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The judging on Ellen’s Design Challenge is embarrassing

The judging on Ellen’s Design Challenge is embarrassing
HGTV Ellen's Design Challenge judges Cliff Fong, left, and Christiane Lemieux, right, with Ellen, who is in this picture but not in most episodes. (Photo by HGTV)

After an embarrassing end to its first seasonEllen’s Design Challenge has returned with more embarrassment, this time from its judges.

Last season’s host Jay Montepare and judge Amanda Dameron are gone, while Wayfair’s Christiane Lemieux remains, paired with interior designer Cliff Fong and, for judging, a guest judge of the week. And: it doesn’t work.

Here’s where we arrive at the central problem of finding judges for talent competition: They need to be both experts and telegenic. Top Chef‘s core panel of Padma, Tom, and Gail certainly have both.

Cliff seems to know his stuff but, for whatever reason, it just doesn’t work on camera. Christiane is definitely better, and has more charisma, but she’s in the awkward role of being host, judge, and mentor, and that combo just doesn’t work. They’re being asked to do too much. When the judges come to give advice, it appears to freak out the contestants because they sometimes read the judges’ comments as demands.

But the central problem is the actual judging, and three letters in particular: Sef.

For one challenge, he used drawers from the show’s actual set to create a piece of furniture. That’s like a chef going to the prepared foods section at Whole Foods and serving that to the judges. Yet there was no consequence.

Last week, the contestant made a couch that looked nice but was purposefully designed to be less-than-comfortable. He stayed.

This week, challenged to make a multifunction piece of furniture, he made a desk that turned into a desk. Also, it was supposed to flip from an adult desk to a kids’ desk, but even when the desk surface changed, it remained very low to the ground. (There was talk of the legs shifting by three inches, but three inches is not the difference between what an average-sized adult and an average-sized kid would need.)

Sef Pinney’s continual presence in the competition feels very much like keep-the-villain-around-for-drama. He is good television in that he’s insanely frustrating, such as when he spent an entire work day mind mapping one piece of furniture, driving his HGTV carpenter crazy.

Even if that’s not the case, and he’s staying only because the judges find his work to be outstanding, they are repeatedly failing to explain why his failures are better than others’ failures. (That confusion appears to be widespread: Much of the conversation around the show’s hashtag on Twitter are people accusing the judges of favoring Sef.) In Monday’s episode, Miles Endo created a kitchen island that had pull-out parts which weren’t exactly level—flaws, yes, but at least it was functional.

Even if both of them failed at the central challenge, furniture that changes from one thing into another thing, Miles clearly made a piece that was actually usable. And there was even less of a difference between Sef’s and Kyle Huntoon’s couches last week. Kyle was just robbed.

Vivian Beer’s work has been so outstanding for most of the season that I’m hoping she’ll take the win during the finale, but who knows with these judges and producers.

Beyond its judging, Ellen’s Design Challenge has otherwise been tightened a little—there’s less manufactured tension via the editing—but still feels like one that’s beneath Ellen’s standards, and it doesn’t help that she rarely shows up and that the host/judge/mentors always use her name as a substitute for “the producers,” as in “Ellen wants you to do this.” Heck, Ellen didn’t even show up when the contestants were on the set of her talk show to redo the green rooms’ couches.

As I wrote about the first season, I can understand why she’d want to stay away, though I still don’t understand why she basically just gave her name to be used on a low-rent HGTV show. That said, there’s something compelling enough about the designers’ work that keeps me watching—I love seeing talented people create under pressure. But by the time the climax of each episode rolls around, I have lost interest in the critiques and eliminations because they seem so arbitrary.


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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.


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