Last month, two new reality competition shows premiered on TV focused around the idea of mental and physical strength. On paper, they seemed like they would be right up my alley.
“American Grit” on Fox, hosted by WWE superstar John Cena, takes four teams into the wintery wilderness to face a variety of military-grade and survival-themed challenges.
Each team is led by a decorated veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces representing respectively the Army, Navy, Marines and Seals.
The contestants meet the requisite mix of cliches that you would find on “Survivor” (i.e. the quiet but manly lumberjack, the huge but sensitive body builder, the glamorous but tomboy equestrian).
However, each has a story of adversity that they have overcome and a deep desire to prove their mental fortitude.
Every week they compete in an ‘Evolution’ – a lengthy challenge in which the winning team is safe from elimination.
For example, in the first week the teams had to carry a huge log through multiple obstacles for over 3 miles.
The military advisors/coaches of the losing teams must pick one team member to send to the ‘Circus’ – an obstacle course that ends with an endurance challenge.
The endurance challenge goes as long as it takes for someone to finally give up and ring out – they use a bell similar to the Navy Seals.
In the second episode, contestants had to do 10 burpees and then submerge themselves in ice cold water.
This was repeated over and over until one contestant actually fainted. The teams over the duration of the series will slowly whittle down until only one team remains and its members will split a $1,000,000 prize.
‘Strong’ on NBC, hosted by American professional volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, features 10 females contestants all looking to get in shape and get strong.
They are each paired with a personal trainer whose backgrounds range from boxing to MMA to CrossFit to Cirque du Soleil.
In addition to their daily one-on-one training, the pairs compete together to save themselves from elimination.
Then there is a second challenge in which the winning pair gets to decide who will face the other team in the elimination round.
Finally, there is a 4-story elimination tower that the two pairs must race through trying to finish first to stay in the competition. The winning pair will split a $500,000 prize.
The challenges have ranged from sprints to bar hangs to bench press. They are not easy and are reminiscent of metcons that you would find in a CrossFit class.
At the end of each episode, they show the transformation of the eliminated contestant and they have all been amazing.
More importantly, rather than focus on pounds lost, they show metrics centered around the increase in muscle mass and decrease in body fat percentage.
So where do these shows go wrong? In both instances these are reality shows and so drama reigns. More time is always given to the bickering and the strategy.
For me, that often is tiresome. I’d rather see on ‘Strong’ more explanation of the training methods used.
Plus, they make no mention of nutrition, though one has to assume the contestants are following some plan to complement all the exercise.
‘American Grit’ is less concerned with the drama, but perhaps that is because the veterans that are coaching each team get to make the calls and John Cena has little tolerance for contestants who are disrespectful or whiny.
So where do they go right? When the contestants reveal their motivation and tell their stories of adversity, the shows both soar.
It is hard not to start rooting for them when you hear, for instance, how one contestant on ‘American Grit’ broke both her hands and had to have her father feed, clothe and bathe her for two years.
Or of the contestant on ‘Strong’ whose life unraveled when she found out that her husband was cheating on her.
Of course the contestants want to win the money, but most also are searching for that inner strength that has been buried deep inside.
They want to be healthier both mentally and physically, and part of that journey, if it is on a trivial reality show, is to force themselves to dig deep and go beyond their normal day-to-day.
They aren’t just watching, they are doing. And some of them needed a trainer or a coach, like a hard-ass former Marine, to tell them that they can do it and they believe in them.
I understand that need. I have a had a charmed life in the scheme of things and so I’m looking to become stronger, to face fears and push my limits.
But I also rely on my coaches to make me uncomfortable, telling me to get back on the bar, do another pull-up or to keep going.
‘Strong’ sometimes feels a bit too formulaic, but there are moments of vulnerability that keep me interested in seeing these women succeed.
‘American Grit’ applied reality show casting 101 to start but when you submerge yourself in ice water or carrying a log for 3-miles, all the noise of these loud personalities are quickly drowned out by the realization that shit just got real.
Plus, they get just a brief glimpse as to the training that are Armed Forces go through before they even start facing the evils of this world.
I’ll be tuning into both each week.