The first question I had for myself after I finished the premiere episode of Cosplay Melee on Syfy this week was “Will I be able to talk about this show without mentioning the network’s previous foray into cosplay reality TV, Heroes of Cosplay?” The answer is, “Absolutely not. Not in the least.”
Cosplayers are a passionate bunch; and HoC, with its obsessive portrayal of personal conflict, snark and pettiness left a pretty bad taste that still lingers in a community that actively works to fight against negativity, shaming and harassment both from outside and from within. So, along with a lot of cosplayers and fans, I was looking to this premiere with more than a little skepticism. But as a huge fan of Syfy’s other competition/elimination series Face-Off – and a growing fan of host Yvette Nicole Brown – I felt that Cosplay Melee deserved a chance.
The show made some smart decisions that made it really easy to like right away, and gave me confidence that Syfy may finally understand what is so appealing about cosplay.
I made a short list of some of the smart choices that will get me to come back next week.
Melee – But not really.
Competition shows that also feature elimination, from Project Runway to Ru Paul’s Drag Race often thrive on conflict – to the point of shows going out of their way to manufacture it. Face-Off was one of the first shows that showed me that I didn’t really miss bullshit drama for its own sake. Cosplay Melee follows that tone pretty closely. Competitors may be vying for a $10 thousand prize each episode, but the interaction between contestants was friendly, and sometimes downright playful. And maybe that’s just as scripted as other shows’ drama is, but I like the idea that people who share a passion for the same creative outlet can also share feedback and have fun – I’m a sucker, I know it!
And while the season opener went all out – tugging on some heartstrings pretty hard – I will take that approach any day over wanting to throw a brick through my TV. So that’s one check in the Cosplay Melee win column.
A familiar format, but not a copy
It’s easy to keep comparing the show to Face-Off. Both in the show’s tone and in the similarities when it comes to creating and fabricating a look. That said, these aren’t contestants vying to start a business or break into an industry. These are cosplayers who enjoy crafting different looks for the joy of wearing them. Understanding this fact means a couple things.
No models. Cosplay creators are most often their own models and C.M. makes sure the same is true of the competitors.
One-episode appearances. This could be the biggest standout for C.M. Four cosplayers start the show creating a prominent costume accessory for the first round of elimination. The final round gives the three remaining members two days to create a full costume around that accessory; and the winner goes home with the prize. It seems for now, that competitors are only around for one episode. But this works perfectly in two ways.
First, the cosplayers aren’t vying to be master creators for all genres. It’s a passion for them, to be sure, but not a profession. So putting competitors in a theme that matches their skill sets makes sense (this week was Space Opera, with Game of Thrones and Steampunk styles teased for later episodes).
Also, the smaller pool of people means that there’s enough time to get to know them.
Hey! Themes we have heard of.
A good deal of cosplay is based around creating costumes of recognizable characters from well-known fiction. To do a show that tells contestants to simply “make a sci-fi costume” would feel like a let down. But right away this group is given costume inspiration from some of the biggest fandoms around: Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Trek, Star Wars and Chronicles of Riddick; and the cosplayers were absolutely playing to their strengths. Familiarity is a big plus, and not being afraid or unwilling to get big-name franchises is a big deal.
At first, there were probably a dozen or so well-known geeky celebrities I would have expected to see host a cosplay show ahead of Yvette Nicole Brown; but to be honest, the Community alum and Talking Dead mainstay has a fun, reassuring energy that had me hooked a month before the first episode – just from the promos. And while she didn’t look quite as settled-in during the first episode, the Odd Couple actor (with the best head of hair on television – hands down) looked like someone who wanted to be there and was having fun. Everything about her demeanor says, “One of us!”
Brown’s fellow judges are solid choices, though we haven’t seen enough for their personalities to shine yet. Makeup and effects artist Christian Beckman has a solid resume, including TRON: Legacy and The Hunger Games. Geek/costuming/pop-culture polymath LeeAnna Vamp (one of my favorite Instagrammers) is, as her name implies, at home in intimidating heels and corseted outfits. She is also warm and clever and very clearly a kindred to the cosplay competitors.
If there’s a complaint after one whole episode, it’s that there’s seemingly a lot of restraint to the show. Like a collective holding of breath, waiting for approval.
I don’t know how cosplayers will feel about Syfy’s latest attempt at spotlighting cosplay. Cosplay Melee’s set is pretty far removed from the basements and makeshift workrooms where everyday cosplayers pour their passions; and head-to-head competition is in many ways a direct antithesis to how cosplayers see themselves – even for those who compete at conventions. Yet something still feels very right about the show. The fun, the innovative techniques, the energy. Something’s there that’s worth watching again.