Adventure Time

There's a strange cultural marriage going on that nobody seems to be talking about. A billion thinkpieces have been written about reality shows and the effect they have on the landscape of television and how "real" they actually are and if they signal the end of civilization. Comparisons between reality shows and scripted television are a dime a dozen. But oddly, I haven't seen much chatter about the two recent shows that melded the two. Reality competitions are generally out and proud about the "character" their contestants are representing. This is Amber. She's a pharmaceutical rep from Philly who has big boobs, and is convinced she's gonna leave the other contestants in the dust. Crafty editing can make Amber look like a ditz, or a relatable everywoman, or a bitch, but she's always Amber - a person who exists in real life. When it comes to last year's Whodunnit? and this past summer's The Quest, though, the lines get a lot blurrier. These are reality competitions with a healthy dose of scripted material woven into the fabric. That script affects not only the game the contestants are playing (making it a pretty cool sort of interactive play for them), but the personalities the contestants exude as well.

The premise of Whodunnit? appealed to me right away, because why wouldn't it? I've been begging the gaming industry for a new murder mystery game for a while now, but it seems that TV was the one who noticed my pleas. Whodunnit? asked its contestants to solve mock murders via riddles, puzzles, forensic examinations, and alliances with other players. An actor playing the butler functioned as the host, who explained rules and backstory to the contestants, one of whom was actually the murderer. But rather than just scripting material for those two, Whodunnit? took it one step further, and brought the contestants into the story by making them the victims as well. If you didn't do well in solving that week's murder, then guess who the next body is? It was strange to see real people talking about not wanting to die and then winding up lying stiff on the cold slab in the faux morgue kept in the basement. The audience never saw any of the preparation for this, of course - there were no scenes of the producers giving someone the bad news that it was time to perform the scene of their own demise. To us, it was presented as half game/half story.

It was a compelling idea in theory, and most of the game and story design was pretty great. Unfortunately, the one thing the producers could not predict was how the social aspect of the game would play out. Splitting "evidence" into multiple locations meant that no one person was able to figure out everything each week; sharing information was absolutely essential to doing well in the long run. Being adept at garnering information while letting out as little as possible sounds like it would be interesting to watch, and perhaps it would have been, if the bulk of every episode hadn't boiled down to a symphony of whining. "Whyyyy isn't she sharing information with meeeeee?" "Hey, who did you share this information with?" "I don't trust his information." "Could you please go away while I discuss information with so-and-so?" Just about every episode wound up sounding like bickering in a junior high school cafeteria. That one aspect made this show a lot less enjoyable than it otherwise would have been, but it still had a lot to like about it. For the curious, it's a decent Laundry Show, and all of the episodes are currently available to watch on YouTube.

In addition to murder mysteries, I'm also a fan of RPG gaming, at least in some of its forms. I toyed around with World of Warcraft for a while, and have more hours of Dark Age of Camelot under my belt than most. Summer television is mostly a dead zone, so when another story-based-reality-competition show popped up (this time with a fantasy RPG element), I was way more interested than I would have been if this show had debuted in, say, October. I'm talking about The Quest, which pretended that its contestants had been whisked away to a magical realm, full of witches and ogres and invading armies. The winner would be declared the "one true hero". I don't even think they got a prize. The challenges tested the contestants (known as paladins in this context) in a variety of skills, like archery, puzzle-solving, and obstacle courses. Whoever did the best would be given a medal and their heroics would be celebrated by the kingdom (represented by a queen, a sergeant-at-arms, a general helper, and a sinister vizier). Those who did not fare as well faced The Fates, three regal women who applied a final challenge that would spare the paladin that managed to finish first.

Banishment was then decided by a popular vote of the safe contestants. I didn't love that aspect of the show, as it turned what was ostensibly a game about merit into a popularity contest. Not to spoil it, but in the beginning, the big, strong, muscly dudes banded together and quickly voted off three women and a gentle, scrawny guy. There's a reason I don't watch Survivor, and The Quest was starting to look like a nerdier version of it. But then something happened. Once there was a more manageable number of paladins, they began to really act like a party in RPG would. Though they were direct competitors, they treated each other with respect and support. There was no sniping about loyalty or backstabbing. These people were obviously overjoyed to be going through the experience, and were having a blast. A lot of reality show contestants have a constant look of miserable, grim determination, but these people just wanted to be along for the story. That sort of attitude is the most refreshing thing I've seen in a reality competition in a long time. The actors never broke character, and created an engaging world for the paladins that was only slightly diluted for the audience at home. They even set up a sequel, just in case. Though it took time to find its footing, The Quest turned out to be much better than I was expecting, and if a second season does come along, I'll gladly put down the twenty-sided die to watch.

Whodunnit? - Season 1: B-
The Quest - Season 1: B


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