TV Review: Starz's 'The Chair,' shot in Pittsburgh, is glossy and soapy

Pittsburgh is ready for its close-up in Starz’s moviemaking reality competition series “The Chair” (11 p.m. Saturday). The city looks phenomenal as it’s shown off repeatedly throughout the first two episodes made available for review, perhaps at its absolute best in the show’s “House of Cards”-like opening credits sequence.

Local viewers with access to premium cable network Starz will revel playing spot-the-location (Shadyside Market District! LeMont on Mount Washington! Cioppino in The Strip! Six Penn Kitchen Downtown!), but you can’t judge a TV show solely by how it plays to the hometown crowd.

“The Chair”
When: 11 p.m. Saturday, Starz.
Starring: Zachary Quinto, Chris Moore.

As a piece of entertainment, “The Chair,” though a glossy production, gets off to a rockier start.

Let’s start with the title: Will it make most people think it’s about a competition to win the director’s chair or does it sound like a death penalty drama? Viewers who don’t follow pop culture news may be confused.

Then there’s the first half-hour of the first episode that packs in a lot of information about the mechanics of the contest, who the producers are and why it’s shooting in Pittsburgh. It’s a talky, talky, talky introduction to a great concept: Two first-time directors make two different movies based on the same script after they tinker with the script’s tone, characters, etc.

Once “The Chair” gets beyond producers bloviating, it’s a more interesting series about the two newbie directors -- YouTube star Shane Dawson and indie screenwriter Anna Martemucci -- and the enormous task of producing a movie on a small (for filmmaking) $940,000 budget, of which the directors had discretion over $600,000.

But unlike past moviemaking reality competition series “Project Greenlight,” “The Chair” is more soap opera and less of a competition. Both competitors were selected by producers and neither one is an unknown -- the show goes to great lengths to be transparent about Ms. Martemucci’s past involvement with Mr. Quinto’s production company -- and Mr. Dawson has so much more of a following online that those voting for the show’s winner seems likely to be lopsided in his favor.

Instead, the focus of “The Chair” is the nitty-gritty work of making a movie. This docuseries expounds (again, sometimes in too talky terms) on the myriad aspects of film production and then focuses on the personalities of the two directors.

Mr. Dawson is quick to make decisions; Ms. Martemucci appears to struggle mightily to the point that it sometimes feels like viewers are watching Ally McBeal try to make a movie. Her producers, including her brother-in-law, strive to insulate her from all complications and appear to handle her with kid gloves.

Mr. Dawson claims a lack of confidence but never shows it even as executive producer Chris Moore worries “there’s no grown-up” on his team. Mr. Dawson knows what he wants and only shows signs of concern when it’s unclear he can get what he wants. At one point, he suggests flaunting Writers’ Guild rules on screenwriting credits because he contends he rewrote the script, while co-executive producer Josh Shader explains he only gave notes.

“If we want to say it’s ‘notes,’ ” Mr. Dawson says, using air quotes, “I’m fine with that.”

And then there’s this eyebrow-raiser: When “The Chair” was announced with much local fanfare in January, producers were mum on where the show would air; Starz didn’t announce its involvement until April, but producers clearly knew the show would land at Starz because Ms. Martemucci says it will during a conversation with a potential director of photography for her film before production begins.

But that’s just all part of the process of making -- and more to the point, marketing -- entertainment these days. It’s a business that can be chaos in the making of the product but pinpoint specific in the selling of the finished film or TV show.


TV writer Rob Owen: or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.

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