Tuesday, November 12, 2013

2013: Unlucky for Most

The year 2013 has, to put it politely, not been among the better years of the reality TV genre's existence. Sure, there were some definite highlights throughout the year, but the problem is there weren't enough of these shows and those that were honestly weren't high-profile enough to attract mainstream attention. I mean, how do you sell a show like The Genius: Rules of the Game to someone when the basic concept is "South Korean celebrities (who aren't Psy) compete against each other for money in strategy-based cocktail party games"? Or Canada's Greatest Know-It-All, whose two main problems are right there in the title? Or The Great Australian Bake Off, which seemed to make a point of being the cooking-themed reality show for people who hate cooking-themed reality shows?

That last one might be comparatively easy to sell, especially for a new show, but it's surprising how few of the long-running reality shows managed to dish up enjoyable entries this year. In fact, aside from maybe Project Runway successfully fixing something we didn't even realise was broken, it's been one disastrous production decision after another this year, to the point where it wasn't hard at all to come up with this list of thirteen of the year's stupidest decisions. It's probably not too surprising that nearly half of the list comes from Australian reality shows, and five come from various versions of Big Brother, but... you know. If these shows were better, that probably wouldn't be the case.

#13 The Mole (Netherlands): Episode 6

This year's Dutch season of The Mole, filmed on location in South Africa, took a while to get going. While much of the issue there isn't entirely the show's fault - one player got seriously injured after a freak accident in a challenge the week before a planned non-elimination twist and had to be removed from the game to recover, making the season feel as though it was moving at a glacial pace when there wasn't a proper elimination for three episodes (not that anybody would try that deliberately or anything) - even once the show got moving again it was hard to care that much until we got down to the final four. Episode 6 was the first episode following this meandering section, and though it featured three challenges to keep it moving at a swift pace, the problem is all of them were beyond awful. Given the goal of the show is to win money while working out who is trying to lose money, it seemed like a bizarre decision to have two consecutive challenges that didn't involve money at all and ultimately didn't affect anything, followed by a challenge where only one player had any role in winning money at all. It doesn't help in the slightest that the non-cash, non-exemption challenges are invariably the worst of whichever season they are in, and as a result a show which had a good but not spectacular opening episode didn't start to feel like the Mole of old until about the eighth episode 8 of a ten episode season, where the final episode was a reunion and clipshow. Sigh.

#12 The Biggest Loser (Australia): The Fridge

Still, at least the above production decision only affected one episode. The latest game addition to completely fail on Australia's version of The Biggest Loser managed to suck most of the fun out of the show. Having been incredibly unpopular during its original incarnation as 'The Walk', where the winner of a challenge got to randomly pick one of four similar variations of the week's twist and had to deal with the consequences, I'm still not sure months later why they would revive it while removing the one mildly tolerable part about it, that there was some way to affect the result. Here, with the Fridge, there was only one twist and the team who lost the most weight the previous week had to decide whether to take reveal it themselves or give the responsibility to someone else. Which would be bad enough, except that out of six times the twist appeared (it didn't show up in the first week and the standard gimmick weeks later in the season meant there was no time), the twist of the week only had an impact on the game three times. Complete and utter waste of time.

#11 Big Brother (Canada): Too Many Cooks

Having watched and been annoyed by the Americans continually fucking up Big Brother beyond all recognition, the Canadians finally got in on the act this year. And while the show wasn't bad, in that it went about as well as a fusion of the bastardised American format and the original format could have gone without becoming unrecognisable to its audience, there still seemed to be a lot they didn't understand about the show. It was great to finally see the concept of secret missions (a staple of the format internationally) make its way to North America, and to see the return of an official Big Brother voice onscreen, even if only in a minor role. BUT. I'm not sure we needed a mock payphone in the store room to give players secret missions in the Big Brother voice PLUS a talking ornamental moose head in the Diary Room airlock when they both serve the same function and when they could have just given missions in the Diary Room itself and called "one player" when they didn't care who had to complete the task. Indeed, when the phone was first used in the season premiere, the player who answered was sent to the Diary Room to get the rules for their task anyway, so what was the damn point? I know it's a small issue, but it's one that could have and should have been thought about in more depth.

#10 Big Brother (UK): The People's Puppet

Meanwhile, the British version of the same show has been well-known for years for testing the limits of its format, with many iconic Big Brother twists appearing there first (though ironically the three most iconic additions to the basic format were all introduced on the Australian version, which generally speaking would find it hard to copy more from the Brits without actually flying its host in every year). This year's opening twist came in two parts - a split launch over two nights, which has been done before elsewhere, and an actor entering the house for the first week pretending to be a genuine player while acting in accordance with the results of polls on the show's website. We've had real players be forced to take on the role of an insider in the past (most notably in the US, where it was used as a surrogate for not giving the audience the power to evict), but here where a professional actor was used it just didn't work. Part of it may have been the actor just couldn't get the mix of emotions right and came across forced a lot of the time, part of it may have been that he wasn't likable enough for us to get behind, part of it may have been that the fake twist invented to give him the power needed for the twist to work seemed like it would have been much better with a genuine player, and part of it may have been that having this player make the week's only nominations essentially made it so the audience got a free shot at whoever they wanted (though this was nicely mirrored in the subsequent celebrity edition where they were told the nominees were selected by the audience but were actually selected by some players who had been hidden elsewhere in the compound). Whatever the case, this is one twist that should NEVER be repeated.

#9 Big Brother (US): MVP

Oh, American Big Brother producers. So consistently abysmal it's a wonder there isn't a drinking game. This time around, the version's big twist was that while the winner of a challenge got to select two nominees as usual, the audience got to select somebody to pick a third nominee. And if you're thinking that doesn't sound so bad and what's the problem isn't this a show where audience interaction is good, I'd agree with you. Except for one minor thing. Three of the previous four seasons featured at least one returning player with a decently-sized fanbase, and while this season didn't, it did feature the sister of a player who has appeared twice on this show and once on The Amazing Race, giving her enough of a head start to sweep the poll every week she was in the house. Producers realised the problem early and made a blatant attempt to fix the issue, by making the audience its own MVP and having them directly pick the third nominee, but they didn't realise that while the former player in question was popular with a sizable part of the audience, they are incredibly divisive and there are just as many people who hate her with the passion of a thousand gurning nuns, allowing those people to automatically nominate the sister every week. The twist was finally scrapped for good when it was realised it was never going to work, but they really should have noticed the incredibly obvious problem beforehand.

#8 Celebrity Big Brother (UK): Rylan Clark's casting

Speaking of huge fanbases. What do you get when you put a very popular current singer in a glorified popularity contest with such comparable celebrities as, um, Toadie from Neighbours and a woman who was in a cheesy pop band in the late 1990s? (Nothing against Steps, who were awesome at the time, but COME ON.) It turns out the answer is "a boring season of Celebrity Big Brother in which the only people who don't act like the result is a foregone conclusion and therefore don't try to be entertaining are a pair of obnoxious American imports who probably weren't even aware how the show works". Say what you will about a British show casting the awfulness that is Speidi, but at least they weren't popular enough in the UK for it to matter too much (see also: Heidi "My cousin invented The Bachelor" Fleiss, who finished eleventh out of twelve in 2010). Meanwhile, Rylan is now hosting a Big Brother spinoff discussion show, so I'm sure the result wasn't predetermined at all.

