Approval Matrix Redux

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Back in 2011, Bravo aired a 30 minute pilot based on the New York magazine back page feature “The Approval Matrix.” Hosted by Faith Salie, the show attempted to bring the popular feature to television. I barely remember watching it, and the pilot was so disastrous, Bravo has wiped any trace of it from their website. Proving there truly are no new ideas in Hollywood or cable TV, Sundance TV has given a new version a six episode commitment, this time with Neal Brennan (co-creator of Chappelle Show) as host. Let’s compare the two!

Hosts
Faith Salie 2010Salie, according to her website, is best known as Sarina Douglas on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and host of the Public Radio International program Fair Game with Faith Salie. She isn’t a bad host, she just has little to do other than introduce topics to the panel and wait for their responses. Instead of exuding a New York-cool, ironic detachment that New York magazine typifies, she’s more of a slang stylist. And she’s completely awful at it. Phrases like “let’s get matrix-y” (see clips below) are cringe-worthy at best, meant to seem off the cuff but coming across rehearsed. She’s clearly trying too hard to be hip and appeal to Bravo’s audience.

Sundance didn’t have to go very far to improve on Salie. Brennan brings a welcome sense of cool detachment and street sensibility to the show. Brennan’s not afraid to take a strong position (hating Louie, for instance) and sticking to it. He’s also more adept at stirring up conversation around a topic, rather than just setups for jokes that fall flat like Salie. Though he has the annoying habit of opening every episode with a short monologue, awkwardly holding his hands up high like a chipmunk, I give the advantage to Sundance.

Panel
The 2011 iteration of the show had three panelists: comedian Sherrod Small, former Comedy Central exec Jessi Klein, and Watch What Happens Live producer and friend of Andy Cohen, John Hill. Infuriatingly, Salie and Small seem to be doing their own show, with Klein and Hill reluctant to speak and too scared to move.
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Sundance’s AM panel, then, is a vast improvement, with guests you might have heard of before! Julie Klausner, writer on Billy on the Street, Mulaney and host of the excellent How Was Your Week podcast. Morning Joe and Today host Willie Geist. Star of many failed NBC comedies Whitney Cummings, and TV Guide’s Matt Roush.

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Geist is a practiced talk-show host/guest, and perfectly comfortable on the couch. Cummings yells every line and interrupts incessantly with her inane laugh. Klausner is visibly uncomfortable being on the couch/tv but manages to get in a few trenchant observations about kale. Roush engages in the conversation, convincingly arguing his point. Advantage Sundance.

Topics
Bravo’s AM taped the week of airing, so the topics were fairly relevant to the week’s happenings. The clip below shows that week of 2011 was a big one for Justin Bieber, who’s first movie was coming out, and was booed at Madison Square Garden during a basketball game. Unfortunately the rest of the segments aren’t online where I could find them, but lets say this represents the show fairly well.

Sundance’s AM has already finished taping and editing all six shows on order. Since it isn’t timely like Bravo’s version, Brennan and company discuss macro topics, like the Golden Age of Television in the pilot, or being famous, or political correctness.

Rehashing tropes like “the new golden age of tv,” or “is fame worth it,” on a Monday night, at 11, baffles me, as it doesn’t seem timely or current. However, Brennan indicated recently that if the series is picked up, they will move to a more topical format. Advantage Bravo.

Guests
Fred Armisen was the Bravo pilot’s special guest, ostensibly to present the “Matrix Moment of the Week,” after talking about his favorite salsa. Seriously, WTF? Was salsa the rage of 2011? Were they the cupcakes of that year? My fave part of the following clip is the panel’s reactions, because they have no idea of what to make of this and Hill resorts to some lame rejoinder in an attempt to fill air time.

Amy Poehler was the guest on the pilot of Sundance’s version, a one on one style interview segment broken up into commercial bumpers (the Fame ep features Chris Rock).

If I were going to score on integration of guests into the show, the advantage would be Bravo’s. AM 2014’s taped interviews are jarringly out of place, and take place in an anonymous office away from the show. But I’m going to score this on celebrity, and here AM 2014 on Sundance clearly takes it. Armisen is great, but he is a NBC star coming on to promote SNL on a sister network. Poehler, Rock, etc offer a much higher degree of celebrity interest. When was the last time Chris Rock did press? 2009’s Good Hair? So yes, on celebrity alone, Advantage Sundance.

Set
Sometime after Bravo’s pilot was produced, talk show sets began to get smaller and more intimate, likely the result of E’s Fashion Police and Watch What Happens Live’s successes. This set feels cavernous, like a game show (dig those lighted stairs that no one will ever use!), with huge areas of dead space and white objects filling up the background. The panel’s couch is so far away from the host it creates a weird dynamic and HIll and Klein could be napping over there for all we know. There’s some tchotchkes scattered about, some books and lots of vases, and two huge video screens on the walls to introduce each topic. It feels ultra modern and newsy, like a 12th hour of the Today show. I think there’s a studio audience, about the size of Watch What Happens Live and half-asleep.
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Contrast that with Sundance’s 2014 set, cozy and intimate. 3 plain raw wood paneled walls are the backdrop, with club chairs for the panel and host, arranged around a giant coffee table where the Approval Matrix is displayed, like a large board game; good, mood-setting lighting; and last but not least, an engaged audience. The coffee table with wood blocks that can be moved into the four Approval Matrix quadrants feels a bit cliche. It cries out to be upgraded to something more current, like a Microsoft Surface maybe. But it gives the panelists something to interact with. And thankfully no bookcases with vases. Wait! What is that useless cube sculpture in the foreground?
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The host/panel clustered around the central table is more appropriate for this type of show. The live audience gives it a dynamic energy the AM2011 show is sorely lacking. If the show gets picked up, maybe they can hire a chyron operator and make the matrix an on-screen element? I don’t know, but Advantage Sundance.

Despite a few issues, The Approval Matrix 2.0 is vastly improved over the Bravo prototype. While it may not be as topical, the guests are, at the very least, entertaining. It’s a fun, half-hour that zips by even when the panel consists of someone I’m not impressed by interested in (ahem, Jason Biggs talking fame). Brennan’s adept at leading a discussion about that week’s topic in a way that doesn’t seem forced or conspicuously “hip” and the guests are at the very least engaging and offer differing opinions. In the parlance of the show, I’ll slot this right on the line of Highbrow/Brilliant. Closing out this post with the segment that ended the show, the panelists favorite episode of TV. Geist’s answer kills me.

Are you watching The Approval Matrix? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

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