive on camera. It’s just not. Neither Tim Gunn nor Tom Colicchio would stand for any of this, yet the judges are permissive and offer praise. Tasked with creating Rube Goldberg machines for a kitchen, neither team created any such thing, but only one team was really criticized for their version. The judges were more critical during their deliberation on episode three, spending a lot of time focusing on how important it is to repurpose things—and then gave the win to the room that was basically built from scratch.

As a viewer and a person who cannot do the kind of work the contestants seem capable of doing, based on their bios and photos of their past work, I want to be impressed. I want to be in awe of what they accomplished in so little time. It might be that they just don’t have enough time to do the kind of detailed work they’re used to, or they might not have great materials, which has come up a few times.

But we often seen them wasting time—and again, other talent competitions have had contestants overcome time obstacles to produce impressive work. If someone on Project Runway can make a dress out of corn husks that still looks impressive even after it shrivels up, well, my expectations are pretty damn high.

That’s where we are in competition shows in 2015: the work needs to blow us away.

The production does sometimes undermine what work the contestants are doing when they’re not fighting. In episode two, the producers threw in a frustrating twist, a mystery button that anyone could press that would have a positive or negative effect. (Hello, Big Brother Pandora’s Box, I have not missed you.) The result, having someone switch teams, wasn’t a totally bad idea, but it collapsed the momentum of projects and design that might have actually been admirable. The last thing these contestants need is obstacles in their way.

The season is only six episodes long, but after three, Steampunk’d has already run dry.

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