#7 Masterchef (Australia): Weekly Themes

We've all heard the phrase "don't fix what ain't broke" before. And this is one of two cases this year where the end result could be used as evidence in a court of law. In the past, Masterchef Australia has been quite content to experiment with its format while retaining enough familiarity that you could forgive them the occasional misstep. This season, all of that goodwill evaporated within seconds once the preseason commercials using derogatory stereotypes to sell a "battle of the sexes" theme started. It was so bad that it made headlines on major international blogs, with Huffington Post calling it "a new low for sexism" among the cafailcade of criticism. And yet, sadly, that wasn't the biggest problem in the season, nor was the bit where they neglected to mention that the gender divide was only the first of several weekly themes designed to make each week stand out (though certainly they both played a huge role in the season's low ratings). The biggest issue was that the themes selected didn't lend themselves to interesting challenge design, leading to a series of dull and repetitive team challenges followed by gimmicky elimination challenges, which in turn caused the mediocre cooks who would normally have struggled to make it through Top 50 Week (scrapped for this season) to make it far too far into the competition, and which resulted in someone being eliminated despite having the best dish of the day simply because their partner didn't pull their weight. Hell, in the FINAL we had someone end up with a raw chicken dish and attempt to serve it after lightly browning the sides to hide how obviously undercooked it was. And she got an average score of 7/10 for the dish. Unfuckingbelievable.

Incidentally, if you don't believe me regarding the challenges being gimmicky, these were all actual concepts this year:
  • 'Italy's flag is red, white, and green. Cook a dish using only food in one of these colours.'
  • 'In pairs, make two identical copies of the same dish while being separated by a wall and unable to see what your partner is doing.'
  • 'Our sponsors Qantas fly all over the world. Here are a series of ingredient-laden tables arranged like a map of the world, cook a dish using only ingredients on one "continent".'
  • 'Kids like to play games. Cook a dish using ingredients collected from the pantry while it is pitch black.'
  • 'Fast food is fast and all, but actually going to buy it takes too damn long. Cook fried chicken, souvlaki, and a burger with the lot before one of the judges is able to buy it all and come back.'

There is not enough derp in the world, you guys.

#6 The Mole (Australia): Soap Opera Edition

Look, I've been there and said it already. Moving on, shall we?

#5 Dancing with the Stars (Australia): Double Play

Even when the Dancing with the Stars casting department takes 'stars' more as a suggestion than as an actual requirement, it's still possible to enjoy and appreciate how the non-stars' dancing ability improves over time. But this season, Channel Seven left it too late to bring the show back, forcing them to schedule the show two nights a week in order to finish the season before the summer non-ratings period kicks in. Not only does this limit our opportunity to watch the non-stars develop over time in that the season is several weeks shorter, but having them lose most of their practice time in the tight schedule also means they genuinely won't improve as much because they're too busy trying to learn several dances each week to get any of them to a decent level. If the situation ever arises again in future - and let's hope to the deity of our choice it doesn't - they need to just have a smaller cast instead. From a show that started so well, it's honestly surprising this isn't the final nail in the coffin.

#4 The Amazing Race (US, Canada): Double Express Pass

The Amazing Race was once one of those shows where the focus was entirely on teams' merit rather than luck or how well they interacted with the other teams. Since about season five, however, we've been forced to deal with several similar twists that treat inter-team relations as a key part of the show, while simultaneously losing the part of the show where how teams interact with non-taxi-driving locals affects their performance. In addition, the leg design has now reached a point where everything is spoonfed and all that really matters is how well you do in the various tasks, with the travel elements mostly falling by the wayside. And the tasks themselves are timed to within an inch of their life to boot, with most not featuring much of a chance for players to fall too far ahead or behind. In season seventeen, a new twist was added where the winners of the first leg got an 'Express Pass', which basically allows them the option of skipping any one task they are having trouble with without penalty, simply by forfeiting the pass. It somehow escaped producers' minds when planning this twist that the pass amounted to glorified quitting on a show that's supposed to be about merit, making it feel undeserved whenever it is used (and it has been present in all seven seasons since it was introduced), especially when the season premieres are now traditionally underwhelming in design because WE CAN'T MAKE THEM WORK HARD FOR A MILLION BUCKS. Or something. In both of this year's US seasons, and in the Canadian version which aired in the months in between, an additional twist was added where the winners of the first leg got one Express Pass for themselves and a second they had to give to another team. In short, it is now possible and entirely within the show's rules to quit a task without penalty, without having to do anything to earn it beyond not being a raging asshole in comparison to other teams. Why was this twist even allowed out of the planning phase?

#3 Survivor (US): Redemption Island + Loved One Switches

Four words that strike fear into the heart of every Survivor fan: "Executive Producer Jeff Probst". He's been running the show from the host's chair since season twenty-one a few years ago, and in that time he's seen the show's audience dip from an average of 12.25 million viewers to an average of just 9.6 million. That can't be explained solely by audience fatigue, since the show has been on for nearly fifteen years and ratings were fairly consistent before he took over, which means there has to be something else going on to impact the ratings. In those seasons we've seen an avalanche of failed twists, including but not limited to countering the problems of an 'old versus young' team division by adding a token that allows a team to take an advantage in a challenge, without realising that it becomes pointless once the fit young team gets the advantage, making both teams live on the same beach but dividing them by gender to ensure they remain segregated anyway, and the infamous Redemption Island, where the show's entire pacing was thrown out the window by allowing players who were voted out by their teams to compete in sudden-death challenges to try and win their way back into the game. It turns out all those years of 'fire represents life' were bullshit and 'the tribe has spoken' means nothing if you were wearing invisible headphones, apparently. And this season it's gotten even worse, with players coming into the game with pre-existing relationships with a person on the other team. Now, if you are voted out you can escape Redemption Island immediately by switching teams with your partner and having them take your place. So not only can you (1) get voted out of the game and have it mean absolutely nothing at all, but (2) you can get eliminated from the game without being medevaced or quitting and without getting a single vote against you, if you switch with your partner and lose a challenge. Not surprisingly, but very hilariously, this happened at the first available opportunity to the player Probst was undoubtedly hoping would dominate the season in spite of his not being great at challenges or at the social game. Oh, the irony.

#2 Big Brother (Australia): Strategic Nominations

The basic idea of nominations in the Australian version of Big Brother is that you get five points each week, and you have to allocate them to the two people you want to get rid of, and whoever gets the most points will face a public phone vote to determine who is eliminated. Traditionally players have been forced to make these nominations for personality only, but in recent years the option to nominate for strategic reasons has been added, although discussing nominations with other players is still strictly forbidden. This year, one week of nominations was held with players specifically told that they had to nominate for strategic reasons only. Reading between the lines, you can already see the boneheadedness of this decision. If you are a player in this situation the only possible strategy you can have is to nominate the people you believe are popular in the outside world, hoping to eliminate your biggest competition before you end up in a vote against them, and the only way you can guess who is most popular is to pick the people who are most entertaining in the house. In essence, getting about 45 seconds of bored non-surprise from players who don't care that much who goes as long as it isn't them is apparently enough payoff for the small cost of basically forcing the elimination of one one of the most entertaining players in the season. This twist is such a stupid idea that it's frankly not enough to guarantee it will never be used again. The producer responsible for it needs to be fired from the show. Immediately.

#1 The Biggest Loser (Australia): Trainers Vote

Though this final idea is easily the worst of the year, it's also certainly in tight competition to be the single worst production idea in the show's history. Basically, The Biggest Loser is a televised fat camp, and each week the players who lose the lowest percentage of their body weight face a vote with the other players deciding who gets eliminated. Early in this year's Australian season, a twist was introduced where the other teams played no role in the vote and the three personal trainers had to vote instead. Or, at least, that was the plan, until the trainers in question unanimously decided to abstain. It's bad enough when players refuse to go along with wacky twists. But when people who get paid to work on your show refuse? You've got serious problems.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

But Wait, There's Mole!

Can you believe the current Australian revival of The Mole is somehow managing to find ways of getting worse and worse? Why are we at the point where we need a third big post about what went wrong, when we shouldn't have even needed one? And why do I feel the need to dumb it down to match the show's tone?

1. How is it this season is so awful when most of the ideas are being taken from the excellent Dutch version of the show? We're not even in 'worst Mole season ever' territory any more. We're coming up on 'worst season of a reality show ever', if not indeed already straddling the fine line between it and 'worst season of a TV show ever'. And we're only about halfway through. I mean, even the tonedeaf BBC intern who picks the British Eurovision entrant is thanking their lucky stars they're not involved.

