Destroy Build Destroy airs at 8:30 p.m. Eastern tonight on Cartoon Network.
This is going to date me pretty badly, but bear with me: When I was in middle school, the popularity of reality TV and game shows had reached a new crest. Competition shows that combined elements of the two, like Survivor and The Mole, were wildly popular, as were somewhat more traditional game shows, like the American versions of The Missing Link and Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Interactivity and/or physical competitions were key parts of all four shows, all of which were designed to encourage the lay viewer to feel like he or she could compete too. The games in these shows further distanced themselves from older game show staples like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune by introducing psychological elements to them, like when Regis Philbin pestered his contestants by asking “Are you feeling confident?” or when Anne Robinson mocked her show’s competitors.
Destroy Build Destroy brings back weirdly fond memories from my recent youth of amiably cheesy canned game show melodramas. For instance, contestants on Destroy Build Destroy have to immediately pre-sell themselves using adversarial group identities that are defined by being arbitrarily and supposedly inherently opposed to another group. For example, this week’s competition is between “Speed Freaks” (not the drug, sadly) and “Chillaxers,” and next week’s pits “A-Gamers” (ie: jocks) against the “Straight A’s” (ie: nerds).
Funnily enough, last week’s episode, where California Valley Girls faced off against New Jersey pre-teens of the same age, is the only episode of Destroy Build Destroy’s fourth batch of episodes thus far to feature an almost natural conflict between its two teams of contestants. It’s also the one that most frequently rubs that central difference in viewers’ faces with hilariously tacky stereotypes, like when the Jersey Boys yell “Fughbedaboutit” twice, while the Valley Girls say things like “like,” and “dude" and “totally” to excess. Tonight’s episode of Destroy Build Destroy is, thankfully, better than last week’s episode, and next week’s episode is even better than tonight’s, because in that short span of time, the show gets progressively looser and less strident in its attempts to script every moment into a confrontation.
Destroy Build Destroy is basically Battle Bots re-imagined as a reality competition show, like Iron Chef—but for kids. Musician (and one of the owners of Santos Party House) Andrew W.K. walks two teams of contestants through various competitions that are all expressly designed to appeal to pre-teen and arrested adolescent boys/men. First, the two teams choose one of three methods of destroying a working motor vehicle, usually a van or a pick-up truck. One method of destruction always involves explosives, while another typically involves “The Destroyers,” a team of construction workers that use sledgehammers to, well, destroy the vehicle in question.
Then both teams are tasked with designing a new vehicle using stick figure blueprints that they design on the spot. The Destroyers work with them to build this vehicle. The new vehicle is then used to win another competition. The winning team of that final competition gets $3,000 and the chance to blow up the losers’ makeshift vehicle. Since the design phase is the most practical and the least dramatic part of the show, it never takes up too much of the show’s runtime. This isn’t Project Runway, after all, so drama during the designer phase is almost always non-existent.
Instead, the show focuses on contests and explosions, like the weekly Setback Challenge, a competition designed to give one team at least 15 minutes more time to build their new vehicle. Tonight’s Setback Challenge of “Wobbly Dodgeball” is fairly tame: Two teams play a lightning round of dodgeball while standing on shaky foam platforms floating in a big outdoor pool. Next week’s episode has a more appreciably bizarre premise: Two teams use metal detectors to uncover buried hammers that they then use to destroy old IMac computer monitors. The team with the most destroyed monitors wins. The catch to this competition is that other metal objects are buried in the dirt along with the hammers. Wait, wait! There’s more: If a team digs up a crown or a necklace and not hammers, they have to wear or carry around that item while they search for more hammers. Destroy Build Destroy is at its best when it's reliant on contests with rules that are as arbitrary as next week’s “Hack Attack” (because they’re computer monitors, remember?).
By contrast, the most pointless plot device that the show employs is confessional talking head interview segments. These sequences force pre-teen boys to explain what they were thinking while they ran around building or destroying things. The very idea of plumbing the inherently shallow depths of these boys’ (and sometimes girls!) psyches can admittedly be unintentionally funny sometimes, like when one of tonight’s Chillaxers boasts, “Before they showed me their equipment, I was worried. Now I’m chill!”
But still, the psychologically enriching parts of Destroy Build Destroy that might have ostensibly made the show more engaging don’t really accomplish what they’re supposed to. This is a show for and starring boys with raging hormones. It was designed to cater to the mythical savage but innocent pre-teen male boy that the show's nostalgic creators undoubtedly consider to be their target audience. Boys love running around and breaking stuff, so why not create a show based around that premise? Then again, if that’s the case, why have them tell me what they’re thinking while they're breaking said stuff?
The most enjoyable aspect of the reality competition show that Destroy Build Destroy retains is the affably ridiculous catcalls that the teams regularly lob at each other. My favorite putdown so far is when one of tonight’s Speed Demon contestants wonders aloud, “I don’t even know what a chillaxer is.” These manufactured confrontations definitely suit the contestants' age range, even if the kids never egg each other on as much as they might in real life (I kept waiting in vain for an innocent four letter word or two to drop during the show’s final competitions). Hearing kids taunt each other doesn’t necessarily make Destroy Build Destroy good. But it is a welcome sign that sometimes catering to the lowest common denominator is all in good fun.