Top Shot

In The Catch Up, a longtime fan and a newcomer have a discussion about a TV show, movie, book, music, or other pop-culture item. In this first installment, James Rocchi and Matt Singer ponder whether Top Shot is the greatest reality show of all time and rate all the episodes so far in the current season.

James Rocchi: During a recent period of forced leisure, I discovered the History Channel’s Top Shot, watching seasons one and two just in time for season three, which is now four episodes in. Top Shot may, with no hyperbole, be the greatest reality program ever invented. 

First off, let me state unequivocally that my enjoyment of Top Shot is not camp, nor is it ironic or meta or couched in numbing air quotes like so many Styrofoam packing peanuts. Top Shot pits 16 marksmen against each other, every week. In early episodes, the 16 are divided into two teams and then those teams compete in challenges; the losing team goes to the “Nomination Range,” shooting at targets to indicate their vote for which two members will go head-to-head, with one being eliminated. Eventually, the two teams collapse into one. There are funny things about Top Shot, to be sure—most notably braying, beefy host Colby Donaldson, who beams beatifically as every gun is unveiled—but mostly it’s great because it’s the purest form of the purer form of reality TV. 

To explain, let’s draw a distinction between two types of “reality” programming: personality-based and performance-based. Personality-based reality programming is predicated on the assumption that if you hurl the spotlight on some people, they will be interesting—see also Khloe & Lamar, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, The Real Housewives Of Hollow Capitalist Excess, or any other show along those lines. For me, this kind of programming is its own circle of hell. I don’t know or care who Kim Kardashian is aside from the fact that she has a huge, undeserved fortune. Why would I want to watch her do anything other than arrive at the town square in a tumbrel for an appointment with the guillotine? 

Performance-based reality programming, though, is another matter entirely: Project Runway, Top Chef. Note I’m not including Survivor in this, nor The Amazing Race, because while those shows involve contestants performing tasks, they’re not tasks that test your objective capabilities at a specific skill; if you can’t cook on Top Chef, though, or if you can’t sew on Project Runway, home you go, and fast. Even so, programs like Project Runway (where the viewer may not understand the intricacies of fashion construction and modern trends) and Top Chef (where the viewer cannot touch, taste, or smell the food) offer a challenge tailored to our enjoyment. 

But on Top Shot, performance is binary—and performance is all. If you shoot the most targets within the allotted time—or fastest—with the number of bullets and the gun you are given, you win. End of sentence. I cannot smell a Top Chef contestant’s winning dish, and I cannot try on a Project Runway winner’s jacket, but I can count light bulbs, or plates, or exploding targets, which look awesome in slow-mo—and please, let’s talk about Top Shot as a slow-mo high-def orgy of delight, shall we?—and know who is our winner and who is our loser. (This is, incidentally, why I miss Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown so much: famous people + booze + no-limit Texas Hold ’Em = TV gold.) I don’t have to know a thing about high-stakes marksmanship or the many layers of competitive shooting in America; I just have to look and count, and know that this is a purer expression of competition than we normally get on TV.

Why are you digging Top Shot, Matt? And how’s season three going for you as a longtime fan? 

Matt Singer: As a longtime fan, I’m just happy you’ve joined me in my Top Shot obsession, James. I got hooked way back in season one during one of those weekend marathons the History Channel shows on occasion. At least your addiction has the excuse of forced leisure time. I could have been doing all sorts of productive things with my life—including, presumably, learning how to shoot a gun—but I just couldn’t bring myself to walk away from the television. It was like I was hypnotized by the husky, twangy tones of Colby Donaldson. And now I tune in week after week.

It is interesting that you highlight Top Shot as the apex of performance-based reality television, since part of what I find so fascinating about the show—and I’m with you, Top Shot is one of the true pinnacles of reality television—is the way that the contestants always manage to turn something that should be entirely performance-based into one big personality contest. Oh sure, the weekly elimination challenges pit two marksmen against each other in a skill-based shooting competition. But the way those two marksmen are selected is entirely opinion-based. And those opinions are often arbitrary, petty, or flat-out biased.

