Formats Unpacked: The World According to Jeff Goldblum
How do you bring new life to an old format?
Thanks again for your time and your messages. Looking through the subscriber list it appears you mostly work in the internet. Not actually in it, but, y’know, around internet-y things. Games, video, social, digital marketing etc. Surprisingly few from TV. Or maybe they’re the names I don’t recognise. I’d love to hear more from TV people.
This week Matt Locke returns to do some unpacking. Matt is the founder and my co-director at Storythings. The format he’s unpacking this week couldn’t be more Matt…
What’s it called?
The World According to Jeff Goldblum (TV show)
What’s the Format?
The structure of this TV format is incredibly familiar - pick a celebrity and put them in a series of situations with normal (if occasionally odd) groups of people. At the end of the show the celebrity tells the viewer what they learned from their experience.
It’s so well known that it was expertly parodied in the famous TV pitching sketch in Alan Partridge - Youth Hostelling with Chris Eubank, anyone?
What’s the magic that made it special?
Two Words: JEFF GOLDBLUM. Actually, you don’t even need words:
BUT! it’s not just great casting. The show does way much more with the celebrity star than usual versions of this format.
To explain why this works so well, we need to go into what normally happens when you make a show like this. These shows are part of a genre called ‘Specialist Factual’ - formats that deal with history, or science, in light and entertaining ways. Pitching a show like this relies on two things - access and casting.
Access means your ability to go and film with interesting groups of people. It might be a group of traditional scallop divers in Japan, sneaker enthusiasts in LA, or hill farmers in Switzerland.
Lazy versions of this format end up using the same kind of groups - there were two TV shows set in Japan recently, one with Joanna Lumley and one with Sue Perkins, that had almost exactly the same encounter with Geisha Girls.
So the first thing you need to do is find interesting groups of people that your viewers won’t have seen before, and get access to film with them.
Casting is about getting the right celebrity to front the show. The celebrity acts as the avatar for the audience. We want to see how they react to the groups they meet. We want them to do things that take them out of their comfort zone. And we imagine how we might have reacted in the same situation.
This is the core of traditional versions of this format - the encounters are tightly researched and scripted, and the celebrity just needs to be open and empathetic enough to help us imagine being in the same situation.
Working with Talent is hard, so you need to know exactly what you want them to do to get the footage from each situation. You can’t afford to set up a situation that doesn’t pay off.
But Jeff Goldblum doesn’t work like that. He operates in a different reality altogether.
This show does something really interesting and different. Rather than cutting between lots of tightly scripted set ups, the show has a looser structure - like the jazz piano that Goldblum famously plays. There are scenes where Goldblum is just rambling to camera, letting the thoughts spill out of his brain unedited, and the show just goes with it.
Nothing ever happens quite how you expect it, so you end up immersed in what it must feel like to hang out with Jeff Goldblum, even to be Jeff Goldblum. This is a travelogue format, not to a place, but to a person. It’s called The World according to Jeff Goldblum for a reason - we’re seeing the world through his slightly odd viewpoint, and it’s fascinating.
This might seem like a small detail, but it’s a bold and refreshing take on a tired format. By letting the show skitter along with the manic energy and magpie attention span of its host, it escapes the familiar ruts and tropes so expertly skewered by Alan Partridge.
And this skittish new aesthetic feeds through into the whole show - the use of graphics and archive is fantastic, with effects that feel a bit like the revolutionary graphic styles of Spiderman: Into The Spider-Verse.
Believe me, this kind of experimentation with structure, grammar and aesthetics is not normal for formats like this. Nutopia, the company that make it, have done something quietly revolutionary with this format, and kudos to Disney+ for giving them the time (and budget) to do it.
Start with episode one, on Sneakers. There’s a scene with Goldblum meeting scientists at Adidas, and getting his gait measured for a shoe. In normal versions of this show, the celebrity would make a slight fool of themselves, and then we’d get the science bit. But Goldblum’s running style has a ‘bop’, and this becomes the focus of the scene, a showdown between Goldblum and the expert about his ‘bop’. It’s quite odd and weird, and this is why I love the show so much.
There are only a few shows that trust their host enough to be as surprising and fresh as this one. Ross Noble’s Freewheeling comes to mind, a travelogue entirely driven by Noble’s interactions with this Twitter followers. I’m struggling to think of others that have the trust (and budget) to use their celebrity as the driving force of the show, instead of merely an avatar.
When I heard about the show I instantly made the same assumption that this might be a ‘specialist factual’ cliche. But as Matt mentioned trust plays a huge part in the format’s success. Trusting Goldblum to be his Goldblum-iest, and following that, pays off.
Thanks for reading. Send me notes, thoughts, or ideas for future episodes. More unpacking next Wednesday.