The push goal I was most excited for when webcomic Penny Arcade went to Kickstarter to go ad-free for a year was their pitch for a new reality show as season four of Penny Arcade: The Series. They would invite a group of comic artists to fly out to an unspecified location to compete for a chance to win, among other things, a year's stay in the PA offices and a cash prize. The Kickstarter earned enough for the show, so the casting process was on. Though I very much doubted my chances, I applied for a spot on Strip Search. I used clips from my first webcomic, Food Don't Go Stale in Space, as well as my now-defunct due to time constraints (and eaten by ComicPress) Week in Media series. I also used examples of my actual painting and graphic design work and even some of my reality TV recaps that used webcomic formatting in my portfolio. The application was one of the more challenging ones I've filled out for a reality TV show (always good to know the aim of casting when critiquing a show) because of its breadth. Strip Search was looking for the total webcomic package: art, writing, marketing, and merchandising. Unsurprisingly, I didn't get past the open call stage.
The contestants who did make it onto the show represent a wide range of style and experience. Some of the contestants are pretty inexperienced at creating a webcomic and some are professional artists for animation studios. Some run their own businesses and some had to quit their jobs to even go on the show.
What they share, and what comes across so strongly in Strip Search, is a passion for what they do. The artists are there to compete for a life-changing prize but they all seem to realize how fortunate they are to have this opportunity. The level of game playing after the first complete challenge to elimination experience is strategically choosing to not be the villain.
Even more telling is the confessional montage at the end of the first episode. All but three of the contestants admit that they don't know if they can win. The three who do admit it aren't super aggressive about it. There's no "Send everyone else home, I came to win" aspect on this show like so many other competitive reality series. The season preview has one contestant saying the infamous "I'm not here to make friends" sound byte but I have a feeling she's not being malicious in that moment.
The challenges are a mix of having fun and actually running a webcomic. In the second episode, the artists play a very long game of Fax Machine. Each artist starts by writing a caption for the next person to draw. The next person draws the prompt on a separate page. The person after them has to write what they think the caption was for the previous illustration. The Fax Machine challenge did have a prize and a winner, but it was a totally casual affair to warm the contestants up.
The elimination challenge shown in episode three brought the artists right into the business side of running a webcomic. They had to design a t-shirt inspired by the Strip Search graphic with no more than four colors--black plus three others. The winner would have their shirt sold on the Penny Arcade website and earn all the profits from it. Even within what was essentially a challenge to market someone else's brand, the artists had plenty of room to show their own style.
The nastiness of competitive reality shows is mocked by Penny Arcade creators Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahuliuk again and again. The first episode saw the judges warn the contestants about a brutal trap hiding in the competition house. They quietly argued over how many traps the budget actually allowed for in front of the contestants. Both are putting on their best tough reality show judge impressions--Jerry gets bonus points for the track suits and huge gold chain to show how successful he is--and it's a riot.
The actual elimination is determined by a chance drawing event. The bottom two contestants (determined by the winner of the first challenge, though that may not carry over to future eliminations) had to each pull a drawing prompt from a glowing waste basket and combine the two ideas into an original comic. They had 90 minutes to complete the strip while Mike and Jerry asked them invasive questions and tormented them with misleading time checks and threats of teeth-hungry bats.
Right around the time Mike accused a contestant of being a Hitler-sympathizer is when Strip Search really came into focus. The reality TV judge stereotypes are a joke used to put the contestants at ease throughout the contest. The whole point of the series is to provide exposure to other webcomic artists through the massive success of Penny Arcade. Mike and Jerry wanted to foster the contestants through a positive experience and thoughtful critiques that might help them succeed even if they don't win the big prize. The elimination decision is revealed in a shocking way--tearing the losing contestant's strip in half--but shortly afterwards, the pair join the eliminated contestant in the car for a pep talk and to make sure they're all right.
The bottom two contestants confirmed my early reaction to the series. There isn't any malice going on here. When asked if they would try to take revenge on the artist who sent them to the bottom two, they both said no. When asked if they would try to psych out the other competitors with knowledge gained in the elimination room, they said no. The artists are here to compete for a prize but, so far at least, they're treating it as a very positive experience for everyone. The returning contestant was greeted with a round of applause in the house and a sympathetic Graham Stark (host/producer/editor of the series) telling them they deserved to be in the contest.
Strip Search is such a positive enterprise that I can't even turn my snark on for fun and profit. I had planned on recapping the show here but I found I had nothing particularly funny to say about the first two episodes. No, really. I spent an hour going through the first episode for screengrabs and this was the only one that gave me anything to work with that wasn't already clear in context:
The only critique I have (an unexpectedly slow pace for a first run reality show) only hits me long after the episode premieres. In the moment, Strip Search feels right. It's beautifully produced and edited with high production values. The script of challenges teased for the rest of the season seems appropriate and the contestants, so far, have nothing but good things to say about their experience.
I think the only reason that Strip Search feels a little slow is that we have been programmed through over a decade of reality TV consumption to demand high drama and cruelty in this format. When it doesn't appear, it feels like something is missing. That is not the case here. Strip Search is exactly what it needs to be to survive beyond one season if the Penny Arcade team chooses to go through the process again.
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