Ink Master, a reality show where tattoo artists compete against each other to see who is the finest among them, is the best show on television. And its most recent winner, a handsome celery stalk named Anthony Michaels, is the best character the show has ever produced and also its first Elite Reality-Show Person. (An Elite Reality-Show Person is someone who could feasibly appear on a list of the all-time great reality-show stars. Some examples: Puck from The Real World, Simon Cowell from American Idol, Omarosa from The Apprentice, and so on.)
The way Ink Master, which just began its eighth season, works is simple in the same way any reality show where people get eliminated is simple. Basically: A thing happens then a thing happens then a thing happens and then an angry person looks into the camera and says something like, “I definitely should not have been eliminated. This is utter bullshit,” and then the episode is over. Explaining it can be kind of tricky, though, due to the language involved, so here is a glossary:
The Judges: The judges are the guys who judge the show. (You probably could have guessed this one.) They are Oliver Peck, who specializes in the traditional style of tattooing; Chris Nunez, who specializes in the Japanese style of tattooing; and Dave Navarro, who specializes in wearing mascara. Dave also serves as the host of the show. Nobody on earth is better at talking to humans about the dynamics of tattoos and tattooing than him. He is exceptional. (He is also, as far as I can tell, somehow not aging.)
Human Canvas: This is what the people who are getting tattooed are referred to as — as in, “This week, each of you will be given a human canvas who was in the military,” or something like that.
Flash Challenge: The flash challenge happens at the beginning of nearly every episode. It’s a small competition among the artists that happens in several different ways. The tattoo artists will tattoo a quick, smaller tattoo in a weird spot like the forehead or knuckles; they’ll use pushpins on a gigantic board to make a picture; they’ll stack together garbage so that its shadow creates some sort of picture; they’ll paint onto the body of a contortionist; etc. The main point of the challenge is to test the artist’s ability across different mediums. (The second main point is to make the artists say, “What the fuck, man?”) The winner receives that week’s Skull Pick.
Skull Pick: The skull pick gives a person the right to assign the Human Canvases to specific tattoo artists later in the show. It’s an especially helpful thing to be in possession of because it allows a person to avoid having to tattoo the most difficult tattoo during the Elimination Challenge, the most crucial part of the show.
Elimination Challenge: The elimination challenge happens at the end of every week’s episode. Artists are paired up with a Human Canvas who has an idea in his or her head of what he or she would like to be tattooed with, and the artists are given either four or six hours to complete the tattoo. Elimination Challenges are built around themes: One week, all the artists will have to tattoo a black-and-gray image, another week it’ll be color realism, another week it’ll be pin-up girls (Pin-Up Girl week, when all the contestants must tattoo pin-up girls, which are apparently among the hardest types of tattoos to do, is always a massacre). After the tattoos are done, the judges look at them, say what is right about them and what is wrong about them, then send someone home. And if that sounds boring to you then it’s only because I’ve done a bad job of explaining it, because the judging segment is super goddamn tense.
For a reality show to be considered elite, it must possess five things. It must possess high stakes. (In the case of Ink Master, the winner each season is awarded $100,000, a feature in Inked magazine, and occasionally other things, like a 2015 Dodge Challenger.) It must possess urgency. It must possess a cast of characters that allow for easy pigeonholing (X is the serious one, X is the funny one, X is the racist one). It must possess controversy. (This is where Ink Master excels. Generally, the controversy on a reality show is generated by the contestants. On IM, though, it’s almost always a result of something a judge or a contestant has said about someone’s artwork, which is by nature a subjective thing. It’s endlessly arguable.) And it must possess an ax hanging over everyone’s head, usually represented by a weekly elimination.
For a reality-show personality to be considered elite, he or she must be five things.
He or she must be, in one form or another, profound. There are a few different ways to accomplish this. You can just talk a whole bunch, and so eventually something you say will be profound, like when Pauly D said, “Vin thinks he’s a man now that he got his ears pierced,” on the third season of Jersey Shore. You can say a thing that creates an obviously profound thing, like when Richard Hatch created the first reality-show alliance on the first season of Survivor. Or you can just never, ever talk, so that when you do finally talk it is, by default, profound. That’s what Anthony Michaels does on Ink Master. He rarely speaks, which is counterintuitive to the premise of “reality-show person” as I understand it, but when he does it is overpowering, like when he solidified his participation in a three-man alliance near the end of last season by saying, “I’ve never felt so strong about anything ever in my life,” or the time a person implied that he was being fake and he argued against it by saying, “I’m not fake, bro.”
He or she must have an interesting backstory. It wasn’t until there were only three episodes left in his season that Anthony finally decided to talk about himself, and when he did he told a story about how, as a child, he watched his sister get taken into the hospital for surgery. She was given too much anesthesia, died for a brief period of time, was brought back to life, was put on life support, and has since, through force of her own will and her mother’s guidance, won multiple medals at the Special Olympics. It took him maybe eight seconds to tell the whole story, which only made it feel more impactful.
