Top Shot

The History Channel’s foray into the competitive reality genre, Top Shot, hews so closely to the Survivor template, it even pilfered its host from the cast of its venerable predecessor. (That would be Colby Donaldson, dominator of Survivor: The Australian Outback and sad-sack shadow of his former self on the All-Stars and Heroes vs. Villains seasons, but more about him later.) Sixteen contestants are divided into two teams and pitted against each other in group challenges, after which the losing team is forced to eliminate one member. Eventually, the teams merge, and the contests are between individuals, until only one remains to claim the title of “Top Shot” and the $100,000 prize. (No, I didn’t misplace a decimal there. Come on, people, this is basic cable!)

There are differences, of course. Because Top Shot is a marksmanship competition, all of the challenges involve firearms or other weapons. (Last week’s “primitive weapons” episode featured tomahawks and blowguns.) And because the people who tend to be attracted to marksmanship competitions are, generally speaking, thick-necked white men with military haircuts, the contestant pool is not quite as diverse as on other reality shows. This season (Top Shot’s second) did include two female contestants at the outset, but they’ve both long since been eliminated. Among the remaining contenders, only Jay Lim, a golf instructor with only a year of amateur shooting experience under his belt, deviates from the template. Aside from boyish skeet shooter Kyle Frasure, the rest are ex-military, ex-law enforcement, or both.

As tonight’s episode begins, nine contestants remain: five on the Red Team, four on the Blue Team. The team challenge involves trick shooting with three different handguns, the introduction of which sets up the show’s 30 seconds worth of actual “history” content, as Colby reads a sentence or two from the Wikipedia entry on the Ruger Security Six .357 Magnum or what-have-you. The challenge is a fun one and seems crazy impossible. The first shooter must hit a mounted axe so precisely that the bullet splits in half and pops balloons on either side of the blade.  The second shooter aims for corncob pipes protruding from mannequin mouths, and the third and fourth marksmen are shooting double-fisted, John Woo-style, trying to hit matching colored plates.

As it turns out, these trick shots may be a little too tricky for Top Shot, as half the contestants fail to hit anything at all. Blue Team member Daryl Parker does manage to pull off the split-bullet trick, which impressed me since I’ve only ever seen it done in comic books. But when Red Teamer Joe Sarafini goes three for three on the corncob pipe portion, the Blue Team is unable to recover. They are forced to return to the Nomination Range, where each member shoots at a target marked with one of his teammates’ names. The top two vote-getters, in this case the aforementioned Kyle Frasure and Air Force Special Ops veteran Ashley Spurlin, must compete in an elimination challenge. Strapped to a giant wheel and spun by Colby until dizzy and upside-down, they must each shoot at a row of six bottles. Kyle performs admirably, hitting five out of six, but Ashley prevails with a perfect score.

This episode was slightly atypical, in that the team challenge took up more time than usual, so there wasn’t much in the way of testosterone-fueled interpersonal conflict at all. George Reinas, a charismatic hulk with a douchey streak, is usually good for stirring things up a bit, but everyone was on their best behavior this week—and since most of these guys are personality-deprived to begin with, that doesn’t make for much drama. Still, Top Shot’s chief strength is its challenges, which actually require considerable skill and are presented with plenty of visual flair, all colorful targets shattering in ultra-super-mega-slomo. (In this week’s elimination challenge, you could practically count the pieces of broken bottle as the bullets sent them scattering to the winds.)

In short, if you’re a fan of the competition reality format, you might want to drop in on Top Shot. You don’t have to be a gun nut to enjoy it, although I can certainly understand those who are strongly anti-gun deciding to give this one a pass on the grounds that it glorifies weaponry. I’m no card-carrying NRA member myself, but I think it’s pretty clear that the show is all about feats of skill and precision, not bloody mayhem. Unless, of course, the season finale involves setting the last few contestants loose on each other with Uzis.

Stray observations:

  • So how is Colby as a host? Well, it seems clear that while he was moping around the beach on his last season of Survivor, he was carefully studying the Probstian technique.  Much of his phrasing and in-challenge narration is straight out of Probst 101, but the Colbster does have a folksy Marlboro Man quality that’s perfectly suited to this particular milieu. He needs to work on his voice-overs, however, as his delivery is a bit too strained and constipated-sounding.
  • Top Shot does one thing I absolutely can’t stand: the “Coming up!” previews before every single commercial break. I’m already watching the show! Don’t give away what I’m about to see in two freakin’ minutes!
  • I don’t have a really strong rooting interest in this show, but if I had to pick, I’d probably go with Jamie Franks, the rescue swimmer who won’t tell anyone what he does in the Navy. Just because it would make George’s giant head explode.
  • So... anyone else watch this show?
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