2. With eight players left, we've got tall, blonde, dark, and lean, rough and tough and strong and mean all covered (thank YOU, Sam, Erin, Aisha, Nick, Ally, Kerrie, Hillal, and Shaun). But it's raining molls (and Moles), and what we really need right now is a streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds. There's four utterly irredeemable twunts left. Assuming one of the four tolerable players is booted next, because it's been that kind of a season, we have a 63% chance of getting at least two of them in the final three. Those aren't good odds. In fact, we'll even lower our standards. He doesn't have to be a white knight upon a fiery steed, and he doesn't have to be strong, and he doesn't have to be fast, and he doesn't have to be fresh from a fight. And with the success we've had so far, we'd actually kind of prefer if he wasn't larger than life. Is it too late to clone Hillal? I know where we can find a good home once you're done with him.

3. Eleven episodes in, there are still too many people to even pretend to give a flying fuck about. And it doesn't help that there are still too many assholes hogging all the screentime to make us care about the few redeemable cast members left. One of the basic tenets of reality TV is 'don't cast anyone you wouldn't want to see win'. So who the fuck thought it would be a good idea to have even one player along these lines, let alone SIX?

4. When you lose over 35% of your audience within the space of a week as a result of having more padding than the Wipeout course, that's a bit of a hint that it's time to get the show back in the edit suite and recut it. Instead, the only noticeable difference in the late night timeslot is the removal of the joining sections between episodes that are now back-to-back. It wouldn't be hard to find unnecessary scenes to cut out. Seriously, cut the flashback rewinds, the endless re-exposition (including the obnoxious graphics reminding us what jokers freebies are every time they are mentioned), the self-aggrandising confessionals (SAM), and the 'before/after the break' scenes (yes, thank you, we know what we saw three minutes ago), and you're probably most of the way there already. In related news, challenges that were designed for about ten minutes of airtime? Stop dragging them out into half-hour ordeals, some of which seem to be being shown in slower than real-time pace. They become less 'psychological pressure cooker' and more 'psychosomatic slow cooker'.

5. 'But aren't the confessionals like the meat in the sandwich?' No. The challenges are the meat in the sandwich, and with the amount of recycling this season it's probably more like Spam than actual meat at this point. The confessionals? You don't win friends with salad.

6. When you don't air an episode of the show in some markets due to a live program's overrun earlier in the night, and when it's a show perfect for encouraging online conversation (and when direct prompts to do so are added into the show), it's probably a good idea to treat those viewers with respect. As opposed to, say, not announcing the episode's replacement with a repeat of Criminal Minds on air when the episode was supposed to begin, not changing the electronic program guide listings until ten minutes after the show was scheduled to begin, not putting the episode on the show's website for affected viewers to catch up on, and removing the show from both the dropdown search menu and the A-to-Z program list on the network's website. Not that this show would do that, of course.

7. For a show that's been advertising a maximum prize of $250,000 every episode, it's worth noting that we're already at $259,500. And I'm not counting the three challenges with open-ended prizes, or the one where the total possible prize isn't calculable, or the one where the maximum prize depended on the previous challenge. With half the season still to come, it's flagrant false advertising. And if the actual kitty is going to wind up at about that value, it's going to make the Mole look like they did absolutely nothing to sabotage the team.

8. Even then, whoever has been picked as the Mole has done a terrible job. After the first week, I wrote a post detailing the reasons why Shaun was the Mole. And he's still a huge suspect - he's somehow managed to find himself in the ideal position for the Mole in most challenges AND has tried to sabotage almost every challenge in every possible way from his position (both subtly and blatantly) - but... it's too easy if it's him. On the other hand, if it's not him we'll be in the same situation as in 2005 where the Mole did very little and nearly a decade later people are still swearing they weren't actually the Mole at all and Seven fucked up when they revealed it. Which would not be surprising at this point.

9. As Shura's terrible scripting and inability to adlib stated way back in Episode 3, 'every advantage must be defended'. Unless, of course, they are jokers freebies. Or if you are Erin. Seriously, if you're going to make a big deal about Kerrie having to 'defend' her first-test free pass (in a challenge clearly not designed for either defending a free pass or for being used at that point in the game, the latter being another recurring issue that makes it look like producers have been throwing darts at printouts of the Mole challenge guide when selecting the season's challenges), then make sure you follow your own damn continuity.

10. Likewise, if you're going to go to the effort of providing graphical explanations for most challenges, spend a few extra minutes and make sure they're accurate. There have been so many errors so far this season it's ridiculous. In Episode 4 alone, for example, the H was missing from the value chart graphic for the jetboat challenge and three separate iconic Melbourne locations were mismarked on the map graphics in the subsequent navigation challenge, one of them by over four city blocks. Also, nobody buys that Shura is watching the challenges happen in real-time on his product-placed tablet.

11. Allow me to explain rudimentary supply and demand, as taught to most Australians in high school. If there's a limited amount of something important, its value is greater and people are willing to do more in order to get it. If this same item is ubiquitous, its value is lesser and nobody cares about the implications of having it, because they know they can get more. Or, in game terms, if you want jokers freebies to have any impact at all beyond being used immediately and making each and every elimination a total crapshoot, defeating the entire concept of the show, STOP GIVING AWAY SO DAMN MANY OF THEM. (For context, since they were introduced in the Dutch version in 2006, there's usually only been two chances to win them during the season, and in most cases designed so that each player is only able to win about three at a time. So far this season, they've been available five times, and in the best possible scenario a player could currently be holding onto nineteen.)

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Tout le Mole

Remember how a couple of weeks ago I wrote a post detailing all the things that would conspire to make the relaunched, reformatted Australian version of The Mole a complete and utter catastrofail? And then how I was proven entirely correct when it was dumped in a late-night timeslot, like, almost exactly a week later? Well, as the season limps on, it seems I was perhaps being too generous with my critique. Believe it or not, The Mole keeps getting worse and worse, to the point where it's beginning to look a lot like another 'Tom Williams plus live eliminations!' season might have actually been preferable. I know. I KNOW.

Spoilers ahead, in every sense of the word - discussion of the season to date, discussion of the season result thanks to incompetence on the part of people who really should be smart enough to know better, discussion of the future of the show Seven replaced with this mess, minor discussion of upcoming Aussie reality shows on other channels - and all the faults are now so intertwined I'm not going to split them up this time. Also, swearing. And Soylent Green may or may not be people.

The most obvious issue is the pacing. It was one thing when the season premiere basically had a grand total of one-and-one-third challenges in it, but it really doesn't seem to have improved by enough. Take the most recent double episode, for example. Though each episode in the original 7:30 timeslot was extended by fifteen minutes to fit more commercials, the individual episodes are back to their usual one-hour pace in the 9:30 slot. So how was it that, with five full challenges, an elimination, fewer commercials, and a total of thirty minutes less airtime, the episodes still dragged on unbearably? I... literally do not even know how they managed to do it.

While this show may also be a casualty in the apparent desire for fatally sluggish television, I'm starting to think there may be another victim: The Amazing Race Australia. You see, the reason we have this show instead of that is because it was too expensive to produce a show on that scale for the ratings it was getting. But instead of, say, putting it in a decent timeslot and advertising it effectively, Channel Seven apparently decided to investigate the cost-effectiveness of making a stripped (nightly) version of the show to get more episodes for the same amount of money. Of course, if you're going to attempt it with a reasonable chance of failure, it makes more sense to potentially ruin a lower-budget show in your guinea pig scenario instead of forking out the extra money for another race and have it fail just as miserably, essentially destroying the potential of two shows (both the local race and the American one) in the process. My thought right now is that a third Amazing Race Australia is only going to happen if Seven fail to learn from their litany of errors here and strip the show regardless of what happened with The Mole: Soap Opera Edition. And that's not going to happen, especially since advertisers (most notably the Nova radio stations, who had tie-in competitions promoted through onscreen graphics) seem to be pulling out of The Mole left, right, and centre.

