reality TV reviews and news

Another exceptional Startup season, and a comedic show I didn’t expect to like

The outrageous clothing company Shinesty is the subject of a new MTV2 reality series. (Photo by Shinesty)

“We want to be the best party brand in the world, and it’s not necessarily for everybody,” a millennial man wearing sunglasses and a banana suit says to the camera.

This is not a show I expected to like. Nor was a podcast about Dov Charney. But both turned out to be engaging, though in very different ways.

First, Shinesty (MTV2, Thursdays at 8), which follows the employees of a company that has the same name. It produces unconventional clothing, such as suits with graphic prints and “dong sarongs,” and their advertising is equally outrageous, such ads for sunglasses with the tagline “we want to sit on your face.”

They’ve had millions in sales and just raised $3.4 million from investors.

In April 2016, along with Stranded with a Million Dollars (or “…Bucks,” as it was called then), MTV announced the show, but it was just offloaded onto MTV2 two weeks ago, not even announced to media—which is surprising because the show is a well-produced, fun watch.

What works Shinesty is that doesn’t feel like the cast or producers are trying to make us laugh. Most allegedly comedic reality series fail to charm me because non-writers, non-actors, and non-comedians are trying to be funny, and that ends up being forced and painful.

Shinesty’s two half-hour episodes that have aired so far are sometimes funny, silly, and dumb, but without obvious mugging, just antics that seem to be what the staff of the clothing company—who constantly call each other family—would be doing even without cameras there. (Both are online. For cable TV subscribers. Nice work, MTV.)

In the premiere episode, one of the funnier scenes is just two people in an office, bored, waiting for the phone to ring. The editing, which is quick and energetic, often produces comedy through contrast and other techniques. (Shinesty is produced by The Jay and Tony Show.)

For a show that has loglines like “Sally the photographer struggles to corral six dudes in nut-huggers and a dozen unruly wiener dogs,” it’s remarkably charming, opening the doors to show what the company does to produce their insane clothing and marketing.

Shinesty’s founders occasionally remind us that they might look like they’re screwing around, but they’re smart businesspeople: “There’s a lot of thought going into everything,” one of the founders says in the intro to each episode. I’d have preferred to see more of that, though that’s less visually interesting (and perhaps less interesting to the show’s target audience).

I also wish it would explore the potential consequences of a company culture that’s imbued with sexuality—asking employees to use their bodies for advertising, using language that is “definitely not HR-okayed,” as one female employee says. The company does flip gender scripts and/or use them for humor, such as having men in speedos wash a car, and everyone seems to be having fun.

But watching it, I had my next recommendation in the back of my mind, because it explores just how casual cultures at clothing companies can be very problematic and go very wrong.

Startup season 4 looks inward, and at Dov Charney

When I recommended several real-life podcasts recently, the first season of Startup was on the list. It offered some of the most engrossing reality audio I’ve ever heard, documenting the creation of a podcast company. After that, the show shifted to a format with one-off episodes, and I lost interest.

But Startup came back, as several of you thankfully let me know, in season four.

It begins with three episodes that return to season one’s subject, Gimlet itself. And episodes four to 10 are all about one subject: Dov Charney, the founder of American Apparel who was fired in 2014, accused “of using ethnic slurs against workers and keeping videos on a company server of himself in sex acts with models and employees,” CNBC reported, plus “his misuse of company funds, violation of company policy and misuse of corporate assets.”

My first thought was: I don’t want to listen to six hours with that asshole.

But Startup’s Lisa Chow has created a remarkable portrait of Charney, who’s trying to create another company like American Apparel. She and her producers spent months with Charney, sometimes riding along in his car, but also digging into the culture he created and its problems.

There are some raw moments that Startup captures, and the season left me feeling both unsettled and like I had a better understanding of Charney, his strengths and his deficiencies. Eventually, Chow and her team become characters that I was worried about in later episodes because of Charney’s behavior.

Startup does not avoid his behavior, such as sleeping with employees and masturbating in front of a journalist—though it does start with several episodes that seem to avoid that as they build Charney up, which resulted in some understandable criticism.

But the season as a whole does the opposite of avoiding Charney’s worst qualities, and it felt like a fair and truthful portrait that emerged through gripping, verite audio.