Bravo finally premiered its Approval Matrix show last night, and the network‘s taste wizards must have known they had something stanky -- “lowbrow despicable” in the lingo of the matrix. They saved it until 11, after Top Chef, and there wasn’t a lot of advance teasing, no elaborate trainwreck enticements like the Real Housewives franchise. (It’s not even clear if you can find anything about the show on the network’s web site.) The idea was to make a show based on the hugely popular Approval Matrix feature at the back of New York Magazine. The magazine feature looks at recent pop culture and current events -- both pedestrian and semi-obscure -- offering snap judgments, using a genius quasi-Cartesian schematic to locate the value of a particular cultural nugget along an axis of highbrow/lowbrow and despicable/genius. The sneaky wisdom of the set-up, on paper, is that it presents a visual representation of the sliding scale of our taste spectrum, and depicts that fine line between a great ideas and awful ones. The magazine feature also perfectly flattens and reduces broad topics -- a speech by the Iranian president or the new book by an experimental Japanese fiction writer or a viral video -- distilling them to one-sentence bullet points on a graph. It’s bite-size, it’s visual, it’s eccentric, it’s fun. The show, like the magazine feature, is partly the work of Michael Hirschorn, a writer and reality TV visionary. Hirschorn is so smart and entertaining -- on Twitter, in the magazine and as a creator of media-centric, factoid-larded TV shows (he had something to do with VH-1’s Pop-Up Videos) -- that it’s almost shocking how much the Bravo show sucks.
The show features host Faith Salie and three comedian-type commenter/panelists. The host summons up a recent tidbit -- say news of an old flame off Oprah’s or the recent Bieber movie -- and the panelists are invited to dish catty and place the item on the grid. Three minutes in to the first episode I was looking away from the screen in wide-eyed panic. It was like watching someone have a seizure. It wasn’t clear what role the panelists played, why they were even there, and the banter-y bon mots seemed stilted and scripted and not funny.
To try and address the Matrix on its own terms is tricky. There’s nothing exactly “despicable” about it, though that’s the only inverse of “brilliant” we’re given on the grid. And it’s not really a highbrow/lowbrow question. The show is masquerading as a qualified judge. Not sure what you call that. To successfully peg the show, we’d need a third dimension to pop out behind the quadrants offering options of “embarrassing fraudulent critique.” I’d rather watch Hollywood Squares.