Splash 

I mean, where to fucking begin? If Splash were the only reality show this calendar year to feature D-list celebrities and athletes from other sports participating in a diving competition months after any residual interest gained during the 2012 Olympics Games, it would still be one odd show. But it’s actually the second one, taking the silver medal to FOX’s Stars In Danger: The High Dive, which aired two months ago. One is an anomaly. Two is a trend. And that trend is “we’ve all collectively lost our shit”.

Without any real insight into the inner workings of network programming, I can’t claim the following hypothesis with any semblance of certainty. But it’s tempting to look at this one-two punch of poorly attempted swan dives and ludicrously executed backflips as the byproduct of a situation not unlike the one in the 1983 film Trading Places. In that film, two rich brothers (Mortimer and Randolph Duke), both commodities brokers, make a $1 wager that makes other people their unwitting pawns in a struggle none but the brothers understand. But unlike the Duke brothers, I don’t think any executive involved in greenlighting a show about celebrity motherfrakkin’ diving did it for pleasure. At least FOX had the good sense to make their iteration a one-and-done deal. But ABC is going above and beyond the call of diving duty in bringing us not a special, but an entire series based on the premise that people want to see Chelsea Handler’s sidekick in a Speedo.

So the question becomes not just, “Is this any good?” (spoiler alert: it’s pretty much the worst), but “Why on earth does this possible have a reason to exist in the first place?” The landscape is currently littered with plenty of excruciating reality shows that sit along side those with actual merit. Whether or not a certain show falls under either category is up to the individual viewer (one viewer’s Duck Dynasty is another viewer’s Black Ink Crew is another viewer’s House Hunters International). But the idea of celebrities doing something (ok, anything) to keep in the public eye is part of the culture, has been for some time, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Putting aside the fact that it might not be the best use of everyone’s time to put fading celebrities on something like All-Star Celebrity Apprentice, Splash still represents a breathtaking amount of cynicism on all sides. My question is this: Who do the executives think less of at this point, those participating in a chlorine-smelling pile of shit or those watching?

Because either way, Splash isn’t a television program but a televised dare. If the executives are aiming their Duke-esque eyes at Hollywood’s increasing desperate pool (pun intended) of talent, they are saying, “Look, no matter how humiliating the scenario, you keep signing up for these shows. We keep trying to lower the bar, and you keep limboing underneath it. We honestly thought you would hear about a diving competition from your agent, realize that enough is enough, and maybe look into getting your real estate license. Instead, you said yes, and we’re producing a series to call you on your bluff, you egomaniacal crazy bastards. We’re not going to bury this program and hope no one notices. We’re going to advertise the hell of it, and turn your foibles into snuff-film levels of suffering.”

And if the executives are trying to cast aspersions on those at home? Let’s try out what that might sound like. “To quote Maximus in Gladiator, ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED? We know these spray-tanned fame whores can’t resist the spotlight. But you? We thought you knew better! We give you quality programming and you refuse to watch it. But just wait: The numbers for this show probably won’t be good, but will end up being tolerable. Couple that with its relatively low overhead (seriously, Nicole Eggert even cleaned the pool after we told her it would make a great DVD extra), and we’re going to have no choice but to cancel an on-the-bubble critical darling and instead produce more bullshit like this. Absolutely no one likes diving! That’s why we picked it! But you’re still watching! So now we’ll have to find even more bizarre, hopefully less entertainment-friendly concepts in order to save you from yourselves. However, knowing you as well as we do, we’re guessing Celebrity Pointillism will do inexplicably well in the key demo. Fuck. You. All.”

As for the actual content of the show: Well, it simultaneously felt as if it was rushing through every single moment while also feeling longer than the Peter Jackson director’s cut of Splash. Only five contestants were highlighted in this initial episode, but we never got anything in terms of camaraderie, motivation, or the sense that anything existed in anyone’s lives before the start of the show’s six-week training session. Yes, in some ways, the motivation is clear (to stay in the spotlight for the briefest of moments), but any attempt to hide that fact wouldn’t have gone amiss. Katherine Webb, most famous for being ogled by Brent Musburger on national television during the 2013 BCS Championship Bowl game, at least got to say that she joined the show to demonstrate that she was more than a pretty face. That’s a bullshit reason, but at least she offered a reason. That’s as close as the program got to anything related to illuminating psychology.