Of course, one of the things Seven could have done effectively even with the show as it is would be to prevent the results from being leaked. And they didn't. Sure, the Mole was never going to go undetected for the entire season - not least of all because they clearly chose Shaun, who had as much chance of going undetected as the rotting corpse of Marcel Marceau has of winning next year's Eurovision Song Contest - but managing your show's website to prevent spoilers is a basic thing, and yet you can tell that Nick is the winner. How? Each player has two headshots uploaded to the website, one normal one to show they are still competing and a shaded one (in the background, ready to be switched over as needed) to show their elimination... except Nick, who only has the normal one. Ergo, he is the last player standing -- and for the record, we already know he believes Shaun is the Mole, since he gave Shaun the two jokers he was forced to give away in order to remove them from the game (explaining it to us with this exact reasoning).

But you know what? I don't care that Nick is the winner. I don't care that Shaun is the Mole. I don't even care which of the other players joins them in the final three. Which, frankly, is absolutely fucking ridiculous. Counting the extra time added to the first seven 'hours' of the season, this show has already been on for longer than any of the other five previous seasons, and I still don't give a shit about any of the players. Why not? My only possible theory is the casting people were so obsessed with the Culture Clash bullshit that they forgot to check the people they cast (1) were actually enjoyable to watch and (2) had any awareness of how the game works. I mean, take out the people who have proven themselves to be insufferable assholes (all the men minus Hillal, plus Ally) and the people so dull you forget they even exist until they turn up in a clearly scripted confessional (Hillal, the woman who kinds of looked like Jan but wasn't nearly as fun, the blonde one, and Q-Bert), and you're already down to three, one of whom didn't last long enough to judge. And is anyone really that invested in Kerrie or Aisha to stick around, especially since they were two of the main people the editors were trying to get us to hate early on?

Shura, by the way, continues to be lovely - and confirmed the 'prominent, highly-respected Australian celebrity' he introduced a pixellated portrait of himself with was intended as mildly sarcastic, which earns him ten extra points for Hufflepuff (because you just know he is) - but dude is still not working in terms of hosting this show. I'm not sure how much of it is that he's uncomfortable in the role, which is unlikely given it isn't his first time as a game show host, and how much of it is that the scripting is so bad not even Grant Bowler could make it sound natural, but it's gotten to the point where I'm muting the show whenever he starts talking. And I really don't want to be forced to do that. But here we are.

You'll note that up above I used the term 'jokers' instead of 'freebies', and not just in protest at how stupid the latter sounds. In many ways, that little, seemingly insignificant change is the epitome of this revival's flaws. You see, the producers have been so inspired by the long-running Dutch version of The Mole that they've basically gone and copied the entire thing. Most of this season's challenges (pretty much all of the ones that might have had some promise if handled competently) have come from there, as has the concept of the jokers/freebies, the pointless addition of the team selecting a treasurer to look after prop banknotes representing the kitty, and the decision to give each player a journal to track their suspects. Pretty much if they'd copied any more, Seven might as well have hired the people at SBS to put subtitles on the Dutch episodes and aired them instead. But would they have needed to? You see, at the time the producers would have been planning this season, there were four seasons of the Dutch version uploaded to Youtube with English subtitles (this year's Dutch season has since joined them). Out of the nineteen challenges we've had so far, all but three are adapted forms of challenges from these four specific seasons. Coincidence? I doubt it, especially when the four seasons in question aren't chronological.

There are several issues here: Firstly, recycling challenges and expecting people not to realise. Aside from being condescending and insulting to the audience, in this instance it's fair to assume that if they were able to find the subtitled seasons others also were. (Indeed, I did. Two years ago, back when only two seasons had been done.) This is the same reason I'm frustrated with Channel Nine's apparent decision to use a twist for this year's Big Brother that was already oldhat internationally TEN YEARS AGO. Secondly, recycling challenges and making them worse. If you're going to go to the effort of claiming credit for someone else's idea, at least make sure you're doing it properly. Among the other blunders, adding pointless binary decision after pointless binary decision - the shortcut envelopes in the opening challenge, the champagne tower in the sandbag challenge, having to choose one Scattergories category from each of two pairs instead of picking any two from the full list, the offer to wager a set amount of money on an increased prize in a quiz challenge and so on - to recycled challenges to make them seem more inventive just makes you look like idiots who don't understand the potential of this show. Thirdly, recycling challenges that didn't work the first time. There was absolutely no reason to recycle the opening hiking challenge, or to adapt the challenge that became Keys to Comfort, or the kite treasure hunt, especially since all of them were made worse when adapted. Next, recycling challenges that worked the first time, but completely ignoring what made them work. Even with the slow pace, why on EARTH would you save a challenge that's all about exposing the group's burgeoning alliances and their fear of being the first player eliminated (Path to Temptation, the game in the State Library with the boxes) until the tenth challenge of the season, when two players have already been booted? For that matter, why would you take a challenge designed to exploit the group getting to the point where they are narrowing down their Mole suspect (Chain Gang) and put it before the first elimination? As another example, I know I pointed out the season starting with three Walk Over There challenges in the first critique, but since then we've found ourselves having to endure what were essentially five quiz challenges in a row, with the pixellated images, aerobatic tricks, location distances, a 'how many fingers am I holding up?' game, and a giant spot the difference puzzle. Because you know what makes television seem fast-paced? Q and A.

And then the two original challenges we've seen so far (the third of the challenges not taken from the subtitled Dutch seasons was taken from another Dutch season) have been among the worst challenges to have ever existed on The Mole. And I should know. The first was basically another Walk Over There challenge with players rolling a ball down portable gutters for an hour, except half of them aren't doing anything at all, except they can break the minimal rules as much as they want as long as someone calls them out on it. Believe it or not, that was basically the entire challenge. Still, at least it offered the opportunity for subtle sabotage. The second, on the other hand, had no such hook. It was literally 'ride a zipline and hit pinatas with prizes on them', with the only additional rules being blatant stopgap measures to stop players from smashing everything on the way down - only the first pinata broken by a player counted, and individual prizes awarded were given to the player on the randomly-selected baseball bat used. It was even more terrible than I'm making it sound.

It's not as if we can't come up with decent ideas in this country - the infamous PYRO timebomb challenge in season two of this show was original, as was Big Brother's 'ignore the obvious' challenge, and even fucking Australian Survivor is responsible for the American version's glut of 'obstacle course with puzzle at the end' challenges - so to see show after show after show resort to recycling things from overseas simply because of sheer laziness and inability to even want to try anything new is, frankly, offensive and ridiculous. There's absolutely no reason Australia can't be a world leader in terms of quality. If you hire the right people, yes, you might still get an occasional failure like the gutter challenge, but you'll also stand a much better chance of having a high-quality product that can help recoup the costs of making the thing when sold to other countries. Do a show properly, you get Masterchef. Do a show poorly, you get The Mole. Shouldn't be too hard to realise, should it?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Guiding the Guide

I've done The Mole. I've done The Crystal Maze. I've even done Survivor twice. All with different formats. And pretty much every time I even open a draft of a challenge guide now, I find myself hating the format and wanting to rearrange everything to make it easier for my readers to follow. So I thought I'd go directly to the source and ask you how YOU want future guides to be presented. I've come up with a shortlist of alternatives for each of five important elements, each with pros and cons listed, and I'd like your input. Just comment on this post and I'll take your thoughts into consideration as I update the existing guides and continue to write guides for even more shows. (Obviously, if you can take the time to explain said thoughts that would be even better, but... eh, I'm not picky.)


Option 1: Shorthand text.
Pros: Short paragraphs.
Cons: Important details may be lost. Nobody can rant concisely.

Option 2: Full, text-based paragraphs.
Pros: Detailed coverage.
Cons: Possible TL;DR-ness for more complex challenges.

