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Strip Search: Fool’s Gold or Mother Lode?

The Penny-Arcade prospectors have boldly struck out into new territory, this time with a reality series. Are they wistfully chasing a pipe dream or have they found artistic gold in their new recruits?

Penny-Arcade stands at the zenith of webcomics. Its creators, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, are ostensibly two guys who dick around, play video games, and make cartoons. Don’t let this fool you. Penny-Arcade has expanded their operations to creating the largest gaming festival in North America (PAX) and a multimillion dollar charity (Child’s Play). Penny-Arcade’s humble beginnings have transformed into a sprawling empire.

So what’s next? The business savvy for the operation is provided by the shadowy, diabolical ping-pong master and “President of Operations and Business Development”, Robert Khoo (known aliases: “Khoolio”), and he doesn’t think they are anywhere near their limit. Their Kickstarter campaign last summer was a call to arms, with an ad-free website as the goal and a host of other stretch goals. Rewards for backers ranged from the fanciful to the outright ridiculous. One reward was to have Mike yell out your name as he chased a duck (a promise he made good on). Going down the list, the options grew, and so did their goals. The reward for raising $450,000? A webcomic reality show called Strip Search.

So what is Strip Search exactly? Well for starters, it was the name of a reality TV series from 2001 about male strippers. Fortunately this is quite different. Twelve aspiring web-comic artists have gathered in Seattle for the chance to win $15,000 and the right to spend one year embedded in the Penny-Arcade empire. The only thing standing in the way of that prize is a series of harrowing challenges that test their abilities in all realms of web-comicing. The central theme for events and challenges isn’t just their artistic ability. They also have to face challenges regarding their fans on Twitter, merchandising, and Seattle trivia. At first glance, it doesn’t seem all that different from Top Chef.

On the subject of Top Chef, harvesting its format isn’t a bad thing. The show is wildly popular for a reason. They attract extremely talented and interesting individuals to compete, create some pretty awesome challenges that test the contestants’ entire range of abilities (and then some), and generally bring in the world’s foremost authorities to judge. The show remains focused on the cooking aspect as much as possible while developing a rapport with the audience, then mixes it up here and there (within reason). And Padma is super hot. In summary, Top Chef is awesome. Did I mention Padma was hot? What were we talking about again? Comics, right.

Strip Search isn’t as polished or as opulent as a multi-million dollar network venture, but it can definitely hold its own. They nailed it where it counts, namely with great contestants, attention-grabbing content and challenges, and having the best judges/guests in the industry.

However, unlike Top Chef and most other reality shows, Strip Search’s semi weekly schedule of two 20 minute episodes per week allows for very different pacing. It does an admirable job of spacing out eliminations, ensuring that each one is properly built up. The beauty of the web format is that they do not have to eliminate someone every episode, as is commonplace on network TV. They also have 100% control over the show and don’t have to deal with the same degree of standards and compliance. They can do some pretty awesome stuff as far as “the rules” go. I really don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll only say that you should expect some curveballs. Contrasting the tense, drama-filled eliminations with the more light-hearted social challenges is a nice change of pace, and the considerably shorter episodes (with no commercials) coupled with very palatable production make it extremely easy to watch a quick episode on YouTube whenever and wherever you want.

Still, the eliminations stand out as the highlight. The format ups the tension (and in-house drama at times), while the interaction with judges/creators Mike and Jerry is a comedic and insightful treat. Strip Search flips around the often boring “judge tribunal selection” and has the winner of the main challenge select the 2 people to be potentially eliminated. Those 2 contestants must then battle it out in a high-stakes, high-stress elimination challenge right in front of Mike and Jerry. They have 90 minutes to create an original comic from 2 randomly selected topics, a very small amount of time. Frankly, it is nothing short of incredible to see what the artists can produce in such a constrained situation. Mike and Jerry also provide some color commentary and friendly (along with not so friendly) ribbing along the way. The PA crew really doesn’t pull any punches, and it is appreciated.

This honesty is a decidedly unique element to Strip Search. The show is still young and the budget is limited, but by not cutting out the hard decisions and anger, the viewer is able to see the process unfold from every angle and every level, from contestant to producer. Though I would love to see some really crazy challenges like sending the contestants on an Alaskan cruise and then helicoptering them out into the mountains to cook for the guys training for the Iditarod… authenticity can make up for a small budget. Sometimes all that flash is unneeded. Of course, I wouldn’t rule out a few grand surprises.

There is a lot going on that you can’t see in any other reality TV show, especially since everyone involved has an online presence. TV shows might have an online presence, but they are nowhere even close to Strip Search. Some of the contestants post in the Penny-Arcade forums and talk about the show with fans directly, the creators are always posting their thoughts on each episode on Penny-Arcade (which generates millions of views daily), and everyone is hyper-active on Twitter. The contestants were also quite vocal at PAX East. This type of interaction with the community adds to all of the great publicity the artists are getting. In some ways, they all win.

There are definitely roadbumps and hiccups along the way, but it doesn’t detract from the experience. Even though Penny-Arcade is steering the ship, which allowed them to adjust very quickly during the filming, you can’t always get everything right on your first try. The show starts off slowly, but once it gets into the swing of things it really gets much better. The many moments of initial awkwardness slowly evaporate as everyone becomes a bit more comfortable and familiar with the format of the show (the crew included).

If you are a fan of comics, art, or Penny-Arcade, it is basically a must-see. If you aren’t, I invite you to give it a chance because it isn’t just for artists. At its core, Strip Search is showcasing an industry that needs more exposure. Plenty of things that don’t deserve air-time or exposure are mindlessly being watched. The passion is genuine, even if that sincerity can take a little while to warm our icy hearts. Ultimately, I found it exceptionally easy to get into Strip Search, and it doesn’t hurt that the show is improving each episode. Episodes are only averaging around 50,000 hits on YouTube. The show needs more interested viewers to stir things up and get the word out. If you are skeptical, give Strip Search the benefit of the doubt and check it out. You won’t be disappointed.

Strip Search is available on Tuesdays and Fridays at http://www.penny-arcade.com/strip-search and also on their YouTube channel, pennyarcadeTV.

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