Take last season, when a core group from the Red Team repeatedly violated their supposed Darwinian code of eliminating weaker members for the good of the platoon in order to get rid of the guys in the house they just didn’t like. In week nine, they should have nominated construction worker Joe, the only man to completely miss the 1,000-yard shot in the individual challenge. But they all liked Joe, so instead they voted for golf instructor Jay, who they resented because he wasn’t a member of the military. The next week they booted Navy rescue swimmer Jamie Franks, still an active member of the military, because they distrusted him for supposedly lying about his war record. The Red Team hated Jamie so much that they nominated him for elimination four separate times; he prevailed over supposedly stronger shooters on three separate occasions, more than any other contestant. That should have proved he was a worthy marksman, but for some reason it only strengthened the others’ resolve that he was unworthy of the competition.

Just five weeks in, the new season is already off to an equally opinionated start. There were a pair of female contestants in the original field of 16 shooters; both were gone after just two episodes. True, neither firearms instructor Amanda nor SWAT team supervisor Sara proved themselves especially skilled in their respective elimination challenges. Sara even admitted that she was “overcome by the intensity of the situation” shortly before she was sent packing back to her apparently less stressful job as the leader of a fucking SWAT team. But even if the women weren’t the strongest competitors on this season of Top Shot, it was hard not to notice the thinly veiled sexism in their skeptical teammates’ votes. Though Sara performed well in week two’s team challenge, her teammates claimed that others “physically have a lot more to offer,” which made her an easy pick “just looking at her physical makeup.” 

While I’d love to see a really capable female shooter take down these cocky dudes, I’m okay with the fact that the rest of Top Shot season three will be a total sausage fest, in part because I consider this show to be the male equivalent of America’s Next Top Model, another reality series that pits 15 people of the same gender against one another while keeping them under televised house arrest. Both Top Model and Top Shot are trashy and silly, but they’re also mesmerizing Petri dishes of homosocial relationships in perpetual breakdown. Sticking 15 aggressive men into a remote mansion in Santa Clarita, California and forcing them to work together and compete against one another at the same time is a recipe for macho behavioral disaster and wildly entertaining television.

But we’re already getting ahead of ourselves. We’ve written more than 1,000 words on Top Shot and we haven’t even mentioned my favorite part of the show: the opening credits. Each of the 16 contestants is introduced posing with a weapon as menacingly as they can. (For court officer Michael, this is more difficult than it sounds.) Most brandish conventional sidearms, but some of the armaments are weirder: Gary gets a hatchet, for example, while Jake holds a rocket launcher. What the hell is a rocket launcher doing on a reality show about firearm accuracy? How accurate do you really need to be with a rocket launcher? Not very, especially when you’re fighting against a guy with a hatchet.

Speaking of Jake, what do you make of him, James? The former Navy SEAL and college football coach quickly took control of the Blue Team and put his teammates through a punishing training regimen of running around the backyard with imaginary logs, thus establishing himself as season three’s presumptive frontrunner, villain, and weirdo. How long do you think he’ll be able to maintain his tyrannical hold on his teammates before they send him packing? 

JR: Yes, Top Shot’s elimination process is farcically personality-driven—the vendetta against golf-pro Jay was so cliquish I expected Rachel McAdams and Amanda Seyfried to materialize—but at the same time, it’s worth noting that, even with how often Jay (and, as you noted, the much-maligned Jamie) were sent to the elimination round, they both were able to shoot their way out of it repeatedly. Jay’s weird semi-spacey ability with guns—self-taught, rigid, and methodical—was often on the verge of being like something out of a Marvel comic, which made him oddly entertaining, and more so when the hate turned against him came to a boil; he was a odd duck, but at least he often stood out against the pale, ex-military demeanor of his fellow contestants.

Jake is just the most recent iteration of one of Top Shot’s thematic recurring motifs: among a bunch of soft-spoken and mostly well-mannered guys (reinforcing Robert. A. Heinlein’s assertion that an armed society is a polite society), one person will try to assert himself as a leader despite the fact that the others do not, necessarily, want to be led. Sure, Jake having his fellow Blue Team members re-enact the challenge’s physical stuff looked silly—but did it help? Could it hurt? Might it be more effective than the Red Team’s post-challenge training regimen of sitting around and mocking the Blue Team’s post-challenge training regimen? 

