Regression TV is all the rage. In a few weeks, Hulu debuts High Fidelity, a comedy about a Cool Girl digging deep into her romantic past to figure out what’s so wrong with her perfect present. In a few months, we’ll be barraged with original cast sequels to Lizzie McGuire, Punky Brewster and Saved by the Bell, which will collectively try to answer the age-old question “What kind of mortgage does Zack Morris have?” And this week, Fox launches Lego Masters, an hourlong reality competition series pitting 20 adults against one another in a race to figure out which Nerd™ has the tightest stranglehold on their childhood nostalgia.
Listen, I crave nostalgia. It’s what has me drool over A Goofy Movie-branded backpacks at Hot Topic and sporadically troll eBay for vintage Polly Pocket sets and crusty Playskool doll houses. Each and every one of us has the urge to excavate our memories in pursuit of that sweet, unattainable golden nugget of childhood joy. No doubt, this emotional gold rush has partially fueled Lego’s current supremacy as a worldwide phenomenon 70 years into the toy’s production. People across generations cling to its wholesomely open-ended construction play, made possible thanks to the ambitious scope and variety of colorful interlocking bricks manufactured by the Danish toy company. Unfortunately, watching Lego Masters is more akin to observing a tank full of crabs mindlessly claw at each other for dominance than reveling in scrupulous craftsmanship.
The concept seems airtight: Bring together a group of hobbyist Lego builders to compete in a series of challenges that test their creativity and engineering skills, then methodically cull the teams across the 10-episode season until one pair can be crowned (and win a cash prize). As 10 teams of two battle it out to construct miniature working amusement parks or smashable spaceships, host Will Arnett and judges/corporate ambassadors “Jamie and Amy” preside over each event, guiding contestants and adjudicating their final deliveries. (Jamie Berard and Amy Corbett are both design leads at Lego.)
Adapted from a critically acclaimed British series that debuted in 2017, the American Lego Masters takes the original conceit and Fox-es it up, adding blammo! sound effects, a candy-colored workshop set and grimace-worthy puns that make you pity the in-person victims forced to laugh at them. (At one point, Arnett literally growls “Eggsellent” at an egg-shaped design.) The original program is quiet and meticulous, emphasizing the artistry of the participants’ original concepts. Most important, it features actual children competing for the title.
There’s something unsettling about watching a swarm of adults hover over minuscule toys, scuttle back and forth from their workstations to the pantry of plastic bits and sweat about concept blueprints with their exasperated partners. I kept imagining the participants pushing kids out of their way to get to the bricks, as if to sniff, “Special for me, only!” I recognize that this Comic Book Guy-style hegemony over childhood is endemic to Lego culture. Yet the brand’s entertainment branch has doubtlessly flourished while embracing its foremost market share. The four feature films and countless television series may feature wink-wink adult humor and complex themes, but children remain essential to Lego’s promise of endless imagination. Erasing kids from the elements of play drains all the potential magic from this show, leaving us with mere Peter Pan dregs.
You could easily tumble into the chasm between Lego Masters‘ salubrious intentions and its unwieldy execution. Like Netflix’s glassblowing competition series Blown Away and Lego Masters‘ tonal predecessor MasterChef, the show wrests more drama from its wackadoodle cast than it does the lightyears-more-fascinating methodology of their artisanship. Each pair has been costumed for “maximum persona,” from the square newlyweds and flannel-clad beardos to the big-haired Ozark mamas and alt-sexy cosplay chicks. The premiere spends so much time developing these eccentric personalities that you don’t actually learn anything about the people behind them or how Lego became such a passion for them. (Perhaps this presumptive acceptance, this lack of effort to uncover why people in their 20s to their 60s are obsessed with plastic toy bricks, proves we’ve reached Peak Lego.) Only one episode was available to review, so I’m hoping that as the cast dwindles, the producers will spend more time showcasing the individuals who form these teams. The artifice, for now, is alienating.
I can only guess what a shooting nightmare this must have been for the photography team, as it can be difficult to capture on camera the extraordinary detail of infinitesimal designs. This likely accounts for part of why the premiere feels so sluggish — I could barely see what the contestants were putting together, only quick cuts across their displays while they fussed over whether to choose a duck theme. To combat this, the producers cleverly include some fun stop-motion segments to bring the Lego minutiae alive, but these brief vignettes are far and few between. We watch the builders outline their visions and piece together electrical strategies, but don’t get the play-by-play of how the geometry or physics actually comes together. Not to be a dweeb, but I kind of thought I’d be learning something here.
Lego Masters feels like the toy-boy answer to Making It, which is co-hosted by Arnett’s ex-wife, Amy Poehler. Arnett’s signature unctuousness is awkward here, as he tries to insert self-deprecating (but still ultimately self-involved) humor into the proceedings. Perhaps my overall disappointment stems from this pilot stiffness, but the more likely culprit is the standard brashness of American reality television, which is less cinema vérité and more wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am. I would have preferred to study the ingenuity of kids and their families working through the creation of these complex forms. Bad news, everyone: The geeks have inherited the earth.
Host: Will Arnett
Executive producers: Will Arnett, Anthony Dominici, Sharon Levy, DJ Nurre, Michael Heyerman, Karen Smith, Steph Harris, Jill Wilfert, Robert May
Premieres: Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Fox)