Does glass blowing make for quality TV? If you asked me a month ago, I would’ve said no and probably laughed in your face. Actually, when I first saw the trailer for said glass-blowing themed television show, I did laugh. Who would watch this? I thought, hovering over the trailer for the new Netflix reality series. And while glassblowing is interesting, I did think that a reality competition show version of it would be the TV equivalent of taking an Ambien. But I was wrong. Blown Away, Netflix’s new-ish reality show where professional glassblowers compete for glass transformation supremacy, is really, really good TV.
Blown Away is basically The Great British Baking Show but instead of crumpets, puns about soggy bottoms, and Paul Hollywood warning ominously that the dough was, indeed, over proved, it features fire, glass pulling, and personal glory holes (more on that later). Much like other cozy, competition-based reality TV shows that hook viewers in with their everyday competitors who possess a very particular set of skills (Chopped, Great British Baking Show, etc.), Blown Away is fascinating and engaging enough to throw on and half pay attention to as you’re doing other stuff around the house.
The show is an exemplar of ‘laundry television.’ This is a sub-genre of TV I learned from my own dad — one of his jobs in our house was to always fold the laundry, and he did so, without fail, in front of garbage cable television shows or just fine rom-coms. He would throw it on and not be concerned when he had to walk away to putting clothes away. How many times has he watched the Ryan Reynolds Sandra Bullock rom-com The Proposal about a green card marriage? Many times. Too many times.
The Great British Baking Show filled this spot for me. And Blown Away is the ideal show to succeed it. It features a team professional glassblowers tasked with creating elaborate sculptures, a host, Nick Uhas, who is terrible at transitions and perhaps most famous for being on Big Brother, and, yes, the aforementioned “personal glory holes” which are, more or less, heated ovens in which artists melt their glass.
Blown Away follows typical competition show style. Ten “exceptional artists” are gathered in what is said to be “North America’s biggest hot shop” in Ontario. They engage in a series of challenges where they must create a piece of work that corresponds to that week’s theme. One episode sees them tasked with creating a light fixture; another, creating a carafe and wine glasses. Yet another saw contestants try to create pop art from everyday items (towels, razors, toothpaste). Watching them run about while they transform molten globs into intricate, artistic structures is genuinely engaging.
The mix of contestants fit squarely Reality Show Tropes, too. There’s Janusz, the old-head expert who pulls off stunning displays of technique, challenge after challenge, who is just competing for to make his kid proud. There’s also a too-full-of-himself 23 year old rookie with 10-years of experience who finishes his sculptures hours before time is up, to which I said, without fail, “No! Do something else! You have extra time!” (As all veteran viewers of reality competition shows know, if you have extra time, you make use of the extra time.) Then, there’s the bespectacled New York feminist, Deborah, who isn’t afraid to be what she refers to as a “powerful and outspoken female glassblower” in a field dominated by men. (She yells a lot. It’s great.)
But part of what makes the show such a simple pleasure is that, in the end, these competitors are making works of art that are shown in a gallery and judged at the end of every episode. One episode featured a stunning sculpture of a massive glob of toothpaste next to a tiny toothpaste bottle. In another, a series of glass, human-like figures were arranged like deconstructed Russian dolls. In a team challenge, two contestants made two glass kettle bells hung on a glass pipe across two dozen glass clouds. Although the kettle bells are made of hollow glass and aren’t heavy, the glass bubbles weigh the same as the kettle bells. The perceived difference in weight is breathtaking. How do I know this? Because this is what the show explains. It’s fascinating.
And that’s the thing with Blown Away. It sneaks up on you with how mesmerizing it is. There’s something about it that I can’t really put into words. It’s calming in the same way that Baking Show calms me at the end of a long day when I’m not in the mood for Big Drama. Contestants are genuinely charming and there’s none of the performative posturing that takes place on, say, Hell’s Kitchen. Watching masters of the craft use fickle materials (glass, fire, water, etc.) is tense. It’s also beautiful and, in a sense, meditative, despite the fact that the artists are covered in sweat and shouting at each other from across the ‘hot shop.’
The host, Uhas, it becomes clear, does not appear to know anything about glass blowing. That’s fine! He’s like Noel Fielding or Sandi Toksvig from Great British Baking Show — along for the ride, here to crack jokes, and remain wholly ignorant about the form of glass. However, he’s paired with full-time host and judge, Katherine Gray, who is a glassblowing star. She’s a professor of art at California State University San Bernardino and a decades-long veteran of the field. If Uhas is the audience proxy, there to ask the questions we all have, Uhas is the sage. There are risks in every single stage of glassblowing, and the tension the viewer and, probably Gray and Uhas, feel when they watch someone go back to the glory hole for another round even though that might increase the chance of cracks in a glass or pull too-cold canes across the hot-shop is not inconsiderate. No, they don’t have all the whip and charm of Noel and Sandi — and the showrunners are not big on puns. But what they lack in showmanship, the glassblowers’ personalities more than make up for it.
It also appears that no one on the show thinks it’s as funny as I do that they use personal glory holes to heat their glass before they blow it, or that when someone wins a competition they are awarded “Best in Blow.” Not one person smiles when someone screams ‘glory hole’ in the middle of the hot shop. Everyone keeps working. Even Uhas says stone-faced. That’s fine. Sure, they’re doing it out of respect for the profession. I’m also willing to bet they got out all their laughs early on in their careers. Or maybe they’re more mature than me. There’s nary a dry eye in my apartment every time either of those phrases were uttered.
Watching Blown Away, I found myself holding my breath at the spectacle of bonafide artists melting glass, blowing it, rolling it, pulling it, cutting it with scissors into rods. I was hypnotized every time someone tried to separate a piece of hot glass from a stem and groaned when it broke. I felt their pain. The show is calming, educational, and extremely physical. It’s beautiful to watch. Most importantly, I don’t have to pay that much attention to it if I don’t want to. But, as I sit there with a pile of unfolded laundry in front of me, I realized I do.