Photo: Syfy

Mounted And Stuffed

The Skekstestants finally work on their own to create the severed heads of fantasy creatures. In a fun way.

Creature Brief

Finally, it's an individual challenge! The Skekstestants have to invent a fantasy creature that's been killed, decapitated, and had its head mounted on the wall of a wizard's home. Then the head will come to life and explain how it was killed, incorporating both hand puppetry and "at least one element of mechanization." The first step is to select taxidermy bases, which is a weird thing to watch. It also looks difficult to applaud this week's mentor, when you're holding a wooden horse head in your hands.

Day One: Sculpting

The first day is full of sculpting, which is neat to watch. Somehow, these people are able to take big clumps of clay, throw them on a wooden head, and turn them into something entirely new. Some of them do preliminary sketches, but Jake and Ben are fine with just plunging ahead. Ben in particular has some fun things to say about how he's making an "old man tree" because he's "kind of a geek for wood grain." I'm a geek for a lot of things, but not wood grain. But listen, I don't judge. Robert's making a hippie boar, and he has a grid system to make sure the wrinkles are aligned. He doesn't explain how it works, but it sounds pleasantly scientific.

Things mostly look pretty cool. At the end of the day, some professional mold-makers come in to cast the creations and make latex foam versions, because certain other shows have drained all the fun out of watching people make molds.

Day Two: Eyeball Mechanics

Everybody spends the entire day monkeying with their eyes, which are supposed to use servos to blink or look around. Lex has the worst time, because she has no experience, but Melissa and Ivonne also run into problems. I'm not thrilled about the three Skekstestants who seem to be in trouble also being the three women still in the competition, but I guess that happens sometimes. Ivonne's problem is that her taxidermy head was a badger, so her eyes don't fit inside it.

Master Session

Day 3 is when most of the actual work gets done, so this is when Pete Brooke comes in. He's the creative supervisor, and he's got solid advice for everyone. Melissa and Lex are both told to snip off a bit of the plastic eyelid to make room inside their creations. And he warns everyone that Brian Henson really doesn't like it if a creation never seems to be looking right at something. His advice is so specific that we get to see the details of how these things work. The wooden taxidermy heads have been replaced by hollow plastic "skulls" that hold the shape of the foam heads. I like Pete's suggestion to Russ that he cut some of the skull away to make his minotaur head more movable and expressive.

Day Three: Panic

The three women are the farthest behind by far. People mostly keep their eyes on their own work.

Rehearsal

Each head is operated from behind a wall by a two-person team. One of them has a hand inside the puppet and does the voice, and the other performer operates the servos via remote control. Many of the servos break immediately, presumably because there are secrets that nobody's told the Skekstestants. Incidentally, I'm not thrilled with how much of this series has already been devoted to people trying to make mechanical eyes work. That seems like the least interesting thing that is in any way related to creature creation.

Screen Test

There's a surprise guest who plays the wizard and interacts with the creations: Donald Faison. The Skekstestants freak out in a way that feels a little over the top. Look, I have nothing against Mr. Faison. He was very good on Scrubs and he does a great job here. But settle down.

Each of the heads comes with a comedy routine allegedly written by the Skekstestants. Ben's creature looks like a log of some sort, and talks in a weird screechy voice like MC Pee Pants. Ivonne appears to have given up on her original idea completely and just made a green mop with no eyes. In fact, very few of the eyes seem to work, and I think everyone would have been better served by spending Day 2 on finding ways for their faces to be a little more mobile. The comedy is surprisingly passable, thanks largely to Donald Faison, who commits to his role a lot more than you might expect from a cameo on a goofy reality show like this. When the performances are over, we learn that Faison was a regular on Sesame Street for two seasons, which might explain why he's here.

We also get to see a lot of the behind-the-scenes process, and it's fascinating to me that it feels so much like the heads are doing the talking that when we see the puppeteer providing the voice, it looks like she's just mouthing the words. And there are only two puppeteers trading off as they go down the line, so the fact that the creatures don't all sound alike is fairly impressive.

Judging

Although the judges are still very nice, I feel like they're getting more specific and picky with their observations. Even Ben's log-monster, which they clearly love, comes in for some critique because Brian objects to one of the eyes blinking. The biggest problems are that Lex and Ivonne both ran out of time; Ivonne's creature had ears that were just unpainted foam, and Lex's eyelids were just raw plastic, which makes Brian cringe because it looks and sounds like a toy.

Elimination

Russ and Lex are safe, leaving five Skekstestants. There are three top looks and two bottom looks, which doesn't make sense. Everyone knows you're supposed to have the same number of people on each side. You're also supposed to pad things out for drama, which they completely fail to do. Ben wins for his log thing, and Ivonne's eliminated for a creature the judges describe as "completely unfinished."

Verdict

Individual challenges mean fewer scenes with people blaming each other for their problems. And the screen test contained comedy that was frequently funny. No complaints here.

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