Option 3: Text, divided into appropriate sections (eg Rules, Prize, Commentary) as needed.
Pros: Easy to vary as needed for different shows, easy to search for necessary information.
Cons: Disjointed read.

Option 4: Simple table - title on the left, details on the right.
Pros: Quicker to scan down the titles to find particular challenges.
Cons: Same problems as using any of the above text approaches. Not all titles will be official. Why not just use Control-F?

Option 5: Table, divided into appropriate sections (eg Rules, Prize, Commentary) as needed.
Pros: Easy to search.
Cons: Will be too wide for portrait (normal) A4 presentation, and table cells will be too tall to fit more than a couple on a landscape page, making printing pages impractical. Tough to vary for different shows without changing appearance.


Option 1: Copy-paste descriptions.
Pros: Saves searching. Easy to adapt for minor variations.
Cons: Tedious. Increases file size.

Option 2: Cross-referencing.
Pros: Short, reduces file size.
Cons: Pain in the ass when used frequently. Pain in the ass when challenges have very minor, near pointless variations (especially when the variant is then reused).


Option 1: All twists treated as challenges and listed when they occur.
Pros: Listed when needed. Same format.
Cons: Repeated twists, for example Amazing Race non-eliminations. No differentiation.

Option 2: Alternate colour, but listed when they occur.
Pros: Easy to tell them apart from challenges.
Cons: Eyesore. Repeated twists.

Option 3: Separate table, at the start of the relevant season.
Pros: Simple.
Cons: Non-chronological. Twists returning from former/international seasons - ignored or included?

Option 4: Paragraph, at the start of the relevant season.
Pros: Simple. Easy to counter returning twists.
Cons: Multiple twists, returning or otherwise, could get confusing.

Option 5: Only challenge-esque twists included, listed as challenges.
Pros: Avoids repetition.
Cons: Some major elements, for example Survivor's hidden Immunity Idols, will be ignored.

Option 6: All twists for a show listed before the first version.
Pros: Easy reference.
Cons: Tough to follow. What if a twist is directly tied to a challenge?


Option 1: Ignore spoilers at all cost.
Pros: No spoilers.
Cons: Will make some challenges and twists nigh on impossible to describe accurately.

Option 2: Puzzle solutions etc only, regular text.
Pros: Still no result spoilers.
Cons: Readers lose ability to try and solve puzzle themselves. Knowledge of season results often needed for Idol et al song selections and quiz challenge questions and answers.

Option 3: Puzzle solutions and quiz questions/answers only, coded text.
Pros: No result spoilers. Allows readers to try and solve puzzle.
Cons: Text-based solutions are usually wordy and decoding them could take more time than simply figuring out the puzzle on your own.

Option 4: If they come up, they come up.
Pros: Makes accurately describing challenges and twists much easier.
Cons: Constant risk of spoilers.

Option 5: Spoil everything, regular text.
Pros: Complete coverage.
Cons: Someone WILL skip past spoiler warnings and STILL complain.

Option 6: Spoil everything, coded text.
Pros: Complete coverage for those who want it.
Cons: Who would decode a result spoiler?


Option 1: By country, alphabetically, then by season.
Pros: Easy to navigate to particular seasons.
Cons: Impractical for regional versions, co-productions, and shows with recurring challenges. US versions usually original and/or most copied but often last alphabetically.

Option 2: By country, chronologically by debut, then by season.
Pros: General chronology.
Cons: Essentially pointless unless each version only lasts for a single season. Hard to scan back and forth between versions - no logical order unless you know a show's history. Can't skip seasons with not enough available information.

Option 3: By country, US first then alphabetically, then by season.
Pros: Many readers looking only for US information.
Cons: Seems random if US version wasn't the original.

Option 4: By country, original country first then alphabetically, then by season.
Pros: A nod to the origin of a show.
Cons: Deviation from standard order could be confusing.

Option 5: Individual seasons listed chronologically by debut.
Pros: Tracks the history and development of a show - surely should be included in a detailed guide?
Cons: Tough to find particular seasons, or to read only sections for a single version.

Option 6: Categorised, for example 'Obstacle Courses' and 'Local Delicacy' challenges.
Pros: Easy to find similar challenges.
Cons: Amazing Race Detours, and other tasks that fit into two categories. Tasks so unique they don't fit anywhere. Tough to find exact challenges.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Colonel Bastard in the Library with the Re-Mole-ver

First things first: Recap of and commentary on Week 1's challenges. (Orange boxes mark challenges recycled from other versions, with the original episodes listed beneath the titles, which are bolded if official. NL = Netherlands.) (As a sidenote, while recycling ideas from foreign versions is good in moderation, I'd rather go and watch the fan-subtitled original Dutch seasons most of these challenges are taken from on Youtube than sit through a vastly inferior copy.)

Look, first I wasn't originally planning to share my thoughts at all outside of the usual internet forums and such. Then, after being convinced by Steve Molk and whatever Twitter nickname he's using today, I considered doing a weekly wrap. But then after sitting down to write it, I realised that there's no point when there's really no tension at all in the hunt. And also, there's no point writing a weekly wrap when, if the show's ratings get almost literally any worse (they're down 25% within two days), the show is likely to be cancelled by the end of the week. But in the meantime, it's Shaun. Consider the following:

1. In the opening hiking challenge, he is the first to realise the instructions don't tell them they have to bring their suitcases with them. He justifies this to the rest of his team with a slip of the tongue, saying with absolute certainty "We're not gonna get penalised for leaving our luggage here", despite having been given no indication at that point that there were any penalties of any kind. At the end of the challenge, his team and another team are penalised a total of $800 for leaving their eight suitcases behind. Whether this slip was intended as the standard 'blatant first episode clue' remains to be seen, but I wouldn't be too surprised if it was.

2. His team is the only one of the three teams to open their shortcut envelope, taking a rescue car to the challenge's finish line but being fined $5000 in the process. The two girls in the four-person group are hesitant to even consider the shortcut, but his slow walking throughout the start of the challenge is apparently a major contributor to Alex misjudging the passage of time and agreeing to taking the shortcut. (He also attempts to walk in the wrong direction, wasting more time, but is immediately corrected by his team.)

3. He goes first in the high-wire relay challenge, and succeeds. It doesn't sound like a sabotage when you look at it on its own, but as part of the larger picture - where if a pair fails their attempt, the money won so far during the challenge resets to zero - it means that when a pair fails, which was bound to happen either accidentally or by someone deliberately pretending to be the Mole, the amount of prize money is cut from $16,000 to a maximum of $4000. You look good, and yet you still manage to win nothing. (His crossing was negated by the very next pair.)

4. In the 'Money Bags' challenge, which involved groups of six players using an assortment of supplies to transport up to twenty sandbags along a trail from opposite directions to meet each other, he creates a simple carrier that is inefficient (only carrying three sandbags) and just plain didn't work (Aisha is later seen carrying the two component poles with no sandbags attached). The design is part of the reason twelve sandbags - worth a total of $1200 - are left behind.

5. In the same challenge, having been told that "there's more money up for grabs today than there has been at any time in the game so far", he wastes time arguing about stopping at the $10,000 bonus flag, which if the two groups were to meet would have been added to the value of their sandbags for a total of at most $14,000. The problem? Both prior challenges were worth more. (He may have known the other group had a chance to swap their sandbags for a $10,000 pyramid of champagne glasses, but the rest of his group didn't, and they have no reason to stop.) Had they stopped, the challenge would have failed and they wouldn't have won $10,800.

6. When searching a disused fortress for keys in the first part of a challenge, he is the only player to find more than one. After the search is complete, it is revealed that there was nothing to be gained from finding keys, but that with more keys found, there is more chance for money from the kitty to be spent on camping gear for the night. One of his keys is not used, but the other opens a $1000 crate representing dinner and dessert even though a $100 crate of survival rations had already been opened. (He is also notably the only person supporting Nick's decision to open a $750 crate containing sleeping mats without consulting the group, despite $500 having already been spent on tents.)

