There’s a lot to enjoy in Fox’s adaptation of Lego Masters, from Will Arnett’s sardonic comments to the camera to some pretty spectacular builds. The challenges have given the contestants a range of things to construct, and the contestants have responded with a lot of creativity.
Yet I was left aghast and saddened by last week’s bizarre decision to eliminate the father-son duo of Nestor and Manny, who’d seemed to have met the challenge in a way that other teams had not. And worse, the judges just couldn’t clearly articulate why they’d failed and another team had not.
The challenge in the “Movie Genres” episode—not to be confused with the forthcoming Star Wars episode—was to create a scene from a movie with an assigned genre, and the twist required teams to add elements from an additional genre into what they’d built.
Manny and Nestor, assigned western films, constructed an amazingly detailed saloon set. When the twist gave them fantasy to add to it, they went sci-fi, which may have not been the best choice. Still, the invading alien spaceships they built looked pretty great, and there was a clear concept.
“I think you’ve given us a really nice Western scene,” Amy Corbett said during the judges’ critique. “You’ve got all of the icons that we expect to see in a Western, but unfortunately the twist has really let you guys down. I love the idea of the aliens trying to steal something from the cowboys, but I can’t see it in the build.”
Jamie Berard added, “The colors of the spaceships, they’re quite all over the place. We don’t know why they’re here. They’re not really telling a story. And it feels very much like they were added on very late.”
I’ll tell you who I don’t know is there, and who’s not really telling a story: you two judges.
Judges Jamie Berard and Amy Corbett both work at Lego and seem perfectly nice, in the same way that Dayna Isom Johnson and Simon Doonan are really lovely on Making It when they’re not making baffling decisions or offering unsatisfying critiques.
The other team in the bottom two in Lego Masters episode four was Amie and Krystle, and judge Amy told them, “You had so many hidden clues in that model but they were so hidden we couldn’t see them, and this challenge was all about making one epic movie scene where we could see the whole story coming to life.”
Who went home? The team without a coherent, visual concept whose scene looked like Lego scattered all over? Or the ones who made a clear epic movie scene and demonstrated a strong ability to build with Lego? The latter, for some inexplicable reason.
Jamie told Manny and Nestor, “It was great to see your building abilities come through in that western scene. However, when those spaceships came in, they just weren’t at the same level we were expecting,” and Amy added, “the two parts just felt disconnected.”
If you’d like to see disconnected parts, may I direct your attention to Amie and Krystle’s build? That was detailed but so scattered!
I don’t think this is Jamie and Amy’s fault. They even tried to prepare: Amy told The Brothers Brick that the toughest part of judging was sending people home, not the actual judging: “Jamie and I watched a bunch of reality competition shows and thought ‘Wow! It’s cool to be the judges. This is exciting.’ But we really underestimated how difficult it is to deliver that bad news to someone when they’re so passionate and excited to be there.”
The producers needed to establish clearer criteria and provide better direction, which is critically important in a show like Lego Masters. Few of us are masters of Lego, and while we can say something looks cool or not, a talent-based reality competition needs more than that.
This is a problem a lot of new talent shows struggle with, even my beloved Making It. During its first season, I even wrote a similar story: Making It needs new judges. Or maybe just no judging?
What both shows share is that they’re about creativity and crafting, but don’t have established, universal criteria, in the way that baking shows do. A crust is burned or it’s not; a bottom is soggy or it’s not. It may be a matter of preference about how much booze is in a dessert or how much turmeric is in a dish, but those are easy to identify and describe, and the audience can get a rough idea of what’s happening even if they don’t know what turmeric tastes like.
How do you do that for Lego bricks? The most detailed critique I can recall from the season is when the judges dinged a team for just making vertical, rectangular towers, which is a thing I could see myself making.
The judges’ solution to this dilemma seems to be a focus on “storytelling,” which is not very telling.
I was going to say that I don’t quite know how you tell a story with a static work, but a few years ago, I took a tour at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts (not far from Dorida’s Berkshires house!), and a really great guide walked through some of Rockwell’s masterworks and pointed out elements in paintings that create a narrative. For example, in Rockwell’s “New Kids in the Neighborhood,” the kids moving in and the kids who’ve come to greet them have commonalities—a baseball glove, a pink bow, pets—which tells us that they have a lot in common and will soon be getting along. The kids are looking at each other inquisitively but they’re meeting each other in the same place. Meanwhile, there’s an adult peeking from behind the curtain in a neighboring house, fearful of integration.
