The Approval Matrix, New York magazine’s weekly guide to cultural phenomena, is a systematic but lighthearted way of judging specific people, places and things in the news, such as Pharrell’s hat at the Grammy’s. Sundance TV’s new talk show adaptation takes the concept and makes it broader, looking at issues like whether political correctness is helping or hurting the public, or “has technology made us the worst people of society?”
The Approval Matrix, which premieres tonight at 11 p.m., is hosted by Neal Brennan, an Emmy-nominated writer, director, producer and stand-up comic who co-created Chappelle’s Show. “I see it as dumber than Bill Maher but smarter than Chelsea Lately,” Brennan says.
The show includes pop culture commentary, interviews with celebrities like Amy Poehler, Chris Rock and Jon Stewart, and on-the-street segments, where executive producer Rory Albanese (who was an executive producer and writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart from its creation until 2013) gets on-screen time interviewing New York City citizens about show topics.
The magazine explains the matrix as a “deliberately oversimplified guide to who falls where on our taste hierarchies.” Basically, it’s a graph found at the end of each magazine: Along the X axis runs “despicable” to “brilliant” from left to right, while “highbrow” to “lowbrow” descends from top to bottom, along the Y axis. Each pop culture item is placed somewhere in the grid. For example, the novel Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya was in the right-uppermost corner of highbrow and brilliant during the week of July 28, while “Walmart-brand ice-cream sandwiches don’t melt, thanks to gum stabilizers and a relative dearth of butterfat and cream,” ended up in the lowbrow and despicable corner.
The idea to turn The Approval Matrix into a television series came from Ish Entertainment’s Michael Hirschorn. On the show's variation of the matrix, the graph takes the form of a large table, so that a panel of celebrity guests can sit around it and interact with it. (Panelists in these first six episodes include Jason Biggs and Whitney Cummings.)
For instance, on one episode titled, Golden Age of TV, Brennan asks: “Was the Jackie Gleason era really the golden age of television, or has the past decade trumped it? In his hands Brennan holds two cubes, one with a golden flat screen TV on it, and one with Jackie Gleason’s face, and starts the conversation with his panelists as to where he thinks these topics should be placed on the matrix.
After Brennan produces a starting point for the subject at hand, the panelists either agree with his placement of the topic or argue it.
“It’s like I’m proposing a bill,” explains Brennan. “I get my mind changed once in awhile.”
Another topic Brennan addresses is “America’s hall monitors,” the people — like Donald Sterling’s alleged mistress — who police celebrity’s words and actions and voice their opinions through social media, he says.
“We live in the golden age of hyperbole now because of social media,” said Brennan. “Everything is the best ever or the worst or the dumbest.”
Brennan describes himself as an absolutist, a full-blown know-it-all. “He has a real opinion that’s funny, formulated and thought through,” says Albanese.
In one episode, Brennan attacks Louis C.K.’s television series Louie, saying, “I love Louie’s stand-up. I love the standup sections of the show. I find the narrative nonexistent, and kind of sloppy and kind of lazy, so I’m putting it in the lowbrow and despicable.”
“I think Louie is like the kale of television,” he adds, explaining that people like to say they watch it but don’t actually do so.
The show's frank debates are what makes it more than another talking-head-making-fun-of-pop-culture show — and what will likely keep it out of the lowbrow, despicable corner of pop culture.
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