7. In a challenge the following day designed to give players a chance to recoup their losses from the previous night, he puts himself in the 'puzzle solver' group that determines the result of the challenge, then does not contribute when his group faces their part of the challenge. (Unlike past instances where players are categorised and split, there doesn't appear to be a set number of puzzle solvers, meaning the Mole was always going to wind up in the group.) Despite this, his group is successful and the money is won, although approximately half is removed because the other group allegedly failed to complete their part of the challenge (which would have made the second half impossible, not that anyone analyzes this show or anything).

8. The only way to sabotage the final challenge of the week is to take an exemption and condemn yourself and other players to spending the night chained up outside. The challenge was passed, suggesting the Mole was one of the earlier players to forgo the exemption and unchain themselves - if they take the exemption early it's too suspicious, if they take it near the end, it's almost understandable. Shaun was second person chosen to make a selection.

9. The other players are clearly almost all expecting another 'under the radar' Mole based on the approaches taken by the previous five. It seems plausible that, expecting this, producers chose the most brash, opinionated player of the bunch as a way of making the game less predictable. It seems obvious that Shaun would have fallen onto everyone's radar almost instantly (both with the first challenge and with his general belligerence), but how many of them would have kept him there rather than discounting him as too over-the-top to be the Mole based on what they know? (If you're wondering, by the way, only Shaun, Kerrie, and Alex have lost more money than they gained over the first week, and the latter two haven't lost anything since the first episode.)

So, basically, I'm ready to call it. After one week. Should I be ready? No. Alaina got to the final episode before any of her opponents even suspected her. I've watched seasons and not been able to rule out any of the final three before. And in the thirty-odd past Mole seasons I've seen, my ability to correctly pick the Mole after one week is currently working out to be three times less accurate than random guessing among the average ten-person cast. (I wish I was joking.) But what is making it so easy? Even I'm not entirely sure. Is it because of the three episodes a week thing, and the editors' need to fill time by focusing on every minor attempted sabotage as though it's a big deal, making it less "Are you sure you didn't imagine that?" and more "HOW ABOUT NOW? WOULD YOU LIKE SOME NEON LIGHTS IN THE SHAPE OF AN ARROW TO POINT IT OUT? MAYBE A CHORUS LINE OF TWINKS IN ASSLESS ONESIES?"? Is it because the other players are all completely inept at being inept and suck at the metagame, despite all of their bluster about how pretending to be the Mole is such a smart strategy? Is it because the Mole they've chosen doesn't appear to understand the power of subtlety, and is even easier to find than Petrina was? Honestly, all of the above are probably true to some degree. But I do know two things about this choice: While it seems the 'Culture Clash' edict has been fulfilled as many expected by hiring an obnoxious white bogan as the Mole, it really shouldn't be this damn obvious. And I really shouldn't feel this annoyed by the concept of having to spend the entire season with Shaun on my screen. Or feel that the entire season is bound to be ruined by the dumbest player in this show's history making it to the final by answering the elimination tests based on a personal grudge in lieu of actual evidence. And yet I do.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Mo' Money, Mole Problems

Edited July 4, 2013 to fix typos and finish off a paragraph I'd somehow left dangling.

So, The Mole is back. And even though the last season way back in 2005 pretty much all but smeared the show's reputation with its own excrement, there was still a loyal fanbase with high expectations for this. Did it meet those expectations? In short, no. Not really. As in, grab a plunger and some heavy-duty gloves. But how on earth have they managed to fuck up a show that should be impossible to fuck up... for the third time? And how have they managed to do it so completely?


The attempts to advertise and promote this show have all been abysmal failures. From being announced as "The Mole: Culture Clash" and dropping the title almost immediately after it was criticised as suggesting deliberate "Racism, yay!" undertones (and it will hopefully not come as a surprise that I'll be discussing that in more detail later), to the official website making a point of how the long-running Dutch version films in a different country each year even though it makes Seven look cheap by filming this season domestically, to not even revealing the show's airdate until eight days out and then doing so through a random tweet from new host Shura Taft, to then not adding the timeslot to the commercials themselves and adding a tag at the end as an afterthought... frankly, it's a wonder anybody watched at all.

And then there's the "Coming Soon!" commercial. Appearing on screens since the Australian Open tennis tournament in late January, despite Seven knowing the show wouldn't air for months, the jawdroppingly stupid slapstick commercials only served to alienate those who remembered and appreciated the tone the good seasons of the old version had, and somehow managed to simultaneously be too light-hearted and too mean-spirited. It's quite astonishing, really. But what's more surprising is that they weren't shot down in the pre-production phase, given it's about as representative as advertising Lost with clips from Gilligan's Island and expecting people not to care because hey, tropical island.

By the way, speaking of Shura, Twitter, and promotion? I've discussed the promo failures on Twitter a few times, and on at least two occasions he's replied to tell me, basically, that I wouldn't be complaining if I'd seen the show itself. But... shouldn't a better job have been done advertising the damn show in the first place, so it wouldn't even have become an issue? He also responded to a direct criticism of the comedic tone, saying the Mole takes their job very seriously. Which'd be great, if it didn't miss the point entirely. It's not the Mole I'm worried about, it's The Mole I'm worried about. (Again, more Shura later.)

Scheduling, Pacing, and Editing

Can we please get away from the misguided idea that running a show multiple nights a week, when it's not a show that suits such a format, is in any way preferable? Or did we learn absolutely NOTHING from the runaway success that was Celebrity Splash? Because The Mole is definitely a show that needs to be on only one night a week. This is a show where you really need to sit down and focus, and honestly, people have better things to do. The Block sucks, but it rates fairly well as a stripped show because it's mindless entertainment where you don't have to pay too much attention. This... is not mindless entertainment, and any more than one episode a week is just overkill. It's not like there's a valid reason to saturate the schedule with a show that works infinitely better in small doses - and there's evidence of this in several countries where The Amazing Race (tonally a very close analog to The Mole) is aired multiple times a week. It just. Doesn't. WORK.

But all that could have been said before the show began. Watching the first episode, it gets even worse. You see, because Seven have decided to have so many episodes, it means what would normally have been shown within the space of a single one-hour episode now apparently takes three. And each episode is also fifteen minutes longer. Because nothing says "stressful situation" like filler. Repetitive filler. If you're going to explain the basic format of the show over the opening credits, you don't need to explain the Mole's function over and over again during the show. We get it already, and it's condescending. Quit it.

Consider this: The first challenge of the season was taken from the 2012 Dutch season, where it was considerably more difficult (players travelled individually and weren't told which direction to travel, only to get to the landmark in the photo) and was tedious after five minutes, let alone the twenty minutes it was shown for in its episode. Here, a much easier version of the challenge was shown for almost an entire hour. Why? No freaking clue. You want the show to be event television, with plenty of time to develop your cast? Show a slightly longer episode - either ninety minutes or two full hours - once a week. Best of both worlds.

Challenge Design

It probably sounds a bit early to be criticising this, having only seen one-and-a-half challenges, but five have been revealed in one format or another. Three of them - the opening hiking challenge, the sandbag challenge seen in the preview for tonight's episode, and a signalling challenge listed on the TV guides for next Tuesday - are adapted from the Dutch version, meaning I'm familiar enough with them from my work on the challenge guide to know whether they will work or not, while a fourth also sounds like it's a less direct adaptation of a Dutch challenge, and the fifth is one of the ones we've seen already. And, honestly, it's a remarkably underwhelming bunch.

