Premieres Feb. 14 at 10 p.m.on AMC
Have reality shows jumped the mounted shark? Or has taxidermy officially entered the mainstream? Watching the premiere of AMC's reality-show competition "Immortalized," which pits taxidermists against one another, may spur those questions. It may prompt other questions as well. Like: Is that a bonesaw? Is it legal to show a guy mounting a wolf on national TV? Why not do a reality show on embalmers? Would I be able to recognize a fox scrotum if I saw one? I wonder how bad that work room smells. Is this just a prolonged skit from "Portlandia"?
Taxidermy, the craft of presenting stuffed and mounted animals in lifelike poses, is something that, outside of the natural history museum and the hunting lodge, not everyone appreciates. Taxidermy has perhaps gotten a new nudge of ironic popularity; some Brooklyn hipsters have been decorating their apartments with antique stuffed critters. But AMC hasn't rolled out shows about every other hipster obsession, like artisanal pickle-making or trucker-hat collecting. There has yet to be — as far as I know — a show about crate-digging vinyl record hoarders. (Though the IFC network did introduce a subset of the TV-watching public to the world of competitive beard-growing in its "Whisker Wars" series, season two of which starts this month.)
"Immortalized" is a little weird and a little off-putting, which may befit its subject. The show treats taxidermy like an art form. And taxidermy undoubtedly takes all kinds of skills, an understanding of materials, and a knack for forms and capturing the sense of motion and life in things that are still and dead. Skill with hair and pelts is essential. Still, most people aren't moved by taxidermy, unless they're looking at Patches, their childhood pet, preserved for eternity. Other popular and not-so-popular reality show competitions have featured everything from chefs, dancers, fashion designers, painters, singers and tattoo artists battling to prove who's the best at what they do. But food, art and music (and to some extent tattoos) are things that most Americans appreciate. Stuffed brown bears are a little less popular.
All of this makes "Immortalized" into an ungainly beast. If we're supposed to be really delving into the rudiments of the craft of taxidermy, the show doesn't offer many deep insights. Though in the first episode some tidbits about one contestant's work involving insects provide some unexpected technical pointers for arranging beetles, and a surprisingly crunchy audio track as bugs get crunched and munched and mangled. And another points out the ways that smoking and curing pelts brings out oils that help create a nice sheen.
The contestants are meant to be the entertainment here. (The host gets some of the best lines though: "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you display the game.") None of these taxidermists are necessarily normal. And we're told there are two different schools of taxidermy — traditionalists (the guys who mount a hunter's prize moose) and "rogues" (artists and freaks who make weird crap out of animal parts.) One dude munches on insects. He competes against Beth Beverly, a woman who makes haute couture out of roadkill — this is where the fox scrotum comes into play. They're rogues. In another episode two traditionalists, guys in the good-ole-boy mold, compete on the theme of "the end of the world." The themed challenges add an element of absurdity to things; a taxidermy display inspired by "The End of the World" leaves things sufficiently open to interpretation, but the judges repeatedly find that the contestants didn't deliver a finished product that was suitably thematic.
"Immortalized" could have been a lot better. It could have offered more actual information about taxidermy and its history instead of relying on the trumped-up competition between contestants. As it is, the show is lifeless and stiff, with awkward patches, like a badly stuffed little critter that was probably more interesting before someone spent so much time trying to create an illusion.