"On the Lot" is Off the Mark

"On the Lot," the new TV show from realitymeister Mark Burnett and Hollywood legend Steven Spielberg, is the latest attempt to translate the ambition and skills of a particular group of individuals into reality television. The result is entertaining in a rubbernecking, trainwreck sort of way, not so much as a legitimate view into the creative processes of filmmaking.

The premiere episode (which aired Tuesday night after the first night of the "American Idol" finale; the Fox network is no dummy) started with fifty aspirants for the grand prize of a $1 million development deal at Dreamworks Pictures. After an initial task in which each contestant was given a log line for which they had to develop and deliver a pitch, the field was narrowed to 36.

The episode was filled with the kind of reality TV conventions that populate all of Burnett's programs (which include "Survivor" and the now-defunct "The Apprentice"). We got "up close and personal" glimpses at select contestants, including a Texas family man with two kids for whom "On the Lot" is supposedly his "last chance" to make it in Hollywood (he apparently wasn't trying too hard before this if he lives in Texas) and an Indiana boy who is seen strolling along the railroad tracks in his hometown (something I'm sure he really does on a regular basis). We got alternating pulsatingly tense or langorously melancholy accompaniment music, depending on whether the footage being shown was meant to be tense or melancholy. We got dramatic sweeping crane shots of the contestants getting a bus tour of Hollywood and walking along a studio lot. We got contrived stand-up segments in which a contestant discussed their emotions about the proceedings or the details of the task at hand (evidently, reality show contestants just naturally speak in a fashion that effortlessly provides exposition for such matters).

Along with all of this we got ticking clocks (figuratively speaking) as contestants rushed to prepare their pitches, tearful (or, alternately, confident) confessionals from contestants, and earnest platitudes from the three judges (my favorite: film director Garry Marshall wishing, during the contestant pitches, that someone would pitch lunch). Marshall was joined in the adjudicating by fellow director Brett Ratner and Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher. Their motivations for participating in such a contrived endeavor are unclear; Marshall and Ratner perhaps owed Spielberg favors, while Fisher, unfortunately, was probably just in need of work.

Traces of Spielberg himself were conspicuously absent from the premiere of "On the Lot," which suggests any number of things: his involvement in the show begins and ends with having lent his name and prestige in exchange for fiduciary gain; he was initially involved but then bailed when it became clear that "On the Lot" was off the rails; or the producers are saving any mention or appearance of the auteur for carefully rationed moments that can by hyped as excessively as his association with the program was during the promotional run-up to the premiere.

One of the chief problems with "On the Lot" is one that has plagued other Burnett productions, especially "The Apprentice." Namely, the tasks and the dynamics of those tasks have no resemblence to how filmmaking actually works or to how these contestants might be asked to practice filmmaking were they to win the grand prize. In both "The Apprentice" and "On the Lot" the flawed formula is the same: contestants are given severely time-limited tasks in which they are forced to work with their competitors to achieve an artificial goal. In "The Apprentice," this meant that contestants butted heads with each other over power and division of labor to accomplish questionable business goals. In "On the Lot," a similar unrealistic dynamic obtains when the aspiring directors are grouped in threes and asked to complete a short film in 24 hours, all while trying to co-direct their project. This task made for some fiery footage of contestants in conflict with one another, but has no resemblence to an actual film set on which the director is also a dictator whose authority is rarely challenged even by studio executives or producers who might have grounds to do so. Also unrealistic is the overnight pitch preparation for concepts that were essentially drawn out of a hat; its hard to imagine both the circumstances under which a film director might be asked to this and also the benefit for the aspirants for having done so.

It's hardly news, though, that reality television isn't realistic. Perhaps "On the Lot" will get better as the summer weeks go by, but I'm not holding my jodphurs in hopes that it will. A few more weeks down the road the contestants will at least begin working as solo directors rather than as one-third of a director, like they did in the premiere. Hopefully it has occurred to the producers that at some point they ought to actually show the home audience some (all?) of the films that the contestants have been making. And, maybe, just maybe, Spielberg will show his face at some point during the competition--although if he's smart, he'll remain off the lot.

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