Owner's Manual

Owner's Manual debuts tonight on AMC at 10 p.m. Eastern.

What is the future of AMC? Only seven Breaking Bad episodes remain, and by this time next year, Mad Men will be gone as well. There’s still The Walking Dead, of course, and the network is at least trying to keep its hand in the prestige drama game with the likes of Low Winter Sun. On the other hand, there’s Small Town Security, a cheaply-made 30-minute reality series. It drew only a fraction of Walking Dead’s numbers, but the network still gave it two seasons (so far).

So maybe the future of AMC looks a lot like Owner’s Manual, a new 30-minute reality series premiering tonight with two back-to-back episodes. But let’s hope not. At least Small Town Security has a personality, repugnant though it may be to some—it’s sort of a John Waters movie reimagined as unscripted television. Owner’s Manual, on the other hand, is virtually indistinguishable from the dozens of cookie-cutter occupational/instructional/lifestyle reality shows that litter the alphabet soup of niche cable networks. Does AMC really want to be more HGTV than HBO?

Owner’s Manual is a gimmick show that wants to make its premise crystal clear to the viewer early and often. Its co-hosts adhere to the classic mismatched buddy-cop formula: One is by-the-book, the other doesn’t play by the rules. But Marcus Hunt and Ed Sanders aren’t cops; they’re...adventurers? Thrill-seekers? Actually, they’re professional reality hosts. Ed, a Guy Ritchie character whose habit of calling everyone “bruv” doesn’t get old for at least six or seven minutes, hosted Fear Factor UK before moving to the US to helm Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. The Felix to his Oscar is Marcus Hunt from HGTV’s Hammer Heads.

As is stated over and over again in the first two episodes, Marcus believes in reading the instructions, while Ed relies instead on his instincts and years of experience. Together they take part in a series of challenges, pitting book-larnin’ against street smarts. That’s the whole show. In the first episode, Marcus and Ed must perform a series of maneuvers in stunt planes. In the first of many bits of staged banter, Ed worries that his geeky friend will drop his manual in midair, while Marcus insists he’s way ahead of Ed by virtue of his studies. Do you get it yet?

Before performing their stunts, Ed and Marcus must first pass a disorientation stress-test, which entails riding as a passenger while the real stunt pilot loops and rolls through the air. The idea is not to pass out. Marcus, having done his homework, knows all about AGSM—Anti-Gravity Straining Maneuver—which basically involves pretending you’re constipated and straining every muscle in your body to prevent the blood from leaving your head so quickly. Ed doesn’t know about this technique, so he blacks out the first time and only passes the test after consulting with Marcus.

This is the central flaw in the show’s premise: Ed may not actually be reading the manual, but several times throughout the first two episodes, he is forced to consult with Marcus in order to complete a task. So he’s not really relying on his hard-won know-how, is he? He’s more like the high school bully who gets the nerd to do his homework for him. His whole shtick is that reading the instructions is an affront to manhood (his go-to insult for Marcus is “That’s why you’re still single,” which is a zinger that never gets old), but he does nothing to prove that he doesn’t need them. What I’m getting at is that Ed is basically an anthropomorphic testicle.

Anyway, Ed and Marcus are able to complete the aileron rolls and vertical loops in their stunt planes. It’s worth pointing out, however, that both planes have actual pilots in them to perform the takeoffs and landings and, presumably, to take over the controls in case the hosts really screw up their stunts. In the second episode, however, Ed and Marcus appear to be put in charge of an entire switching yard (actually the Orange Empire Railway Museum) in order to assemble a train and drive it into town. At this point in television history, we’re probably well past any need for the “How much reality is real?” discussion, but this particular task seems egregiously artificial, especially when Marcus accidentally unleashes the caboose and Ed has to chase it down before it plows into the orphanage (or something like that).

I suppose there’s a chance some viewers will find the heavily scripted and highly stilted banter between Ed and Marcus endearing, and the stunts themselves are at least mildly diverting. But honestly, there are so many shows of this ilk cluttering the schedule these days that you’d really have to be starved for entertainment to give this one more than a passing glance.

Stray observations:

  • I identified with the crusty old guys running the railway museum, who had little if any patience for this nonsense.
  • Is there really an owner's manual for a diesel locomotive? I mean, I assume there must be some sort of operating instructions, but how many people actually own such a thing?