It took me a while to write this article. Not just because of losing access to my computer right after Steampunk World’s Fair, but also because I didn’t know precisely how to tell this story. In general, I like to focus on the positive in my articles. I quickly realized this Steampunk’d piece simply couldn’t add a wholly positive spin and still tell the truth.
Steampunk Eddie won the competition, but did not attend the panel after the Maker Challenge. (Update: one commenter says he was at an interview at the time. Eddie did not comment on his whereabouts in his follow up article.) Many of the stories and insights shared at the panel turned out to be new, even for the cast members. The contestants and judge present all had a lot of anger and frustration they kept pent up while under contract. When it came time to release it all, it came out next to scalding. The booze started flowing freely for many hours before the Tell-All even began, which I am sure contributed to the fire. Not that I blamed them. From the sound of it, if anyone deserved a drink, it was these folks.
At the Panel:
On the Spot
The cast had other Q&A sessions during the weekend. This one came later and followed the “Maker Challenge,” a 2-hour event where they competed just like on the show. Things had already started to get goofy even before they selected their object to punk, and the energy never came down again. When I ran into Karianne Gottschalk a few months later at Motor City Steam Con, she told me I had definitely gone to the most interesting of their panels. She agreed they were cutting loose by then much more than earlier in the weekend.
You could really feel a sense of camaraderie in the room. There was just a hint of tension during the Maker Challenge when a mild prank or two was perpetrated. But generally, everyone seemed happy to see each other. It reminded me a lot of when I was part of a play and we finally made it to the cast party. These were people who had suffered, survived, and created in the trenches, and it had brought them together. (Well, maybe not everyone…but keep reading for the juicy stuff.)
Life on Set
Being on television sounds glamorous. In reality, their time was not only uncomfortable, it was downright exploitative. The cast told story after story about their terrible treatment during the show. Some restrictions, such as access to news media during the taping, make sense. But in addition to having zero access to any sort of entertainment, they were not allowed to interact with each other unless the cameras were rolling. This meant literally hours of standing around in awkward silence, sometimes when they were under deadline.
Every night, they were locked in their own hotel rooms, reportedly to make sure they didn’t sneak out to strategize. You heard me right, they didn’t even get a key to their own room. Apparently, game shows go to great lengths to make sure that contestants don’t get a chance to form alliances. Add this level of isolation to being completely cut off from your friends and family during filming. The loneliness became hard to bear for many contestants.
Rumors had it that it was so hard for Ave, in fact, that I’m told she smuggled her husband into the hotel. The couple lived locally, and hubby-dearest donned drag to get in and out of the hotel undetected. Ave thinks the story is funny, but says it is nothing more than a rumor. Either way, it’s fun to picture smuggling a drag queen in and out of a hotel!
See you Latte!
On other reality shows, alcohol always seems to be free-flowing, but the Steampunk’d cast were lucky to decent get food at decent hours. COFFEE was rarely even provided. Now that is just cruel and unusual punishment! This insight led to a delightful aside about a time on set about judge Thomas Willeford. He was clueless about the poor conditions for the cast, and berated an intern for his cold latte in front of them all. They could laugh about it now, but clearly at the time it was anything but funny.
(Update: Apologies. Your reporter made a boo-boo on this one. I included the anecdote to show Willeford was not being insensitive to the experience of the cast, rather that he did not know about what it was like for them until later. Apparently, the latte story is to some extent fabricated, but when watching the panel I misunderstood this aspect of the story. My intent was to share a anecdote that made the panelists laugh during Steampunk Worlds Fair. I meant no offense.)
Missing the Mark
Amenities aside, there was also plenty going on behind the curtain that turned them all sour. Clearly, the producers didn’t have a clue about Steampunk. Or what it would take to accomplish the tasks they were asking them to do. At auditions, the two dozen potential contestants all sat together at breakfast, baffling the producers. They spent all morning and fanboying and -girling over each other’s work. Many of them were already friends, or had admired each other’s creations from afar. They were excited to see what everyone was going to do, not fired up to crush the competition. The show’s creators missed the part where Steampunk is a COMMUNITY, and one of the most supportive fan communities, to boot.
They also briefly touched on their disgust over how the cameras would keep rolling even if someone needed help. This isn’t unique to this set, but it was an aspect of reality TV that really turned off the cast.
A Silk Purse from a Sow’s Ear
When it came time to step up to the challenge, the supplies at the audition were woefully inadequate. The potential contestants had to share the pile of supplies and upcycle something so it looked Steampunk…with only one can of metallic paint. There were day-glow orange and pink fabric, but where was the leather? Where were the machines and clocks to take apart? The scrap yard for the show was a massive improvement, but paint and other integral supplies continued to be a major issue throughout the competition. (Due at least in part to some sabotage, but more on that to come.)
I was surprised to learn that the creators also had much less time than it appeared. Two to three days already seemed like a ridiculously short amount of time! But in the course of those days, the contestants were only allowed to work during very limited hours. And those precious hours were constantly being interrupted. Regularly throughout the build, it was time to do an interview. These asides were often about something that had occurred weeks before. This could keep you away from fifteen minutes to hours. Not to mention interrupting your creative flow.
Damn the Man
If fear is the mind killer, stress is the soul sucker. Nothing is quite as exhausting as living your life with the background radiation of pressure. Of course, the show was meant to be a competition and there is some stress in anything like that. But it’s seems clear to me they were being asked to do far too much with far too little. In addition to physical reactions, such as Ave’s collapse during Episode 2, the mental fatigue brought on by Steampunk’d meant that the contestants began clamoring to leave. Several admitted to going out of their way to perform poorly in the hopes they would be sent home and the torture would end.
