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Pottery making, flower arranging, glass blowing and Lego creations are among the skills on ‘extreme creativity’ reality shows airing today. Photo: Shutterstock

Extreme reality TV shows: from making pottery to topiary face-offs, creativity goes into overdrive for added escapism

  • Glass blowing, jewellery making, building Lego sculptures – reality TV shows are getting ever more creative and extreme
  • These contests are moving away from hobbies and getting more niche, and bringing in industry professionals

Throw a fully functional teapot in under a minute. Craft a giant bathroom object by melting and sculpting glass. Build a bridge entirely out of Lego that can hold up to 500 kilograms (1,100lbs).

These are the challenges contestants may face in HBO Max’s The Great Pottery Throw Down, Netflix’s Blown Away and Fox’s Lego Masters, respectively – three titles that are part of a burgeoning reality TV subgenre that shines a spotlight on the most specialised of design skills. These shows take the episodic elimination structure of long-established competition series and fill it with people seasoned in the most niche creative fields.

Are you into arts and crafts? Put on NBC’s Making It. Want to watch jewellers at work? Tune into BBC Two’s All That Glitters. No delineation is too detailed: HBO Max’s Full Bloom focuses more on flower arranging than Netflix’s The Big Flower Fight, which is more about floral installations, and Discovery+’s Clipped, which is all about topiary. Even kids and teens are worthy competitors, thanks to Disney+’s Shop Class and HBO Max’s Craftopia.

Why is this kind of show so appealing?

Host Will Arnett smashes a contestant’s Lego creation in ‘Lego Masters’. Photo: Ray Mickshaw/Fox/TNS

They offer a sense of escapism – often an important factor in successful entertainment, never more so than 14 months into a pandemic.

“People want to go beyond the wonderful food and home renovation competitions to see what else is out there,” says Bob Kirsh, HGTV’s vice-president of programming and development, whose portfolio includes Clipped, which boasts Martha Stewart as one of its judges.

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“These shows work because there’s already some baseline familiarity with the topic, but you get to learn about it from real experts and witness these truly beautiful creations that you may not otherwise be able to see.”

Whatever the skill being tested, these shows’ shared “it” factor is “extreme creativity”, says Jennifer O’Connell, executive vice-president, non fiction and live-action family for HBO Max.

“It’s satisfying to watch someone be so adept at something that they can make such impressive things. You might not become a potter after watching The Great Pottery Throw Down, but you might be inspired to explore something else and make it your own.”

Judy Ho is a clinical and forensic neuropsychologist. Photo: Judy Ho

Even if viewers don’t literally pick up a craft afterwards, “there’s been so many studies that show that when we humans observe somebody else doing something, the same neural circuits are activated in our own brains, almost as if we’re actually doing it ourselves”, explains clinical and forensic neuropsychologist Judy Ho.

“Watching somebody else being satisfied from creating something so beautiful, there’s a real sense of what that might feel like if we were the ones doing it.” This has become even more true during the widespread uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Seeing something physical and tangible that you can touch and manipulate into a finished product, especially through a process that has a clear beginning and end, is very soothing to the human mind, which craves control,” adds Ho.

Older-style shows such as ‘Forged in Fire’ are more about amateurs practising their hobbies. Photo: Shutterstock

Such specialised series are nothing new: the History Channel’s blade smith competition Forged in Fire has aired for eight seasons. SyFy’s Face Off, with prosthetic make-up artists, and Paramount Network’s Ink Master, with tattoo artists, ran for 13 seasons (the latter is being revived for Paramount+).

But more and more, these shows have come to resemble The Great British Baking Show rather than Top Chef, in that they invite amateurs to practice their hobbies instead of bringing on experts to boost their careers.

“These contestants are not necessarily trying to make a profit; they’re usually doing it because they really do just love it,” says O’Connell.

‘Lego Masters’ is a less cutthroat show than other reality TV series, preferring to remain aspirational. Photo: Wikipedia

“It shows that, whatever your job is, you can still find something that allows you to express yourself and brings you joy. You can be passionate about an art form or a skill and compete at a really high level. There’s a really aspirational element to seeing real, regular people pull it off week after week.”

It’s fitting that these hobby-centric shows take a relatively relaxed approach compared with TV’s more cutthroat tournaments. “This kind of show doesn’t have to be mean to be entertaining,” says Lego Masters producer Anthony Dominici.

“Yes, they’re technically against each other, but really, these people – who are all so different and from completely different backgrounds – are also helping each other and learning from each other along the way because they see each other as part of the same niche community.

“People can compete against each other and not cut each other down in that process and instead build each other up,” he adds. “We can all learn from that.”