The judges on Lego Masters use the words “story” or “storytelling” in an abstract way, as if they don’t have any other language to describe the assemblege of plastic bricks. Imagine Tom Collichio looking at a plate of food and saying, My, my, you really don’t have much story here, do you?
This is where we arrive at the central Lego Masters problem: its focus is on personality, not on construction.
Lego Masters cares more about people than process or the pieces
Host Will Arnett hosts Lego Masters with ease, and his witty, improvised responses to what’s happening around him around a highlight. He’s more acerbic and standoffish than Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman are on Making It, which creates some distance and makes the show less charming and warm, but it’s his persona.
It’s in his image that the show’s produces and the network have cast the contestants: personality first.
The most egregious example is Sam and Jessica, who both wear hair accessories (Sam is the one with the Duck Dynasty beard) but barely know each other and never worked together before competing on the show.
In episode two, they had a meltdown, where Sam started berating Jessica after critiquing her placement of a sidewalk: “I’m not confident in your sculpting abilities,” he said, getting increasingly exasperated. “You don’t need to look at me while you’re talking,” he exclaimed before really sinking the Lego hammer: “I feel like you don’t understand Lego.” Burn!
Why are there nine teams of people who know each other and one that does not? Did Fox really run out of great Lego builders to cast? I mean, possibly: There is a wild range of talents here, or at least a wide range of strengths.
But Sam and Jessica feel like they’re there to fight with each other and create drama, and they sure are delivering, with bonus cruelty.
Watch how often the show cuts away from a conflict/fight/problem to other teams, who then react. Those reactions may be real, or they may have been edited in from other moments and are being used entirely out of context. Either way, the goal is to highlight the team’s personality conflict, and that’s less time spent on the actual work.
The channel that Lego Masters is on, Fox, is not known for subtlety, especially in its reality TV shows. For more than a decade, its star has been Gordon Ramsay, whose blunt assessments were initially fun to watch, perhaps because they were so shocking, but as he’s had to try to outdo himself, it just feels painfully performative and pointlessly callous.
Of course, trying to be creative under a time crunch is stressful, as is working together! And all reality TV shows need strong characters.
Friends Jessie and Kara had personalities bigger than Kara’s expansive hair but they could also could build—perhaps not as well as other teams, but they created some fun pieces. Likewise, Christian and Aaron’s bromance burns hotter than a thousand Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs, but they, too, can really assemble some bricks.
Except: Bricks? What bricks? There’s very little attention to actual construction, brick by brick. One second there’s nothing, then there’s half of something, then they’re done.
Showing each team piecing together everything brick by brick is impossible, of course, but highlighting key parts of their builds is not. We don’t even really know what bricks they’re choosing and why.
That is not satisfying. Show us how the bros made a dragon with a movable tail that could playfully whip around and swat the other bro on the butt.
We see giant containers full of Lego—executive producer Anthony Dominici told me they “have 3.3 million Lego bricks” in what he called the “Brick Pit,” where “at least a dozen PAs and crew [are] sorting stuff at the end of every week”—but we rarely see those pieces actually being connected together.
For far too much of the episode, the contestants’ tables are scattered Lego that all blends together into one mass, even when they’ve built something. Once in a while, when someone is building a special piece, we may see them holding that and working on it, but it seems like we see more of the disaster moments—things falling apart—that get attention.
And it’s the reactions and arguments and people who get far more attention that the work they’re creating.
I have loved watching Lego creations be smashed into pieces by a bat or by explosions; I’ve loved seeing some of the final products animated in post-production and brought to life; I like seeing the spectacularly creative works. But the show so rarely actually lets me see that.
The cameras and editing are much more interested in the people and their conflicts than it is in their creations.
I know there are married couples (Flynn and Richard, and Tyler and Amy) and siblings (Travis and Corey), and friends (Boone and Mark, Mel and Jermaine). But I have no real sense of their approach to creating, or how they choose bricks, or what they think about the bricks that are available to them. Is this a wider array than usual, or just the usual?
I just want to see more of what the contestants are actually working on. How do they get Lego to be almost circular? Why are some of the pieces movable? Are the motors actual Lego pieces or some kind of add-ons, and how do you even attach a motor to Lego? Are there pieces that are made for motion? Teach me!
I want the judges to take their work apart brick by brick—or explain to us just how impressive the building actually is. Story is fine, and overall concepts are important, but I sure would love the judges and contestants to talk about how these masters have actually worked with Lego.