There’s a new reality show in town, and it’s louder than the other ones. From the time the 16 recruits in Fox’s “Boot Camp” get off the bus, four bulky drill instructors start the screaming, and the first episode of this new skein provides an adrenaline-injected hour of everyday folk dealing with the abuse. Other than this unique, militaristic element, “Boot Camp” is a ripoff of “Survivor,” borrowing everything from its look to its rules. And guess what? Like its antecedent, it works as a guilty pleasure and will draw plenty of eyeballs during its eight-week run, perhaps even challenging the super-classy “West Wing” for demographic dominance on TV’s most competitive night.
The drill instructors, three male and one female (some still active in the Marine Corps), act as hosts and provocateurs, a mix between “Survivor’s” Jeff Probst and the American Gladiators. This approach offers some surprising moments of humor as they scream their way through the “processing” of the recruits. They manage to keep a straight face as one recruit, a balloon sculptor, makes a balloon poodle for them. Drill Instructor McSweeney promptly bites its head off. This isn’t exactly television at its finest, but these marines sure know how to play to the camera.
The rules of the game come straight from “Survivor.” Each episode, the recruits will engage in a “mission.” If they succeed, the person who has lead them to glory will receive “amnesty,” a very nice synonym for “immunity.” The group will then ascend to a scenic promontory to vote off one of their own.
There’s a smart twist added here: The “dismissed recruit” will then choose another member to be “discharged.” This will speed up the awarding of the half-million dollar prize. It will also alter the players’ strategies, although we don’t get a taste of that in episode one because recruit Jane Katherine barely makes it to the first commercial break before calling it quits.
The others are more resilient and willing to play along. Mark Meyer, a snowboarding instructor from Seattle working on his master’s degree in urban planning, distinguishes himself early on as the man audiences will love to hate, refusing to take the drill instructors seriously and faking a crying fit to generate sympathy from the women.
From the start, a rift develops between the macho guys and the gals, with the distaff side winning out in the first voting, kicking off the bossy John Park, an art teacher from West Hollywood. The last shot shows him standing all alone at stiff attention, an image both of defeat and dignity, as if his participation in this military game has ennobled him. Whatever. Other than Park and Meyer, the main person to emerge early on is overweight pig farmer Rebecca Ann Haar, who finds triumph in completing a mile-and-a-half run.
Director Scott Messick provides a very strong pace, and doesn’t hesitate for a moment to borrow shamelessly the “Survivor” style of atmospherics, from the northern Florida beach encampment, shots of alligators and other wildlife to the direct-to-the-camera strategic revelations from the recruits. The only real difference seems to be that we see the participants’ last names instead of their first during the opening credits. After all, why mess with a good thing? “Survivor” works, so steal it. Just pump up the volume and speed up the result. As imitations go, “Boot Camp” is a good one, and the show demonstrates that the reality genre fad hasn’t yet outworn its welcome.