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Dream Machines

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Syfy has had a longstanding problem with its overall lineup since the finale of Battlestar Galactica. On one hand, it still tries to produce quality genre programming free of irony (Alphas comes to mind). On the other, it produces a series of intentional B-grade television movies with tongue planted firmly in cheek. But there’s a wide swath of programming between those two extremes that makes up the bulk of the network's on-air content, and it’s a fairly schizophrenic swath to be sure. Quite a few of those programs barely even justify their presence on the network at all, with relationships to science fiction so tenuous as to defy belief. In that particular band of programs lies Dream Machines, which aims to be American Chopper for the geek set. But instead of being a genre reality show, it primarily exists as just another entry in the already-crowded genre of manual labor reality show.

Dream Machines chronicles the workplace of Parker Brothers Concepts, a family-run business that fabricates vehicles that take as much inspiration from high-performance vehicles in our world as the tricked-out futuristic rides you might see in something like Tron. (An actual working light cycle was the brothers’ second overall working vehicle.) The premiere, which is actually the first of two overall installments, finds the brothers Shanon (chief designer) and Mark (chief engineer) building a prototype vehicle for Curtus “50 Cent” Jackson. Fiddy tasks them to build a one-of-a-kind ride that takes inspiration from Formula One, a jet fighter, and a spaceship. “Most of the stuff that we do is very sci-fi or fantasy-oriented,” says Marc at one point.

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If only this actual build resembled either aspect at all. There’s little to no science fiction, fantasy, or anything above and beyond your typical fabrication show. Sure, the car in question goes well beyond the general parameters of even a high-end custom build. And it’s still a very impressive design. But aside from the assertion there are spaceship elements to their design, there’s little in this first episode to justify Dream Machines’ place on Syfy at all. It’s certainly a sleek looking design, but one that would fit at home were this program on a network like Velocity or a segment on Top Gear. There’s a passing mention to using a Viper fighter from BSG as inspiration, but if it hadn’t been mentioned, there would be no trace of it in the actual design that would be remotely apparent.

Instead of focusing on tying in the fantastical to the practical, the show instead focuses on some old reality standbys in order to pad out its hour running time. (At a half-hour, this show might still be too long as presently constructed.) Time potentially spent delving into research, concept boards, and visual inspiration is replaced by pranks, the installation of a security system, heavy fines from OSHA, and a staged segment in which the brothers fly actual fighter planes in the name of “research.” The middle two segments aren’t entirely without merit: There’s something interesting about watching these two brothers deal with the logistics that have arisen since their passions have transformed into a large operation. But the show isn’t sure if it wants to be a hard look at the growing pains of a unique business, a close look at taking the seemingly impossible from design to completion, or an endless sequence of two brothers yelling at each other at every possible moment. It goes for breadth, not depth, and loses quite a bit in doing so.

I mentioned American Chopper at the outset not simply because it’s the easiest reference point to make, but because the Parker brothers argue as much as Paul Sr. and Paul Jr. What makes Dream Machine different from Chopper is that while father and son perform the same essential job on the latter, the two brothers perform wildly different tasks on the former. The conflict between design and construction should be intimately familiar to anyone working as or with creative talent, and it is certainly fertile ground for conflict as well as problem-solving. A crisis occurs near the end of tonight’s hour when Jackson gets unapproved designs sent to him by a CAD artist, and the perils of having him un-see those new images (which Jackson actually prefers) causes a host of problems that have practical and immediate ramifications to the construction of his dream car. It’s an incredibly relatable problem, and one that extends well beyond both science fiction as well as construction.

But ultimately, does Syfy need to be in the Dream Machines’ business? This show isn’t aiding the network’s branding so much as adding hours to its prime-time line-up. This isn’t Monster Man or Face Off, in which program and network form a symbiotic relationship that helps one another. Dream Machines as presently constituted wouldn’t be a compelling show on any network. But if it tapped into the reservoirs hinted at tonight, it could be a viable addition to Syfy’s line-up. Case in point: There are comic books lining Shanon’s office walls, books which draw in Jackson immediately, spark his interest, and essentially sell the company to him before the brothers even say a word. That sense of awe, wonder, and geeked-out joy may eventually get into the show itself. But for now, it’s too busy trying to hide those elements rather than play them up.

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Stray observations:

  • Each project gets its own code name. Jackson’s car is “Project: Cobra.”
  • There are about two dozen other employees in the company. Of those, we only really get to meet Jeff (the operations manager) and Karen, who is Shanon’s wife. Jeff speaks to the company’s history: He’s a guy who basically hung around the brothers from the outset and invented a job that they eventually hired him to do. The perils of such nepotism are seen in this installment.
  • Karen installs a security system after their parking lot gets vandalized. Amidst all the slashed tires? Pools of blood! This all plays like a tepid episode of Sons Of Anarchy, given the heavy number of leather jackets and beards among the employees.
  • Jackson eventually asks the brothers to have the car ready in time for Big Boy Toys expo, which sounds like Disney World for the rich and famous and car-loving.
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