'Fake Off': TV Review

Annette Brown
Likable judges, a simple format and gorgeously constructed artistic acts  

TruTV kicks off its rebrand with a flashy and fast-paced competition series

The new artistic competition series Fake Off may confuse truTV fans. Where are the investigators, the crime stories, the forensic docuseries? That mystery is exactly the kind truTV watchers are usually ready to solve. But Fake Off is the first of several new shows that, beginning Oct. 27, will come to define truTV and its new tagline: "Way More Fun." It's a far cry from its origins as Court TV, and later, as a network devoted to crime shows that devolved into a mishmash of reality programing. But with its rebrand, truTV's parent company Turner Broadcasting is hoping to create a channel (currently reaching more than 93 million homes — 79 percent of the TV audience) that attracts "funseekers."

Fake Off is a strong start. Its setup feels like a broadcast competition series, which makes sense since the show is a pastiche of many successful forebears. As on American Idol and its copycats, there are three judges: visual concept designer Michael Curry (Broadway's The Lion King), Grammy winner and former TLC chanteuse Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, and actor-dancer-choreographer Harry Shum Jr., most recently seen on the Fox series Glee. Each judge awards the performances a score from 1 to 10, which are added up and then combined with the audience's score (which is weighted like a fourth judge, a la Dancing With the Stars). The ultimate prize for the winning team (one is eliminated each week starting in the second round) is $100,000.

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The game itself, though, is the most unique thing about Fake Off. Taking the most dynamic parts of a show like America's Got Talent, Fake Off invites performance dance troupes (10 in total) to create an illusion-based routine each week, crafted around a randomly selected pop culture reference (which can be as narrow as "the Titanic," or as far-reaching as "TV dramas"). The troupes, who hail from across the country, employ techniques that combine digitization and media with more traditional aspects of performance, specializing in things like black light, shadow dancing, puppetry, video mapping, light wire, and more. The final products are often mesmerizing. As Thomas says to one group, "I felt like I was dreaming with you."

There's almost no time given to the creation of each routine, though, which might give a better sense of budget or scope (as the elimination rounds begin, however, there will likely be more time to get to know each group individually). But the unhurried and often beautiful final performances are the true focus, not any surrounding drama. No matter the subject or the specialty, every group is able to create technically sound and occasionally awe-inspiring work that is a cut above most current competition series, and far more exciting than yet another iteration of a singing show.

Where Fake Off wobbles is both with its confusing concept (basing the show on a genre — "faking" -— they are creating, even though it is essentially extreme stagecraft), as well as when the groups interact with the judges and the host, Robert Hoffman (Step Up 2: The Streets). The editing could be sharper, and attempted jokes fall flat (either because the audience isn't laughing, or we can't hear them — both are issues). Hoffman is game for the hokey device of having him reveal each team's theme via a short sketch, but the results are unfortunately cringeworthy. TruTV is looking for shows with more comedy, but with Fake Off, the transition isn't yet complete.

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Luckily, the celebrity judges' sincerity helps ground the show. Shum brings a great energy to the table, while Curry often explains (for the audience's benefit) the technical aspects of the acts. Thomas (who has the best one-liners) tends to focus more on the value of audience reaction and spectacle, but doesn't hold back criticism. No judge falls into any particular role, though; all deploy their hesitations and encouragements evenly, as well as their scoring. Most importantly, they are articulate, genuine, and likable, and don't overshadow the performances with their personalities or banter. Rather, their insight often helps augment the experience of watching each act.

Fake Off seems to be the right blend of fast-paced entertainment and fun that truTV is looking for with its new slate of series. Its format is easy to follow, and its featured acts are all genuinely talented (there's no room here for the schadenfreude of deluded performers who aren't up to snuff).  Like its performers, the show does have some kinks to iron out. But overall, truTV has truly created a flashy and worthwhile series for its rebrand — no faking.