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.