He or she must look interesting. This isn’t to say that he or she has to be attractive. That is for sure not the case, because if it were the case then how would you even explain Flavor Flav, who absolutely was, for a period, an elite reality-TV person. It’s just to say that he or she has to look interesting, or compelling, or mysterious. Anthony Michaels looks interesting in a handsome way, which means he is handsome without being so handsome that it’s distracting, like, say, Jay Byars was on Survivor: One World. (He was easily one of the five prettiest people I have ever watched play ladder toss on a beach.) An interesting appearance is always vital. It’s a silly thing, but it’s important, too. It’s why almost all of anyone who’s ever competed on The Bachelor or The Bachelorette has disappeared.
He or she must very clearly be on one end of the Confrontation Spectrum. This is the second-best category here. Not coincidentally, it’s also the second most important one.
For a reality-show person to be elite, he or she has to be either exceptionally confrontational or exceptionally not. The no. 1 ever example of the confrontational side of the spectrum is C.T., the very handsome and very angry and very secretly complicated caveman from The Real World. The most compelling version of C.T. ever presented came when he was on The Challenge: Rivals, a show built to manufacture the kind of tension he creates just by breathing. (When C.T. and Adam took on Johnny and Tyler in that murderball competition, it was, no question, the most exciting reality-show moment of that year and the prior 15 years.)
On the other side of the spectrum sits Anthony, a figure so within himself and reserved that when a Human Canvas showed up to confront Anthony after he’d won Season 7 to tell him that he didn’t think Anthony should’ve won, the Human Canvas ended up apologizing for hurting his feelings. (This was the exact moment I realized he was elite, and that he needed to be written about.)
(It’s worth noting that while it’s important that a singular person lands on one side or the other of the Confrontation Spectrum, the overall balance of the show must not. It should land somewhere in the middle. Too many nonconfrontational people? Your show is boring. Too many confrontational people? Your show is Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta.)
He or she must be able to engender some sort of emotional response. This is, above all else, the most important quality in an elite reality-show contestant. That response has to be there. There are a ton of different versions of it, too.
It can be an all-caps ASTONISHED response, like how everyone felt when Stephen smacked Irene in Real World: Seattle (Stephen was Bad Guy Elite). It can be an Angry Response, like how everyone felt when Aaryn and GinaMarie were being supersize racist on the 15th season of Big Brother. (They were both Bad Girl Elite). It can be a Holy Shit response, like how everyone felt when Teresa tried to flip that table over in anger in Real Housewives of New Jersey. (Teresa was Angry Person Elite). It can be a Haha response, like how everyone felt when Jessica Simpson asked Nick Lachey if tuna was made from chicken or fish because the container read “Chicken of the Sea” on Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica. (Jessica was Sweet Person Elite). It can be an Oh My God This Person Has Just Finessed All of America response, like how everyone felt when Jonny Fairplay finessed all of America by arranging to have his friend show up on Survivor: Pearl Islands and say that his grandmother had passed away while he was gone so he could use it as leverage on the show. (Jonny was Fairplay Elite).
Anthony Michaels created a Gut Wrenching response.
The scene: On the 10th episode of his 13-episode season, the remaining six contestants were broken up into teams of three and told they had to tattoo a set of wings onto someone’s back. Each person on each team was given a specific task (the first person outlined, the second shaded, and the third colored). During the critiques, the judges said they thought Anthony was his team’s weakest performer, but that his team and the other team would have to decide amongst themselves which two people would be put up for elimination. (The two sent down for elimination would have to tattoo against each other in a Loser Goes Home situation.) This seemed to all but guarantee Anthony’s safety, because he and another guy on his team, Christian, had formed an alliance several episodes back. All they had to do was stick to that, and he’d have been fine.
During his team’s deliberation, however, Anthony said that voting wasn’t necessary, that he wanted to go up before the judges because he deserved to, because they’d called him out. His alliance partner pleaded with him to reconsider. Anthony wouldn’t budge.
After Anthony had volunteered himself into the Elimination Challenge and after he’d finished his final tattoo but before everyone was called down for the final judgment, the remaining contestants were talking about the possible outcomes. Christian, who’d otherwise been a granite statue, began talking about how he was openly rooting for Anthony to win because of this reason and that reason, and then a few seconds later he was crying and then Anthony was crying and then I was crying. It was a surprisingly emotional moment, and a fantastic payoff after having watched Christian and Anthony bounce non-emotions off of each other every week for the prior nine weeks.
Christian realized he was crying, gathered himself a bit, then said, “This is fucking absurd,” and then walked off and away from everyone.
Three weeks later, Anthony won Ink Master.
All of the things a reality show needs to be elite, Ink Master has them. All of the things a reality-show person needs to be elite, Anthony Michaels has them. So, I say again:
Ink Master, a reality show where tattoo artists compete against each other to see who is the all-around best among them, is the best show on television, and its most recent winner, a handsome celery stalk named Anthony Michaels, is the best character the show has ever produced and its first Elite Reality-Show Person.