Psychology isn’t the point here, but that’s not to say it couldn’t have been. A show like Splash doesn’t have to do any particular set of things in order to succeed, but it should at least do SOMETHING to justify its inane existence. Copying ABC’s Wipeout and just making this a series of painful bloopers would have been the easiest way to go, and while that’s an easy choice, at least it’s a goddamn choice. And it’s a choice that could have at least given the show a sense of identity. Instead, the show decided to saw off every edge, reduce each contestant to a series of boilerplate lines and a few practice dives. After that, they stood in-studio atop the chosen platform to think long and hard about their life choices while a studio audience of AT LEAST 30 people below anxiously waited for them to bellyflop. Later, rinse, repeat.

Speaking of lathering and rinsing, I expected that I would need a shower after watching this. Quite honestly, that would be giving the show too much credit, as there wasn’t anything truly offensive about it. It simply existed, albeit barely. Without any type of intra-celebrity squabble, you couldn’t really root for anyone to come out on top. Because none of these people really have much in the way of diving skill, having two authentic members of the diving world there to judge them felt like cruel and unnecessary punishment. Allowing the audience to have equal sway in the judging sent the entire proceedings into anarchy, ultimately making diving itself utterly besides the point.

And again: That would be fine if this were a show about bitchy people bitching from 33 feet in the air. But in a show as drama- and strategy-free as this one, the diving itself is left as the single selling point. As such, the only interesting thing at all in this hour was Louie Anderson, an overweight comic who was the only one that acted like he knew how reality shows work and what it takes to stay on them for as many episodes as possible. When he dedicated his first dive “to the troops,” I thought he was actually mocking celebrities that take competitions like this so seriously. But no, the joke was on me, because he was absolutely serious about his dedication. Do I believe his father really served in the military? Absolutely! Do I think either his dedication or “sudden” decision to go up a level to a height he had never before attempted was off-the-cuff? Of course not! But he’s also going into the next round, and I bet will go quite far in this competition based on pure gamesmanship alone.

Will any of that matter? Of course not, since Splash is so incompetent that it didn’t have the sense to actually state what the prize is for winning the competition. (Money? A trophy? Did they think they had signed on for a remake of the Tom Hanks/Daryl Hannah comedy classic? We’ll never know.) As such, I found myself focused on other questions, like, “Is co-host Joey Lawrence trying to Single White Female Nicholas Brody from Homeland? What’s up with that hair, man?” No one expected Splash to be anything other than utterly superfluous, but it doesn’t even have minimal stakes within the world the show has established. Even on a show like The Bachelor, the stakes are ridiculous, but they are also immediately and intuitively understood by both sides. Splash doesn’t have the track record of The Bachelor, but that makes introductory episodes such as this all the more important as both educational tools as well as celebrity blooper reels. The audience at home doesn’t know much about diving, and probably knows even less about Rory Bushfield. Doing even the barest amount to make either more compelling might have earned those few, those unhappy few tuning in tonight to return next week to see the remaining contestants make their first dives. But that was apparently asking too much.

Stray observations:

  • Splash and Smash on the same nights, everyone. Never let critics tell you the Golden Age of Television is in its dying days.
  • God forbid the show use the metric system to determine the heights of the boards. I mean, I know we’re doing this show FOR THE TROOPS, but every diving competition uses the metric system, which makes it strange to see the 10-meter board listed as “33 Feet”.
  • Every time Lawrence referred to a “falling star,” I winced at the irony.
  • Can we talk about those entrance themes, you guys? On one end of the spectrum, there are the entrance themes for the WWE. On the other end, there are the entrance themes for Splash. Sweet fuck, who wrote these aural offenses? I need to know, so we can ensure he or she never makes music again. If I were John Connor, I would program a Terminator and send it back in time, so I never had to hear someone sing, “Damn girl/Rudy’s all grown up!”
  • I felt bad for judges David Boudia and Steve Foley. Neither acquitted themselves very well, with Boudia’s overly-specific feedback falling on deaf ears and Foley doing his damnedest to be the Simon Cowell of the proceedings. But still, it has to suck to see a sport you love tarnished all in the name of cheap primetime programming.
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