'The Chair': TV Review

The Chair Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Starz

The Chair Still - H 2014

An intriguing idea with a great final hook, but the in-between is less certain

Backed by a long line of co-producers, including Zachary Quinto, Starz's first original unscripted series is an indie look at how indie films are made

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Land of Bridges. And, possibly, an indie film renaissance, if Zachary Quinto and the producers behind The Chair get their way. Created by Project Greenlight's Chris Moore, the Starz series pits two up-and-coming directors against one another. The two contestants are given the same script and the same location, but film separate movies that will emphasize their creative differences. The Pittsburgh location is key, though, not only because of Quinto's connection to the city (it's his birthplace, and he also graduated from Carnegie Mellon University) and tax credits, but because Chris Moore had some financial ties there that helped launch the series. As is emphasized early and often, that part is key. 

While finances are being raised for the movies, whose genesis the TV show is filming, they're also being raised for the TV show itself (essentially, it's an indie about an indie), which is why there are a slew of co-producers associated with both. Over ten hour-long episodes (the first five of which will be available online the day of its premiere), the show will document the process of making a movie, focusing on a lot of minutia. And talking. So, so much talking.

The Chair's aspirations as both a competition series and a documentary are just interesting and lofty enough to give its producers plenty to wax poetic on — and they do through most of the first episode. The rest of the time is spent on video diaries from the two contestants: YouTube star Shane Dawson, of Long Beach, California, and writer-turned-director Anna Martemucci, who represents (in her words) the "indie, New York City side of things." The show is building to a final screen-off between the two, where audiences at home will be given the opportunity to vote on their favorite adaptation, and the winner will receive $250,000. Though Dawson would seem to have the advantage there, thanks to his 10 million YouTube subscribers, Martemucci also has connections within The Chair's production (which are discussed openly and at length) that might also give her an edge.

The final films must be R-rated or less, run 85 minutes or longer and keep the same character names (although almost anything else can be changed, aside from the Pittsburgh locale). Pittsburgh — the real star of the show — is gorgeously filmed, particularly in the opening credits, which have a House of Cards sensibility to them. One of Moore's biggest hopes is, he says, for "regional production centers." But more importantly, the excitement in Pittsburgh about a burgeoning film industry means that money is starting to flow like the Monongahela (or perhaps at this point, a tributary). 

Though The Chair features too much producer talk and not enough editing of the video diaries (the confessional aspect is not as interesting as the show seems to think it is), the series starts to come together once the personalities of Dawson and Martemucci begin to manifest, and there is more forward motion regarding their individual films. A great deal of The Chair's success will depend on viewers' getting interested in the drama and difficulties of low-budget filmmaking, as well as wanting to sit with just these two directors for any entire season.

Dawson asserts himself immediately and confidently, but his strong personality doesn't fit well with everyone. His young age and sophomoric sensibilities make Moore worried that "there's no grownup" in his production crew (which each director hires themselves, as part of a $600,000 budget). When Quinto advises Dawson over Skype to tone-down some of his gross-out comedy (and digs at Pittsburgh), Dawson airily tells him, "this generation is ready for more […] American Pie was like, 10 years ago." "Simmer down over there," Quinto replies evenly.

Martemucci, on the other hand, is far more neurotic and hesitant, requiring handling by her brother-in-law, among others, who make sure she doesn't get too stressed out and keep her on point when it comes to handling business and staying on schedule. But Martemucci has her priorities in a more traditional place than Dawson to kick things off (as of the first two episodes available for screening), highlighting their differences: She immediately hires line producers and assistant directors, while Dawson takes a day to test out multiple vomit and blood effects. 

Despite its overly talky nature, those interested in how productions get off of the ground will be fascinated by the details, which The Chair doesn't miss one moment of (including many, many phone calls and Skype conversations). Others may find it overly tedious and return only to view the final products. The series may lack the money and pizzazz of a broadcast network competition series, but part of both its charm and its irritation is how indie it genuinely feels. For Starz, it's something very different and potentially even something great (though it could do with a better title). Moore doesn't seem worried, though. "Everyone [in the business] is crazy. No one has cornered the market on dumb creative decisions, and no one has cornered the market on good creative decisions."