Hot Set: TV Review

Though the competitors change from week to week, the sheer fun of watching the sets come to life should keep viewers tuned in.

Syfy's competition series, from the production company behind "Face Off," gives a fun look behind the scenes at how science fiction, fantasy and horror genre movie sets are constructed.

Last year, Syfy introduced the competition series Face Off, which pit prosthetic makeup artists against one another in weekly challenges leading up to a grand prize. Their newest competition show Hot Set, from the same production company, follows the basic formula of Face Off, except instead of weekly prizes and eliminations leading up to a finale, the show brings in two different Hollywood production designers each week to compete head-to-head and create science fiction, fantasy or horror genre movie sets for a $10,000 prize.

Both shows have built-in appeal for DVD extras junkies and anyone who craves behind-the-scenes reveals and sneak peeks into the way TV shows, commercials and movies are constructed, and that element of "constructing" is an important part of things. The two teams have three days to complete their project, which is built off of a single idea and visual reference. In the premiere episode, the story is of an astronaut who has crash-landed in a desolate world where he knows he is unlikely to survive (the visual reference is a space suit). After the prompt, the designers and their crews go through a brainstorming phase followed by the actual shopping and building that will allow them to construct a set, with a total budget of $15,000. An added element of interest is that the completed sets are put on film in a short clip featuring an actor and a few sound effects, to see how the set actually plays onscreen. 

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For the "desolate land" prompt, the judges said clearly, "make this otherworldly, don't just give us rocks and sand and make it look like a desert on Earth." Both of the episode's talented competitors (Craig and Abra) and their teams took the advice to heart, and though they did employ said rocks and sand, they also used dead trees, ash, bones and, in Craig's case, a really inspired take on where it was exactly this unfortunate astronaut landed.  Though Craig kept his crew working like a machine while Abra was described by judge Lilly Kilvert as "a marshmallow just floating along," it was interesting to see how their visualizations took shape (or didn't) as mental concepts were, with various degrees of success, translated into spray foam and wood.

Hot Set (the production name for a camera-ready set) has incredibly fast-paced editing that almost whips by too quickly. It creates a huge sense of urgency, and highlights all of the natural tension brought on by deadlines made even more stressful since the rival teams work right next to each other. But it also skips over a great deal of the nitty gritty. Because the sets are so detailed, there are only a few aspects of the process that can be focused on, and even then some of those narratives get lost in the whirlwind.

Still, what makes Hot Set interesting is that "whole story" approach -- the sets begin as blank stages, and we see things rather miraculously spring to life, filmed just like they would be in a live production.  The final product is judged on a sundry of criteria, from the mise-en-scene and overall composition, to creativity and the more esoteric "feeling" the set gives off.  The judges (Curt Beech and Barry Robison, both Art Director's Guild Award nominees, and Lilly Kilvert, two-time Oscar nominee) are just as catty and somewhat arbitrary as judges on any other artistic competition show (though, one presumes, ultimately fair), while host Ben Mankiewicz (seen most recently as a host for Turner Classic Movies) maintains a detached air throughout the proceedings, where a touch more enthusiasm towards his duties would go far in keeping his presence relevant, since the subject matter isn't specifically his forte ("My grandfather wrote Citizen Kane," he's forced to say at the start by way of introduction, while the designers nod politely).

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One of Hot Set's strongest points though is that viewers can judge things for themselves, which is one of the greatest appeals of Project Runway (from which all of these kinds of shows are born). While cooking competition series remain exceedingly popular, there's a lack of engagement -- though the food may look good (or not), there's no way to test that out; viewers must rely solely on the judges, which makes our feelings about them extremely important (are they fair? do we trust them?). For Hot Set, viewers may be manipulated through editing into thinking one competitor is more competent than the other, or one set build is going much more smoothly than another in order to keep the drama taught, but in the end we will still intuitively have our favorites no matter what the judges say, because we can nearly experience everything they do. As one of the competitors says to the crew early in the first episode, "it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks, we know we did a great job."

Though Hot Set presents a familiar framework and style, its particular focus is an inherently appealing one, and the pace at which the series flies by will make it easy for viewers to get pulled in even without a specific interest in behind-the-scenes "magic" (one crew member actually says, lamely, "we use movie magic" to describe how an item is transformed from something ordinary to a prop). But really, there's no magic here, just hard work and a great deal of skill and creativity. At a time where everything is, for better or worse, becoming digitized, it can be refreshing to see something striking come from hands-on grunt work.