They’re go­ing to learn how to fly: Fame is back, and this time it’s real. Well, sort of

The Guardian - G2 - - Tv And Radio - Lucy Man­gan

Back in an­cient times, chil­dren, when di­nosaurs roamed the earth, eye­brows were un­mi­cro-bladed and spi­ralised av­o­cado toast wasn’t even a twin­kle in a clean-eat­ing in­flu­encer’s fil­tered eye, there was a show called Fame. It fol­lowed a group of stu­dents who stud­ied leg­warm­ers, mu­sic and danc­ing at the fic­tional New York City High School of the Per­form­ing Arts (leg­warm­ers were a big thing back then, just ask Great Aunt Google). They thought they were go­ing to live for ever, they thought they’d re­ally got it to­gether, they were go­ing to learn how to fly (high) and light up the sky like a flame. Fame!

But wait, flock of warm-legged Lazaruses! For as for­mi­da­ble dance teacher Ly­dia would warn them at the be­gin­ning of each episode: “You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start pay­ing – in sweat!” And sweat they did, es­pe­cially Leroy, be­cause he was trou­bled but also The Best.

And now, glo­ri­ously (and yet some­how de­feat­ing the no­tion of hu­man his­tory as one of lin­ear pro­gres­sion) it’s back – and this time it’s real. Sort of. They at­tend West­side, Net­flix’s first un­scripted re­al­ity show (are you even old enough, chil­dren, to re­mem­ber when “un­scripted re­al­ity show” would have been a tau­tol­ogy? Be­cause re­al­ity was by def­i­ni­tion un­scripted?). There are nine mem­bers. Sean is the co-cre­ator and West­side tracks his at­tempt to pro­duce a show with eight singer-dancer twenty- and thir­tysome­things.

It is like herd­ing cats. Cats with raven­ing egos, mummy is­sues, bro­ken homes, bro­ken hearts, his­to­ries of sub­stance abuse, ad­dic­tion, de­pres­sion, on­go­ing is­sues with sub­stance abuse, re­cent mis­car­riages, feel­ings of in­ad­e­quacy, feel­ings of quite sub­stan­tial over-ad­e­quacy, and most points in be­tween.

West­side is filmed as a doc­u­men­tary but is in­ter­spersed with – and those of a del­i­cate dis­po­si­tion may wish to sit down for this – mu­si­cal num­bers, usu­ally in­volv­ing one of the mem­bers singing out their per­sonal prob­lems or ex­press­ing in song their lat­est beef with AN Other. Imag­ine Glee try­ing to be gritty. These num­bers are pro­fes­sion­ally writ­ten, pro­duced by a high-end team be­hind the scenes and as uni­formly dread­ful as you could wish. They don’t even wear leg­warm­ers. And yet. And yet. West­side grows on you. Un­like most other re­al­ity shows, there is no el­e­ment of com­pe­ti­tion (ex­cept, of course, for that in­her­ent be­tween any eight per­form­ers brought to­gether to put on a show) and no judges (at least be­fore the first-night au­di­ence). We see Sean and his cast in the round and in the raw. We see their var­i­ous strug­gles with al­co­hol, drug-tak­ing and their pasts com­ing back to haunt them as they at­tend work­shops de­signed to make them bet­ter per­form­ers by “gain­ing ac­cess to your truth” and other malarkey. Truly, you long for the ghost of Olivier to turn up and tell them what he told the fran­ti­cally method Dustin Hoff­man when he re­alised Hoff­man hadn’t slept for three days to get into the right state of ex­haus­tion for a scene in Marathon Man: “My dear boy – why don’t you try act­ing?”

Or you could do it 22-year-old Austin’s way. When asked to imag­ine a phone call with some­one “you need some­thing from and they aren’t able to give it to you”, he goes one bet­ter and calls his mother (“I need you to say sorry”) then shows his cast­mates the proof. The mon­ster has gone through the look­ing glass eat­ing its tail.

James takes a less philo­soph­i­cal view and be­rates Austin for mak­ing a work­shop into a ther­apy ses­sion and forc­ing them all to be wit­nesses. Austin takes this crit­i­cism re­ally well. Sean sinks lower in his chair.

Amid the per­for­ma­tive non­sense there are some gen­uinely shock­ing mo­ments, such as the B-footage un­earthed in the first episode of 20-year-old Erica’s au­di­tion for her first ad­vert at the age of four, in which she re­veals that the “boo boo” on her eye was caused by her mother, who spanks her “re­ally hard”. Why? “Be­cause Mommy is evil,” she replies mat­ter-of-factly.

In short, and God save us all, West­side is a hit. That’s a quote, chil­dren, from a play called Ham­let by William Sha – . Never mind. It doesn’t mat­ter. Fame!

Imag­ine Glee try­ing to be gritty. They don’t even wear leg­warm­ers

Big egos and bro­ken hearts: the West­side class of 2018

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