The quest, ABC’s latest reality TV series, debuts Thursday with a blatant plea for fantasy lovers and other self-identifying nerds. The show asks its 12 contestants to pretend to be medieval knights – which they do thanks to activities such as living in a castle, wielding spears, bowing to a queen and encountering creepy witches in the woods.
But for the producers who dumped real people into a Tolkien-obsessed world, that’s not enough. These “paladins” all apparently have a bigger goal than a cash prize or D-list celebrity status. It doesn’t take long for contestants to reveal the huge chips on their shoulders, many of them remembering a younger life when they didn’t fit in, when they wore headgear and giant glasses, or when they hid with books or video games.
So only now, with leather armor and the broken shards of the ancient “Sun Spear”, do they see a path to trust and redemption. The quotes get going as the dozen players take their first steps into the world of the show, Everrealm: “It was my destiny to embark on this journey,” says one, while another goes a little further: “I want to little boy I used to be, who was so shy and so quiet, he doesn’t have to be like that all the time.”
ABC sent us the first three episodes ahead of tonight’s series debut, and watching them left us unconvinced that the show had conjured up a rich fictional universe worthy of the full allegiance of nerds. Still we finished our marathon Scavenger hunt session thought the show was intriguing (and awkwardly hilarious, like all “bad” reality series), especially since it carried the torch for TV’s seemingly next big wave: the plot-driven reality show.
“How do you make a dragon howl?”
One of reality TV’s most formative moments came from combining an always-on documentary treatment with wild challenges. 2000s Survivorinspired by a similar Swedish series, not only ushered in a new wave of TV viewers, but also forever left the traditional game show format in the dust.
That’s a shame, because game shows have typically proven to be a safe haven for geekdom, from the trivia bombardment of Danger to the bizarre, virtual reality-driven competitions of the 1990s British show Knight mare. That kind of series doesn’t really exist in the West anymore, and we’re not comfortable saying that the CW’s “academic” challenges Beauty and the nerd count as an exception.
We kept our fingers crossed for years that someone would choose our series, tentatively titled Academic Decathlon, as a throwback to nerdy, question-laden group challenges on TV, but we didn’t even think about another path reality TV might take to geekdom : the Tolkien road.
The quest begins with 12 contestants meeting in what appears to be an office basement, eventually receiving lanterns and emerging in a forest by the river. The idea of universe and lore comes across thick from the start: they meet three women, known as the Fates, and are told to save the kingdom of Everrealm by eventually using a weapon called the Sunspear, which is currently divided into 12 pieces (handy!).
The ‘hub town’ castle looks like something you would see in a Great Wolf Lodge.
Except for the contestants, everyone on the show is an actor. In this way, The quest also draws inspiration from ABCs Who knows, a 2013 series that probed the depths of American stupidity. That show asked contestants to solve a fictional murder-mystery plot, and losing players “died” at the end of each episode, prompting hundreds of American dummies to express their shock and dismay on Twitter as if these people were actually murdered.
While Who knows was painfully silly (and entertaining), it also opened the door to the idea that a reality show could revolve around a season-long fictional plot. In this early state The quest is doing a little better; the actors strike an acceptable balance between solid acting and diving into the cheesy stuff, while the show’s setpieces – castles, war outposts, enchanted forests – are given a lot of care in their design (although the hub town’s castle occasionally bit like something you would see inside a Great Wolf Lodge).
Still, the laughs come pretty quickly thanks to how contestants react to their new kingdom. In the first 10 minutes of the show, a random actor is surprised by a hairy, ugly beast in a nocturnal forest, and the cast’s “keeper,” a man named Creo, insists they keep running.
Shondo, an excited contestant with an MMA fighting background, is unimpressed with how that situation turned out. “We should have helped him, man,” he shouts to the actor after their escape. “Hey, let’s never let that happen again! Man, come on!” (Calm down, Shondo. That man was a union; you’ll be fine.)
The majority of Scavenger hunt‘s laughter stems from such overly sincere, out-of-touch responses from contestants buying into the show’s fictional world. Lines like “I have to do this – it’s for the Queen!” are silly enough, but then there’s the utter cheese of someone frowning at a drink’s ingredients list with all sincerity. “Dragon tears? How do you make a dragon howl?”
A heart of gold
These moments seem deliberately placed to meet modern reality TV quotas of laughing at the shlubs in the league, but for the most part, the show takes itself just as seriously. This proves a bit unbearable when the usual reality show challenges drag on for far too long without much punch or payoff.
The best is a gun battle, where contestants ride horses as they shoot targets with bows and swinging hammers, while the worst is a boring “puzzle room” that only asks people to use brute force and force through some weird doors. The “queen” of Everrealm and her henchmen watch and comment as they lean too heavily on archetypes: the gruff soldier here, the suspicious advisor there.
If ABC wanted to ride the mainstream momentum of Lord of the Rings And Game of Thrones, it would have been wise to invest more in the show’s fictional characters and lore. People don’t get hooked on huge RPGs and sprawling fantasy book series without a sense of place – centuries of turmoil, families that have outlived the land for generations, great wizards overseeing the idlers – but The Quest doesn’t get that luxury, because it also has to juggle its contestants’ stories, particularly the silly reality series alliances that emerge. Contestants have to vote each week to remove one of the two worst players from a given challenge, so ABC spends a good 5-10 minutes of each episode snooping on them, contrary to even the contestants’ backstory (never mind the great world of Everrealm).
Aside from Shondo, the amped-up MMA fighter, the series’ contestants can be easily lost track of in terms of being remarkably generic, save for the overly serious Adria and golden-hearted Bonnie. It’s Bonnie who decides on a whim to come up with a song about the world of Everrealm and sing it for the rest of the cast. For a moment, the song seems embarrassing, but then it turns out to be more heartwarming and sympathetic than much of what ABC has created with its fictional world.
And that’s the crux of it The quest‘s problem: ABC has all the attributes of an “if you will Game of Thrones, you’ll love this reality series – the castle, the horses, the cheesy mystery that emerges – but it has yet to deliver a real sense of heroism, whether through a fictional plot or real participants. Here’s hoping ABC gets that part right later on – or at least increases the special effects budget for a legit dragon. We can’t let the tears go to waste.