When you're trying to have a big beginning to your show, you don't start with a challenge that at its heart is just 'walk over there, carrying this'. You certainly shouldn't ever do it for the first three challenges in a row. And yet it seems they have. For the first challenge, it's "walk in this direction with your suitcases". In the second, it's "walk across a tightrope while transferring a baton in a relay". In the third, it's "walk along a marked path while carrying a makeshift stretcher loaded with sandbags". Even in one of the remaining two, the challenge appears to (in part) be "walk through a cave, carrying keys found along the way". It's ridiculous. It's not as if these challenges are so kickass that it can be overlooked. Hell, they don't even require twelve people - the suitcase and sandbag challenges weren't originally designed for twelve people (the suitcase one was for ten, the sandbag stretchers for eight), and you can easily cut one pair out of the tightrope challenge and do it with ten.

Also, let me just leave you with this: If players had to transfer the relay baton over to each other while on the tightrope, then pass each other to finish their respective journeys, doesn't that mean the baton travels back to where it began, defeating the entire purpose of the challenge?

Casting (Both the Contestants and the Host)

As much as the above issues irritate, they could have been mitigated somewhat if the cast was enjoyable enough to overcome them. But they're not. Not by a long shot. In fact, between those who are utterly unpleasant and those who are merely boring beyond belief I can't honestly say I'm looking forward to watching any of these people again tonight. And the sad thing is this was set in stone even before the audition phase, with the bizarre decision to subtitle the season 'Culture Clash' - a hint many took to mean 'a couple of token minorities and a bunch of white people to tell them to go back to where they came from'.

To be fair, this tagline was scrapped in record time after the astoundingly negative reaction (which speaks well of Australia, but not of the people who thought it was a good idea to begin with), but it seems as though the people responsible for actually casting the show didn't get the memo. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for having fewer straight white bogans on Australian reality shows - it's among the largest of the many things that killed Big Brother the first time around - but if you're going to do so you have to have the right context. And I feel like it wouldn't be too hyperbolic of me to say that doing so on a show all about fostering suspicion and distrust, with the planned subtitle mentioned above, on the same network that shows Border Security and Today Tonight, and which insists on casting the same 'Camp Gay' and 'Bitchy Asian Girls' stereotypes on My Kitchen Rules every season is about even with "Pauline Hanson campaign fundraiser" in terms of being the right context. (In related news: Four Queenslanders in this twelve-person cast. All white, all having some variation of "I tell it like it is, that's just who I am, fuck you if you think that makes me an obnoxious asshole" in their media kit bio.) In this case, either you're enforcing a negative stereotype about a minority contestant by making them the designated villain, or you're making it look like a white player has been hired to stop a minority player from profiting. Neither is a good look for the show or for Seven.

Just doing it (without being forced by a negative reaction to how white the previous season's cast was, as was the case with The Amazing Race Australia) and not even trying to make a big deal about it would be a start - compare the reception given to Big Brother 2008 (which got the show cancelled) and Masterchef 2010 (where more than a quarter of the country watched the finale). For an international perspective, compare the preliminary reactions given to Survivor: Cook Islands (twenty players initially divided into four teams by race) and The Amazing Race 10 (which featured among its twelve teams a gay couple, a lesbian, black single mothers, two non-Arabic Islamic guys, Korean brothers, an Indian couple, and an amputee). Casting a minority just so you can say you did - which based on the subtitle was evidently the case here - is just as closed-minded as deliberately not casting any minorities. It's like that person in everyone's life who thinks "I can't be racist, my boyfriend's sister's fiance's cousin is black!" Do you really want to be that person, show?

One of the things this show used to do so well was its casting. Yes, you got the requisite pretty people, but you also got a bunch of normal, unremarkable people who (while not always likable) were far more interesting. To be simplistic for a second, the casting comes across a bit like they were asked to consider what made the first season so great and came up with, "Josephine". Where are the Jans? The Lindas? The Patricks? The Beverleys? Even in later seasons, we had Brooke, Hal, Mal, Fiona, John, Helen, Marc, Bob, Ann-Maree, David, Thao, Kris, Josh, Greg, Stace, Craig, Liane, Mark, Brett, and Sonya. Not necessarily all nice people, but I get the feeling none of them would have gotten past the first stage of the audition - even with Thao, the only non-Caucasian contestant in the first five seasons, they'd probably be like "Law student? Sorry, we have two of them already. Try again next year."

Finally, there's the host. Through Twitter and his past television work, Shura Taft comes across as a genuinely nice, cool guy. And that's a huge part of the problem. Being nice and trying to be the players' friend doesn't work on The Mole (as proven with Tom Williams's spectacular flame-out), and Shura isn't good at not being nice. Though wooden at times, he's at least conscious enough of the format not to try buddying up to the contestant, but finding the right tone for hosting on this show is a tough balancing act, and at times he comes across (intentionally or otherwise) as a smug dick. Smug works in small doses, but even then you've got to have the gravitas required to pull it off. Grant Bowler absolutely had it. So did Anderson Cooper in the US version, and Glenn Hugill in the British version, and Karel van de Graaf in the Dutch version. Shura? Not so much. Time will tell, and it may just be a nervous start, but between the seasons covered in the challenge guide and those watched since, I've been exposed to a total of sixteen hosts over eight countries, and without quick improvement Shura will be firmly inside the bottom three.

In Summary

Should have been an easy sell. Should have been fast and exciting, dragging viewers along for the ride. Should have had great, inventive challenges. Should have had a cast you can root for in their fight against the Mole. Should have had a host who felt like a natural fit. On all five counts, Seven and the producers dropped the ball. And all the impressive visuals and stylish graphics in the world can't save a show that's been that much of a misfire. The problem with this show is that either (1) it becomes a runaway success and they think there's no reason to bother changing anything, or (2) it doesn't do as well as Seven hoped and they axe it again, this time for good. And neither of those options is what this show deserves. This show deserves better. If the quality of what we've seen so far is any indication, I feel entirely justified in saying I could do better. I shouldn't. But really. I could do better.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Crystal Maze: A Brief Obsessive Guide

I've commented on The Crystal Maze in the past, doing two columns analysing the various challenges from the first season's Aztec and Industrial Zones, but I didn't feel the format worked as well as I was hoping. So rather than continue, I kind of held off for a bit, keeping it at the back of my mind while I was working on other things. Eventually, I decided to follow the same format I used for my recent Survivor guide, making a couple of changes I was planning on making for future guides anyway.

So here we are. To cut a long story short, it's basically the same exact format with each challenge being given a rating from zero to five stars based on its design and entertainment value, and with the additional commentary now appearing as more text instead of in separate boxes. (I've kept the same basic format for the descriptions themselves, with each challenge being described in one paragraph.) Two other important things worth noting here are that none of the challenge titles I've used are official, as the show is too old to track down the relevant information, and the challenges are sorted by where in the Maze (in one of the show's five zones, or in the Crystal Dome finale) each challenge appears. Regarding this change, I figure this is the sort of show where you're more likely to remember that a game came from, say, the Medieval Zone than to remember it was in season four, making it easier to search for particular challenges.

The format I'm using for this guide probably isn't going to be continued in future - I've got a few different alternate formats in the works that I want to develop into a more comprehensive coverage instead of a "challenge title, big block of text, next challenge" design, while also keeping it suitable for various shows and subgenres. I mean, sure, this format works for shows like this, but what about for a show like The Amazing Race, where a bunch of challenges can often be described in one sentence? Or Wipeout, with its combination of recurring rounds, recurring obstacles within those rounds, and various one-off obstacles and variations on a theme? (Actually, if you've got any ideas how I could cover Wipeout without a bunch of repetition, I'd be very grateful.)

I'd love to hear what you have to say about this guide. Did I get the grading right? Was I too harsh on some games and not harsh enough on others? Are there any descriptions I completely butchered? Feel free to comment, and I'll endeavour to reply.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Product Recall: Australian Reality Shows, 2013

Presented without much comment, because these just angry up the blood. These are all ACTUAL commercials for Australian reality shows. First, The Celebrity Apprentice, which began its third season last week:

I... I don't even know where to... huh?

