Taking the promise of injury, heartbreak and exhaustion to bizarre extremes, USA’s “Eco-Challenge: Borneo” is a seductive “race” that keeps exec producer Mark Burnett perched atop the reality programming heap. Anyone with a pulse will be intrigued by this ridiculously overcooked yet fascinating test of physical and mental prowess, and its high energy four-night run is definitely a shot in the arm to the popular cabler. But its translation to TV isn’t as easy as it sounds: Too much intensity, too many teams and narration overkill are big drawbacks to a format that has finally hit critical mass thanks to “Survivor.”
Burnett created the world’s largest expedition adventure in 1992 — the first meet was held in Utah — and it has become a magnet for thrillseekers who can’t find enough pleasure in the usual iron-man contests or marathons. A popular international TV event since its inception, it finally hits U.S. airwaves at a time when nonfiction fare has become big business for the Big Four and at syndie swap meets. Previous bouts aired on MTV, ESPN and the Discovery Channel, but this one is the most elaborately staged and certainly the most hyped of the bunch.
Seventy-six co-ed foursomes representing 26 countries compete non-stop for 11 days (almost no sleep) through some of the most outrageous obstacle courses anyone could imagine.
Marching through dark, thick jungles without paths, paddling kayaks for miles against the tide and crossing rain forests filled with leeches and parasites is just some of the fun.
And it’s not all about the specific feats of strength — it’s the devastating effects on the body USA is happy to publicize: Press kit gladly stresses all of the head wounds, spinal injuries and malaria cases that its players endured.
As for the field, big favorites from New Zealand and Australia have the upper hand because they’ve done this before, and they never argue — it’s their built-in rule.
Others, primarily the Americans, aren’t as professional. First night’s climax comes when one U.S. crew is disqualified because two of their players forgot a map and end up swimming away from one of the many checkpoints (a no-no that leads to some great arguments). There is even a sex-sells quotient: one squad has three Playboy bunnies.
The quartets are interesting enough, but there isn’t much back story presented. Viewers surely don’t need the Olympics approach to storytelling — every athlete scrutinized ad nauseam — but the action would have meant more had it been balanced out by a few more anecdotes.
And the four-nights-in-a-row plan is also a problem. Trying to squeeze human drama and quick-cut editing into one week’s worth of highlights is a hard thing to do, and the execution is therefore overwhelming and rushed.
But what a whirlwind production this is. There isn’t anything on TV quite like this, and its danger isn’t at all manufactured. Nobody wins anything here, but everybody puts their lives in real jeopardy every single moment. It’s an astounding display.
Tech credits are tops. Russ Landau and David Vanacore’s tense music matches up well with a host of directors/editors who utilize nifty camerawork to showcase how difficult — and maybe insane — all of this really is.