Stars Earn Stripes

Stars Earn Stripes debuts tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern on NBC.

Let’s make one thing abundantly clear: Stars Earn Stripes is a walking advertisement for the military in the guise of a competition show.  Once you strip away the lethargic, laborious structure and the silly green-screen Mission Control set cutaways, there are some thrilling moments buried in these two hours, but it’s a chest-thumping patriotic explosion extravaganza, designed to put somewhat famous faces alongside those of soldiers to raise awareness for veterans’ charities while at the same time boosting some brand tie-ins for sponsoring a show focused on recognizing the sacrifice of military service. Words like “respect” and “honor” and “service” get bandied about so much they start to lose their meaning. 

The show features an extremely obvious undercurrent of brands trying to associate themselves with military service and veteran’s charities, not just as a means of giving back but getting a profit boost thanks to the visual association. There’s a comically glitzy Mission Control set sponsored by identity-theft protection company LifeLock; the contestants get driven around in a fleet of Ford pickups; and they’re all wearing UnderArmor gear during training—with logos featured prominently. That’s an ethically dubious setup.

The basic idea of Stars Earn Stripes is to pair each of the eight celebrity competitors—each representing a different veteran or first-responder charity—with a member of the armed forces, active or retired, and have them go through simulated missions, with the slowest pair competing in a head-to-head event with elimination on the line. There is a way to do a show like this in a concise, entertaining, punchy way, but that’s just not how reality competition works. Instead, there are tons of commercial breaks, lots of time wasting, and a back-loaded two hours where all of the excitement is delayed for lengthy exposition when summary would suffice.

Dean Cain makes a few jokes about playing action heroes in his career, but he’s really genuine about his desire to participate in the missions with real soldiers and the dangers of live ammunition even if it’s outside his comfort zone. Others, like Todd Palin or Terry Crews, are seemingly right in their wheelhouse. Laila Ali and WWE Divas Champion Eve Torres join Picabo Street to round out the cast with a diverse range of female cast members. Nick Lachey is clearly the most out of place, and it led me to wonder whether he was on contract with NBC after the network canceled The Sing Off and somehow convinced him to jump in for this show.

The introductions take forever—and are essentially useless, since the show spends so much time repeating everyone’s name. General Wesley Clark is the overarching leader, giving out analysis and firm handshakes to every military man. Former Dancing With The Stars co-host Samantha Harris is kind of a footnote as the on-the-ground host, but since Clark is pretty old, it makes sense to have someone else there. The first half-hour proceeds at a snail’s pace, with only a little bit of actual training sprinkled throughout a lot of talking-head interviews and staged conversations.

Dean Cain’s enthusiasm at being paired with Chris Kyle—apparently a legendarily prolific sniper—is at first kind of endearing, but thinking about those implications is immediately troubling. This is a guy who cites over 160 confirmed kills and claims more than 250. That’s a lot of people, and he’s tossing that information out on television. Cain has read the guy’s book, so he’s kind of thrilled, but it’s one thing to want to show how thankful you are for Kyle’s service, and quite another to sound awestruck instead of contemplative about a real kill count. Something that serious deserves a bit more nuance, instead of congratulatory moments that treat it like a video game score or sports record.

Perhaps the most controversial figure on the show is Todd Palin, who’s a figure of ridicule to some and a symbol of The Common Man to others. Stars Earn Stripes gets a bit too coy, calling Palin a four-time Iron Dog champion, when he’s obviously better known for being Sarah Palin’s kind of goofy husband. It’s nice to highlight his accomplishments though, and it’s a good introduction to how adept he is with both the physical nature of the tasks at hand and how comfortable he is with a weapon.

Stars Earn Stripes is some thinly veiled back-patting propaganda, but it does have a few compelling personal touches and exiting moments. The branding is obnoxious, the structure is familiar and kills the pace, but there is merit to praising the individuals who give their lives for our safety. At times the show leans too heavily on platitudes and tear-jerking, but there are genuine thrills to be had watching someone like Picabo Street fire a grenade launcher and blow some shit up. If nothing else, watching some highlight videos or DVR-ing Stars Earn Stripes just to fast-forward through to the exciting parts is a viable viewing option.

Stray observations:

  • In the mission preamble, General Clark says something like “nothing goes the way it’s supposed to,” and in telling fashion, every single soldier nods their head in silent agreement.
  • A lot of the charities mentioned during the hour are great and provide important services for veterans, and I would encourage anyone interested to seek them out. Each celebrity gets to name their charity two or three times, so they’re not hard to find.
  • There is a bit of controversy surrounding the show, since Jack Osbourne was removed from the cast two days after revealing his multiple sclerosis diagnosis, which led Sharon Osbourne to leave America’s Got Talent. The producers say that they were only in negotiations with Jack and he was never officially a cast member. That doesn’t weigh on the show in any way, but it does merit a note.
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