Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Reality with Skill: Top Shot

To their credit, the programmers at the History Channel have largely kept the network focused on history. That might sound like a no-brainer, but just look at Bravo, once the broadcast home of serious art films, now a slum of “reality TV” fare. True, there has been some reality programming at History Channel, but rather than appealing to baser interests, it arguably serves an educational purpose, as if to say: “study hard kids, or you too might have to work delivering nitro glycerin to Nome, Alaska by dog sled.” Still, the world hardly needs yet another competitive elimination reality contest, but for their first the History Channel includes three elements not often seen on television: history, skill, and guns (presented as legitimate and necessary tools for both sport and protection). Sixteen world class marksmen will compete in a series of historically inspired challenges for $100,000 and serious bragging rights in Top Shot, which debuts this coming Sunday night.

Unlike most reality shows, these contestants are responsible and accomplished. Most are former military, police officers, and professional shooters. There is also a Wild West entertainer, a vintage fire-arms collector, and Bill Carns, a talk radio host specializing in Second Amendment issues, who seems fairly conservative. In fact, though the marksmen (including Tara Poremba, the first woman to be “Top Gun” of her class at the Chicago Police Academy) are divided into red and blue teams, it seems likely most of the Top Shots would feel more affinity for the red.

Following the reality show template, the reds and the blues first compete in a team challenge, after which the losing team picks two members to face each other in an elimination challenge. Based on the first two episodes, the shooting contests appear quite well designed. In the series opener, the Top Shots compete with four rifles associated with various wars of the Twentieth Century: the Springfield from WWI, the SVT-40 from WWII, the Mosin-Nagant associated with the Korean War, and the M-14 representing Viet Nam. In episode two, the Top Shots on the bubble were actually kind of psyched by their elimination challenge: firing at targets while descending a mountain cliff on a zip-line. Future shows also promise crossbows, throwing knives, and vintage muskets.

It is always refreshing when television shows a healthy respect for the Second Amendment. However, the problem with Top Shot is that it adheres too closely to the reality formula. All the competitors stay together in a house and there are frequent attempts at the standard “dish on your teammates” interview segments, though the Top Shots do not have much heart for it. Indeed, competitors like Frank Campana, a SWAT veteran who served as a rescuer at Ground Zero, do not need added artificial drama to be interesting. Frankly, it would be more intriguing television to see them go back to their lives in between competitions, to get advice from their colleagues and teammates.

While Top Shot is overly conventional in terms of format, its shooting challenges are definitely cool. It also spares us most of the usual moments of reality show teeth grating annoyance, because by its very nature, it recruits a better class of competitors in those trained to handle firearms responsibly. One of the better conceived reality shows, Top Shot debuts this Sunday (6/6) on the History Channel.