The only problem? It didn’t work.
Karianne Gottschalk told me that a prop that got her MVP status one week had been a deliberate attempt at self-sabotage. Imagine her confusion when she was not only kept that episode, but rewarded for what she believed was blatantly poor craftsmanship. It just didn’t add up.
An audience member asked the cast if they believed the producers had a pre-determined “schedule” for kicking people off. Tobias McCurry said he didn’t know if they had intended to get rid of him early, but he wasn’t at all surprised. Even in the span of filming one episode, he’d already made a point of being a thorn in the side of the producers over the lack of supplies. Tayliss Forge also spoke up, saying she believed they definitely had some idea about who would be there for the long haul. Other contestants had been told to pack for eight judging appearances, Forge was specifically told only to bring four outfits. This was news to her fellow contestants, and they were all outraged on her behalf.
Was the Fix On?
To be clear, producers legally can’t tell the judges who to choose. But they control every aspect of what the judges see. They choose which clips to show them, and decide when to let them speak to the contestants. (Which remember, is only when the cameras are rolling and they are surrounded.) They also had an earpiece for each judge and they often gave them lines to say. Though they didn’t always cooperate. Willeford said he refused to play parrot more than once, and if he had been given the full story, he definitely would have made different decisions some weeks.
A Rebellion Squashed
The struggle between the cast and the producers came to a head after James Neathery went home on Episode 3. Neathery said at the Tell-All he was ready to go home, but the remaining cast members were outraged at the time. It was clear to anyone who had been in the thick of it that Miss Morgan was the obvious choice. Not least of which because of her condescending attitude about Steampunk and its fans. According to several cast members, she said early on, “I’ll have to dumb down what I do for all the Steampunks out there.” She apparently had also never heard the word before signing up for auditions. Which begs the question, why was Miss Morgan even there and how did she make it to the finals?
When she wasn’t cut, several cast members threatened to quit. They believed the game was being manipulated by the producers, and it’s hard to argue with their logic. GSN brought out their army of lawyers and stopped the rebellion, reminding the cast that they had basically signed their lives away. But from then on, the whole experience continued to deteriorate week to week. Viewership dropped off starkly after Week 3, so it’s no real surprise there aren’t any plans for a Steampunk’d Season 2 in the works.
How do you Solve a Problem like Miss Morgan?
On a show like Steampunk’d there are plenty of small rules, but there are three big ones that automatically boot you from the show.
- No physical altercations with cast, judges, or staff.
- No hoarding supplies.
- Don’t sabotage the other contestant’s work.
According to the cast, Miss Morgan broke them all and never suffered any consequences.
Not only did she give a fellow cast member a sharp knuckle jab to the shoulder and keep a vat of pilfered paint below her work table, she absolutely attempted to sabotage Steampunk Eddie in the finale. Neathery had returned for the finale and was working on a pipe organ, the centerpiece for Eddie’s project. While Eddie had stepped away, Morgan went to the organ and splattered it with red paint.
You’d have thought they would have brought over Eddie to film the fireworks. Instead, they whisked him off for an interview so the damage could be repainted and he’d never know the truth. Steampunk Eddie opted out of the tell-all session, so I don’t know if he knows what really happened even now. The incident received no public attention, despite the fact that it should have meant an immediate disqualification from the finals. The cast members agreed that this simply confirmed Morgan had been planted. As far as they knew, no one but Willeford has had any contact with her post-production.
What Else Does the Cast Wish you had Seen?
Plenty of footage ended up on the cutting room floor, and the cast members had some moments they really wished had been shared.
For instance, Gottschalk and Willeford had a real heart-to-heart during a judge walk-through, and no one ever saw it. They both felt like it was an important conversation for them as human beings. But apparently it didn’t make good enough television. Instead, the show makers decided to make it look like Gottschalk was seeking a romantic relationship with fellow cast member, Charles Mason. Both of them were mortified when the show aired and portrayed their friendship in this light, especially because both are in committed relationships.
Gottschalk was especially frustrated because their goofy, happy friendship was not the anomaly the editors made it out to be. Everyone was laughing and joking when they got the chance. But the love most of the cast had for each other never had an opportunity to shine for the audience.
Which of course, brings up back to the Game Show Network producers, and by how far they missed their mark. When Steampunk’d was first announced, most Steampunk fans were really excited, but many were also wary. Steampunk walks a very fine line between being accessible and “selling out.” A big name like the Game Show Network certainly had the resources to help get Steampunk in front of more people. At the same time, many fans feared for what this type of corporate treatment could do to this thing we love.
On one hand, the low viewership and cancellation are a bummer. A Steampunk-themed reality show focused on makers is a great concept, and I always say ‘the more the merrier’ when it comes to attracting new fans. On the other hand, if what GSN was willing to put out there wasn’t honest, either to the fans or to the contestants, why would we want more of the same?
An audience member asked what the cast would like to see in any future Steampunk reality show. They could all agree on one main thing, more time! The show’s creators didn’t have any idea the level of craftsmanship involved in Steampunk. So, they didn’t provide enough time for these talented people to show off what they really could do. The contestants also agreed that if they had been doing something for the sake of charity rather than personal gain, it would have felt much more authentic to what Steampunk means to them.
What about you?
If you could design your own Steampunk television show or competition, what would it look like? Did you have a favorite moment from the show you want to share? Leave us a comment below.