The Games

Friday, September 12, 2003 by

Who wants to read another word on the glut of reality TV shows currently stinking up the schedules? Yet, how can you write a review on a reality show without dipping a toe into the now stagnant waters of this debate? There are those who claim that the days of reality television are numbered, and that their influence is on the wane. This is of course pure guff.

The return of The Salon (never really in the premier league of reality shows) surely puts pay to that myth. Quite simply, reality TV is too useful a television format to be sidelined by channel controllers, particularly those who are tasked with filling the schedules of spin-off digital stations. Not only does the traditional stripping of reality TV formats across consecutive week nights fill almighty holes in the schedules of Channel 4 and ITV1, but the live feeds and complimentary programmes broadcast on BBC3, ITV2 and E4 provide legitimate opportunities for cross-channel promotion as well hours and hours of footage that requires no post-production prior to making it to our screens.

One senses that Channel 4 felt they found the tiniest of gaps in the market in bringing us The Games (well pop music and acting have been done which leaves sport as the next most aspirational pursuit), and were keen to capitalise on it. The series both adhered to, and departed from, the established template of reality shows. First of all the familiar stuff: stripping the show over consecutive nights (with three programmes per evening), drawing together 10 primarily C-list celebs (equal number of male to female, good diversity of age range and social background), containing the celebs within a purpose built compound cut off from their loved-ones – all of these things were familiar to us. However, not providing a live feed on E4, or indeed a spin-off programme of any kind was a departure of sorts.

But enough of the format. Any true fan of reality TV knows that format counts for nothing if your contestants aren’t interesting enough, or the production not sharp enough to spot and broadcast developing storylines. Here The Games excelled. The developing relationship between Harvey and James Hewitt was the centre-point of the off track narrative, and was pretty entertaining for all that. Similarly Bobby Davro, these days best known as an artiste in a perpetual crisis of confidence, was allowed to carry his Entertainers‘ character arc on into this programme (“Daddy’s a winner” he yelled as he managed finally not to fail to get a curling stone somewhere within the vicinity of the target). However, not all of the characterisation was as entertaining or interesting. Miss World remained resolutely just that throughout the week-long broadcasts, with the programme makers seemingly unwilling to let her forge a personality of her own. Indeed one imagines that her winning medal is actually inscribed to “Miss World” so determined were the production team to keep her in her box.

Yet, even this didn’t matter, as The Games worked best when the reality TV stylings were subjugated in favour of a traditional sports broadcast. All sport makes for enthralling telly, just so long as the viewers are given good enough reason to root for one team over the other. Here then The Games soap-opera back-story really came good. One of The Games‘ weaknesses was always going to be the total irrelevance of the sporting activities, yet by pounding us with footage of the emotional and physical investment that each of the celebrities had made in the training (particularly Teri Dwyer who tragically found her training period uninterrupted by any other work commitments) we were given a sense of the personal gain or loss that faced each competitor when they lined up at the start of every event.

The presentation of the sports was played entirely straight, with proper commentators, instant replays and all the other artifices that make up modern day sports broadcasting. The events weren’t always genuinely thrilling (although Harvey’s demolition at the long jump was quite superb), but there was always some kind of talking point (be it Bobby’s belly flop or Mel C’s judo injury) to keep the momentum going. The series was blessed too, by the fact that the men and women’s events both developed towards a satisfyingly close finale (although the men’s competition was certainly helped by the production team’s decision to keep Harvey’s strongest events to the end). Only the viewer interaction element lacked.

Here was The Games second major weakness. A reality TV show without some form of audience participation seems freakishly unnatural (Big Brother USA is a curiously insular and incessant experience for us in the UK as a result), and although viewers of The Games were provided with a telephone number for each contestant, they had no real way to influence the outcome of the events. Including the viewer’s nominations for first and last place at the start of each race seemed irrelevant and also counter intuitive to the rest of the programme. Perhaps if The Games returns, a better use of audience interactivity will be found.


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