Early in the hours of last night, I made an ill-advised tweet. It is reproduced here as an act of both transparency and contrition:
the competitive glass blowing show on Netflix confirms there’s just too much content. we need to get rid of like half the content out there, maybe more
— j.r. hennessy (@jrhennessy) July 17, 2019
Three hours later, I had watched almost all of Blown Away, Netflix’s foray into the world of competitive glass-blowing; a show where a series of socially-maladjusted glass maniacs compete to sculpt the most creatively bold glass masterpiece (or ‘glassterpiece’, a word I just made up and is never actually said on the show).
I’m not sure what makes it so compelling. Basically, glass-blowing looks like a ridiculously difficult and precise art requiring a combination of extreme heat, unswerving focus and shitloads of broken glass. Minor errors – like getting the temperature wrong by a degree or two, or cutting slightly the wrong spot – results in your piece of art exploding. It does not look like a fun thing to dedicate your life to. But it is certainly fun to watch, as a talentless spectator.
Here’s the general structure of the show. The host, a weird Canadian guy with no screen presence who doesn’t really seem to know much about glass-blowing, joins renowned glass artist Katherine Gray in presenting the contestants with a general theme for today’s challenge. Then, over the next four to five hours, they make the art. This basically involves running back and forth between a big furnace (amusingly named a ‘glory hole’) and their workspace; cutting, slicing, molding and sculpting hot glass. Gray judges the result and names a winner and a loser. The loser gets knocked out. All of this, from start to end, runs about 20 minutes per ep. Perfection.
It’s the most generic reality show format you can imagine, just applied to a completely bonkers artform. Seriously, we’ve had so many reality shows over the past decade that producers have managed to extract a perfect formula and apply it to just about anything, which is leading us to a future you might consider harrowing or possibly completely intoxicating.
I’m not sure why this makes for such irresistible viewing in the case of Blown Away. I think it’s because each and every contestant is unbelievably assured of their talent with glass – there is absolutely no false modesty on display here. All of them believe they are not only the best glass-blower on the show, but several seem convinced they are also the best artist working in any medium full stop. Their confidence – and, often, pretension – is completely disproportionate to actual interest in their profession. That unbelievable confidence is a natural recipe for drama.
Also, a guy smashes his glass in the first ep and gets kicked off the show.
There is genuinely incredibly artistry on display here, though. Despite the fact every single part of glass-blowing looks like a nightmare to execute, they for the most part manage to churn out some genuinely delightful and complex works in their restrictive timeframes, which is what elevates the show. Unlike other shows which encourage interpersonal drama to construct narrative, everything here is based on the raw artistic and technical output of the contestants, and the brutality of the judge’s verdict (“That piece looked like something I might see in a gift shop.”)
Also, in one challenge a contestant creates this faceless nightmare. That’s also a plus.
You should watch Blown Away. Go on.Image: Blown Away