Next, The Mole. Cancelled in 2003, revived in 2005, cancelled again after a disastrous season (live eliminations, WHY?), and revived again for this year. Now remember, this is a show about espionage and deceit and all the related stress and tension that goes along with it:

It's seriously like advertising Lost with clips from Gilligan's Island and expecting people not to be pissed because they're both about people stranded on an island. For comparison, here's the promo for this year's Dutch season:

So much better, you guys. Why is it so hard for Australian TV networks to understand how television works?

Third, Masterchef. Fifth regular season, tenth season overall (there have been a LOT of failed spinoff attempts).

Rightio, then. Because if there's something we all love on reality shows, it's obnoxious gender-split themes. And we'll just ignore the elephant in the room, all the judges being the same gender, shall we?

And then there's one - just one, mind you - that's actually pretty good. I KNOW! This is from The Great Australian Bake Off, a new show featuring - rather ironically - a former Junior Masterchef judge as its host.

I mean, it's clear the two hosts are both going to be autocue-strugglers, but aside from that it's just the right level of camp for this exact show. But still, can we PLEASE stop with overly-camp choreographed pre-season commercials?

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Great Big Challenge Guide: Template Design

I thought I'd go a bit behind-the-scenes here and show the next huge project I'm working on. Basically, it's going to be a guide (like my earlier Mole and Survivor guides) for challenges on a wide range of shows in a single file, but this time before I get too far into it I'd like to get some feedback about the planned format. (Please note, the below image contains spoilers for the current Dutch season of The Mole, though features no actual results. Click to zoom in.)

Basically, there's four columns - episode and challenge title like on the first version of the Survivor guide, followed by the challenge rules and a separate column for commentary. I'm going to try and find something unique to say about every challenge I add to avoid having too much empty space, whether that be odd facts about the challenge, an analysis of why it worked (or failed), or something else entirely. Twists that don't come about as the result of a challenge - for example a new non-elimination penalty on The Amazing Race, as opposed to the "win or lose, you both go to Tribal Council" twist on Survivor - are marked with black episode columns. Since not every challenge has a known official title, and some shows I'm planning to include are in foreign languages, I've had to compromise - italics for translated titles, quotation marks for unofficial titles. Thoughts?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Survivor: A Brief Obsessive Challenge Guide (Version 2.0)

I use the term "brief" ironically, of course.

Since the last version of the guide I've kind of been continually updating this, but always wind up getting annoyed with the formatting before finishing it. Eventually I just figured to hell with it, and did the most basic version I could. It's not perfect, and right after I finished it I figured out a way to make the format from the old version a lot less cluttery (which I'm going to use for all of my challenge guides from now on, regardless of show), but here we are.

One thing to note: There's no section for results this time. I might upload a separate "challenge tracker" file in the near future (although first I want to figure out how to do a non-cluttered individual-players version to account for tribal shuffles and the like), but I haven't included the tables or even a list of winners in this version.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

How To: Make A Successful Reality Show

I thought I'd do something a bit different with this entry, and go over a few of the finer points of how to make a successful reality show. Despite the vast number of shows and the vast discrepancies in formats and general quality, there are a few basic things which every show needs to keep in mind. Obviously my focus is still on challenge design, but this isn't going to simply be restricted to it. Shall we begin?


Challenges determine the success of your show more than the players, more than the host, and more than the little bits of foreshadowing you stick in to make the winner seem obvious in hindsight. Good challenges tend to save seasons with bad casting, but bad challenges tend to ruin those with good casts. Seems simple enough to understand, right? You'd be shocked. How many reality TV seasons with decent reputations have terrible challenges? And how many seasons with bad reputations have good task design? Exactly. You definitely want both, but challenges need to take precedence over casting.


The easier it is to explain a challenge within a single sentence, the more likely it is to be remembered as a good challenge. It doesn't matter what show you're on. Go ahead, think back to the challenges that really made you go "Fuuuuuuck, that's awesome." Are there any that can't be described in one sentence, once you cut out all the extra variables and get down to the basic concept? Probably not. Whether it's "starting in separate locked hotel rooms, work together to escape using mobile phones and a series of hidden clues" or "search the streets of Zurich on foot for three numbers which can be combined to form the combination for a safe" or "Ignore all the gatecrashers passing through the Big Brother house", every single task that is memorable - for the right reasons, at least - can be explained succinctly.

On the other hand, the most recent US Survivor season (Survivor: Philippines) had a challenge that involved a three-round elimination format, with each round featuring both a trivia question (with cumulative penalties for wrong answers) and a race across a physical obstacle, plus the final obstacle was markedly different than the first two, PLUS it was basically the same challenge as one seen in the previous episode, PLUS as a consequence of the previous challenge one player qualified directly for the final round, avoiding both the exhaustion of the obstacles and the penalties. Unlike much of the online community, I don't believe the challenge was rigged to favour the advantaged player. I do, however, believe it was a ridiculously poor effort on the part of the show's challenge designers, even in a season that basically didn't have a single good challenge from about episode three onwards (and even given those three episodes were a godsend after pretty much eight or nine entire seasons of mediocrity). Would anybody have called it rigged if the challenge was at least mildly adequate? I doubt it.


In precisely what circumstance is reusing a challenge from an earlier season (or even another version of the show) a good idea? There's no valid answer to this simple question. The challenge was great the first time? It won't live up to the lofty expectations set for it. The challenge wasn't great the first time, and you think it deserves a second chance? History has shown it doesn't work. Doing it for random nostalgia? It just serves to remind fans your show used to be much better. Doing it in an All-Star season, or a season with a similar gimmick? Your goal shouldn't be to compound the lack of originality in casting, it should be to compensate for it with even better challenges than usual. Just give us something new.


It's great to have twists to throw the contestants for a loop. Really, it is. But make sure the twists you use are organic and don't feel like you're doing them for the sake of ratings. The Amazing Race having a Road Block before a Detour for the first time in its fourth season worked because it was just something that happened, it wasn't as if the producers were going "LOOK TWIZT ZOMG!!1!1!!1!" Survivor's Redemption Island twist, on the other hand? Yeeeeeeah.


Challenges are the closest thing you have to an actual plot on a reality show. Scripted television works because the storylines matter on two levels - both on the surface ("Homer buys Lisa a pony and has to work at the Kwik-E-Mart to pay for it") and at a deeper level ("How far will parents go to make their kids happy?"). Out of necessity the metaphors are more superficial on reality shows, with challenges based more on locations and cultures and sponsors rather than humanity's greatest questions, but you still do need them.

It's the same issue with pacing. On a scripted television show, you don't build a story up for six episodes and then have a filler episode directly before the finale, you put the filler episode first before the story arc begins. On a reality show, you need the same frame of mind. The challenges (and prizes, if there are any) need to get more and more awe-inspiring as the season goes, rather than petering out towards the end, but at the same time the challenges can't be too easy or too hard at any given point. The biggest issue with challenge design and pacing, it needs to be said, are the half-assed warm-up episodes at the beginning of many seasons. No. Just... no. They don't work, and they just piss people off. (The most notable example is Survivor, and while I'm going to do a proper "It's broken, here's how to fix it" post for it after seeing how the upcoming season pans out, for now: Stop using 'but we need to show everybody!' as your reason for doing it when you just spend the time gained from combining an episode's challenges showing the same people you were focusing on anyway. You got problems? Stop trying to cast more people than there are minutes in your show.)

Similarly, you also have to design a challenge so different types of strategy can be used to solve it, much like how a story on a scripted show won't work if there's only one way for the writers to handle it. That doesn't necessarily mean to combine different types of challenge in a single event - in fact, it just makes it more likely the same people are going to win challenge after challenge after challenge when the show is essentially replacing "Who is best at obstacle courses?" and "Who is best at jigsaws?" with "Who is best at jigsaws after finishing an obstacle course?" - but having multiple ways of approaching a challenge curtails the biggest problem many challenges have, that we as viewers are simply watching people do the same thing the same way, over and over again. (A corollary to this is the power of deception which, assuming the challenge is still reasonably difficult even with the added wrinkle, is a challenge designer's best friend.)