New York Magazine’s “Approval Matrix” feature takes hot topics from the news cycle and them divides into categories: highbrow, lowbrow, brilliant, and despicable. It’s a cool feature, one that many of us skip to first when picking up the magazine, and provides a jumping-off point for fun debates with your friends. It’s also popular enough to have spawned two TV adaptations: Bravo’s bland 2011 pilot that never went anywhere and, starting tonight, Sundance’s version, hosted by Neal Brennan. Hopefully, when this six-episode series ends, television will have learned to leave this feature alone.
The biggest problem with Bravo’s 2011 version was that it was boring and brought nothing new to the conversation. A group of panelists dissected the week in culture and took cheap shots at Justin Bieber. In contrast, in Sundance’s 2014 version, a group of panelists dissect dated events in culture and take cheap shots at Justin Bieber. The difference is that this new Approval Matrix is aiming to tackle larger themes in culture, rather than current headlines.
The pilot episode centers around the golden age of television as the panelists discuss everything from whether TV is better now than it was before and the relevance of reality shows to popular sitcoms vs. niche comedies and diversity on television. If your idea of a good time is watching five white people discuss whether or not Saturday Night Live and Girls should’ve hired black actors, then The Approval Matrix is the show for you. It’s an uncomfortable episode, not because it’s intense and hard-hitting, but because it’s so ridiculous that this discussion is actually happening. In a later episode, the topic is the pros and cons of policing speech, in particular Donald Sterling’s racist comments, but the show at least found some people of color to include on that one.
That’s a strange episode, too, because I’m unclear as to what The Approval Matrix is aiming to achieve with it. It’s a hot-button issue, or at least it was a while ago (all of the episodes have been filmed already, meaning everything the panels discuss is pretty old), but the discussion surrounding it is… odd, to say the least. Brennan, who is best known for Chappelle’s Show, is an interesting host. He may not have the most admirable opinions, but he at least sticks with them, occasionally provoking his panelists to try and amplify the discussion (which, at times, can get boring). The effect of this prodding is confusing, though. It reads as though the panelists don’t know if they’re supposed to have serious or comedic discussions — the goal, I have to imagine, is a mixture — so both intelligent points and punchlines get drowned out and nothing is heard.
This isn’t the only disconnect in The Approval Matrix. Not does the show struggle with timeliness and relevance, but it occasionally has an “old man yells at cloud” feel when Brennan rants about YouTube celebrities and social media fame. It often feels like a retreading of things that we’ve talked about to death — how reality shows are breeding new forms of celebrity, binge-watching television, comedians obsessing over freedom of speech, paparazzi invading privacy, etc. — without offering any new takes on those subjects. To the panelists’ credit, most do try their best with what they’re given (Julie Klausner makes some astute observations in the pilot and even seems wary of Brennan’s diversity discussion; in “Hall Monitors,” Michaela Angela Davis is generally on point), but it’s not enough to save the show.
As I watched the three episodes of The Approval Matrix that I was given for review, I just kept wondering why this show was necessary. A TV adaptation of the magazine feature has already failed once, and it doesn’t look as if this one learned from its predecessor’s mistakes. The “Approval Matrix” is simply a feature that works well in print but doesn’t translate to the screen. Plus, there are so many talking-head shows on television, so many various forms of media dedicated to dissecting pop culture (both timely and dated), and so many other panel shows that it’s impossible for this one to stand out. Virtually all of these series are identical, and I can’t think of any that is particularly engaging. (The Soup comes close, largely due to Joel McHale’s dry humor and the show’s dedication to obscure reality TV, but even McHale disappoints when it comes to Bieber and Kardashian jokes.)
In the pilot’s opening segment, a monologue by Brennan, he remarks on the amount of television that’s available to watch. This raises the question of which shows you should seek out and which you should ignore, and it quickly becomes clear which one The Approval Matrix is. Much like the overlapping voices on The Approval Matrix, the show itself disappears amid all the shouting.