I watch a lot of TV. Probably too much, actually. I like to consider myself a student of television, because I think it sounds better than calling myself a lazy college student who doesn’t want to do his homework, but that’s another point. As I was saying, I watch a lot of TV, but if there’s one area of this field I could never get behind, it’s reality shows.
It is not an elitist or snobby opinion, although I could understand if you see it as one. I just never really developed a taste for it. I don’t think of myself as being above Keeping Up With The Kardashians or Project Runway, I just never connected with any reality shows (Aside from anything on Food Network, Family Feud, and Deal or No Deal, of course.) in the way I connect with scripted ones. Until I watched this season of HBO’s Project Greenlight, that is.
From Executive Producers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, Project Greenlight follows an amateur filmmaker who is given the opportunity to direct a feature film for HBO. The winner is chosen in the first episode, and the rest of the season follows their journey in taking a story from script to screen. It’s a wildly engrossing show unlike any other reality series I’ve ever seen. It separates itself from the pack through a completely unique combination of utter shamelessness and surprising discretion.
Though it could be classified as a reality competition, after the premiere episode the show is as pure of a reality show as there is, and what makes for a good reality show? Drama. Don’t let the fact that the show is on HBO and produced by a pair of Oscar Winners fool you, everything about Project Greenlight is designed to create tension, uncertainty, drama, and, ultimately, entertaining television. For proof of this, look no further than this season’s winner Jason Mann (Pictured Left).
Jason is an uncompromising talent. He knows what he wants, and he knows exactly how he wants to get it done. Jason will fight for his vision with the strength of a director with three box office hits behind him. From what we get glimpses of during the season, Jason is a very talented director, but he never should have won.
Though it was covered up by claims of his talent and promising ability, it is abundantly clear that Jason was picked because his style, confident personality, and soft-spoken demeanor would create the most interesting dynamic for the show going forward. His sensibilities were nothing like initial film script (Which Jason ended up scrapping in favor of his own original idea). He showed almost a lack of interest in the project during his initial interview, and immediately after winning the competition, he went right to the producers with a list of demands instead of displaying any semblance of gratitude. Is this the guy who deserved the chance to direct a 3 million dollar movie for HBO? No, of course not. Is he going to be an incredible reality TV subject? Absolutely.
But what good would a introverted, quiet, confident subject like Jason Mann without a dynamic, outspoken, head-strong producer to fight him every step of the way? Enter Effie Brown (Pictured Right). The true breakout star of Project Greenlight, Brown got viewers attention right away when she got into it with Matt Damon over racial impact of whoever the winner would be. Effie had been on TV for less than a half hour and she already tried to call Matt Damon racist (Which you can read many, many think pieces about, if you want).
Effie keeps Jason in check, she fights him on budget constraints, film vs. digital, casting, location scouting… Basically Effie and Jason are at odds throughout the entire season. The two are clearly both talented, and in any normal professional circumstance, wouldn’t be paired together. But this isn’t a regular film production, this is Project Greenlight. The producers don’t want the pairing that will work in tandem flawlessly, they want whoever will give them the best season of TV possible, and Effie and Jason deliver.
They don’t deliver like you would expect though. Instead of having people screaming at each other, pulling hair and dumping glasses of wine on each other’s faces, Project Greenlight never really lets the tension boil over. The show is content to just let its cast of characters whine about each other in talking heads without clearing the air, thus creating an air of tension, hostility, and things left unsaid. It’s a wildly different approach than most reality shows take, and an extremely rewarding one for the viewer.
There’s a well known concept in filmmaking that the moment the audience sees the monster, a movie loses are part of the magic. While the creature is lurking in the shadows, the viewer is free to imagine whatever he or she thinks is the most terrifying, which makes the movie scarier for each individual audience member. Your imagination, in most cases, is dreaming up something much better than what the movie will actually deliver, so when the monster is actually seen on screen, a lot of the tension and fear is gone, because as scary as the thing on screen is, it is almost never as terrifying as what you had in your head.
Sure, it would be satisfying to see all of the tension and buildup of Project Greenlight come to a head in a crazy showdown between Jason and Effie. Project Greenlight doesn’t show it though, they are determined to never let the monster creep out of the shadows. Instead, throughout the whole series, viewers are picking sides, analyzing who has the upper hand at any given moment. We think about how pretentious and entitled Jason seems, how generally ungrateful he seems about being handed this unbelievable opportunity. We think about Effie and her constant fights with everyone she works with, is she right to pick these battles, or at some point is the problem really her?
In most reality shows, these two go at it, and sides must be chosen, #TeamEffie or #TeamJason (#TeamEffie, all the way, if you were wondering). But that’s not how professional life works, according to Project Greenlight, at least. Being a pro means sucking up your pride and personal feelings in order to be a part of something bigger. Project Greenlight isn’t a story starring attention-seeking, drama-crazy personalities trying to get on next season of Dancing With The Stars, instead the show depicts hard working, talented professionals, who may not get along, but are forced to work together anyway. These people (Besides Jason, who’s performance we’ll know more about tonight when the movie premieres) are unquestionably good at their jobs. Project Greenlight succeeds where other reality shows fail not by showing us how much these people hate each other, or who can yell the loudest, but instead by showing us how far they will go to create an end product they can be proud of.
Season 4 of Project Greenlight is available now on HBOGo and HBONow.
The movie produced during this season, The Leisure Class premieres Monday, November 1 on HBO.