As for the opening credits: Yes, having all 16 contestants stalk through an abandoned warehouse is a bit silly. But that’s a big part of the charm of Top Shot, the fact that it’s a fairly low-budget production. The top prize is $100,000—good money, but not crazy money—and while there’s plenty of lovingly shot slow-motion 1080p erotica (bottles bursting, targets exploding, bullets gliding from barrels propelled by gently blossoming flowers of incandescent flame, etc.), there’s also the cost-cutting expediency of Colby Donaldson’s commentary, which is given not after the fact in a recording booth, but rather during the challenges, 5 feet away from the people he’s judging: “Sara... missed the shot! Second shot is a no-go for Sara! Third shot, no joy! Fourth shot, fifth shot... nothing ... and now Sara’s got to re-load!” Seriously, Colby, these people are armed and trying to concentrate; prudence alone suggests that laying down your play-by-play in post might be preferred. 

Finally, Matt, I have to wonder, why your higher score for the second episode? Don’t get me wrong; I liked the use of the AK-47 in the team challenge (if anything, the appearance of what is essentially the Big Mac of machine guns, with billions slain and served, was a long time coming), but I also don’t yet have a feel for the personalities of the players aside from crazy Jake. I also liked the use of the shotgun slug shell in the third episode. A lot of the fun of Top Shot is being hurled into the minutia of a world I only have a broad view of. I know what a shotgun is, and I’ve fired one. Before episode three of season three of Top Shot, did I know there were shotgun shells that were just one big hunk of lead? No. Is that awesome? Yes. Also, is there anything you’re looking forward to for this season? 

MS: Episode two had a lot to offer in the personality-based-reality-television arena, most of it involving the aforementioned Jake, who was so confident in his abilities that he selected himself for the final and most difficult part of the team challenge obstacle course, and even took an ill-advised and super-aggro face-first dive into the shallow pool on the course just to prove his manhood (or his poor decision-making skills). Of course, after all the puffed-chest confidence, Jake still choked when it was his turn to send rounds downrange. The schadenfreude was so thick you could cut it with a detachable AK-47 bayonet, even one without the heavy blood groove.

What I’m looking forward to for the rest of the season, beyond Jake’s training regimens, are the increasingly inventive challenges. Another thing that distinguishes Top Shot from a lot of other performance-based reality shows on television is this: The show looks like fun. I’d love to eat in the Top Chef kitchen, but I’d rather wash the dishes than try my hand at a Quickfire Challenge. It can be entertaining to watch American tourists navigate the murky waters of international travel on The Amazing Race, but waking up at 5:00 a.m. in Shanghai to try to find the quickest flight to Azerbaijan? No, thank you. On the other hand, every week on Top Shot, the producers come up with another wildly creative—and wildly fun-looking —test of the shooters’ skills. In episode four’s elimination challenge, Michael and Mark had to carefully fire antique gatling guns—the world’s first weapons of mass destruction, Colby boasts with slightly unnerving glee—to knock down a series of telephone poles. While other performance-based reality shows like Hell’s Kitchen have gotten bogged down by repeating the same challenges season after season, Top Shot has remained fresh by constantly throwing new weapons and new wrinkles into the competition. Simply put: They all look really hard and really awesome.

And that’s exactly how they’re supposed to look. That gorgeous slow-motion photography you mentioned, James, is shot with the famous Phantom high-speed camera for maximum destructive beauty. The cinematographers pore over every detail of the weaponry, from the beautiful trajectory of the bullets to the smoke that plumes from the discharged barrel. There’s no human targets, at least not until someone finally goes postal on the Nomination Range for unfair voting and starts firing on the other competitors. It’s gun violence stripped of both its context and effects, geometry and physics in lieu of blood and guts. That’s why Top Shot isn’t just a great reality show; it’s also perhaps the greatest distillation of America’s fascination with and fetishization of guns ever broadcast on television. It is a little piece of pop-culture history; no wonder the show airs on the History Channel.

James’ grades: 
“The Gauntlet,” B+
“Down and Dirty,” B
“Slug It Out,” B
“The Bulldog Gatling,” A-
“Throwdown Showdown,” B-

Matt’s grades:
“The Gauntlet,” B+
“Down and Dirty,” B+
“Slug It Out,” B
“The Bulldog Gatling,” B+
“Throwdown Showdown,” B+

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