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TV Review: ‘The Quest’

With:
Jan Hutter, Peter Windhofer, Susanne Gschwendtner, Marcello de Nardo, Florence Kasumba, Mai Duong Kieu, Stephanie Buddenbrock, Douglas Tait.

Quite possibly the nerdiest competition ever televised, “The Quest” constructs a full-fledged immersive fantasy world complete with ogres, dragons, dark forces and an imperiled Queen. It’s “Survivor” meets live-action role playing, as 12 contestants navigate physical competitions and a scripted mythology to vie for the title of One True Hero. The camp factor is off the charts, and auds will either buy into the conceit or they won’t, but it’s all presented with an admirably straight face. The weirdly endearing result feels relatively fresh enough to attract a following in the generally unimaginative realm of reality TV.

The mass appeal of “Game of Thrones,” “Harry Potter” and Peter Jackson’s ongoing Tolkien adaptations suggest hardcore fantasy isn’t just for social outcasts anymore, and “The Quest” casts a wide net with the 12 competitors. They range from predictably geeky — scrawny college student Jim, bullied horse aficionado Ashley — to the unexpectedly burly likes of personal trainer Andrew and mixed martial artist Shondo.

They’re all immediately whisked away for an epic adventure in the mystical kingdom of Everealm (actually an isolated and highly scenic location in Austria), where they’re dubbed Paladins, bunk up in a castle and discover the details of their noble quest. They must complete challenges to save the kingdom or face elimination one by one.

The true novelty here is the level of detail put into making Everealm feel like a real place. Instead of a traditional host explaining the various tasks and rules, the Paladins interact with actors playing roles in an ongoing story developed by Haxan Films partners Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sanchez (“The Blair Witch Project”), including the benevolent Queen Ralia (Susanne Gschwendtner), the shady Grand Vizier (Marcello de Nardo) and the kindly guide Crio (Jan Hutter).

There’s also a full array of magical creatures and otherworldly beings brought to life through a combination of animatronics, special effects and prosthetic makeup. It often seems as if the competitors are stranded inside the most elaborate Disneyland attraction of all time.

“The Quest” doesn’t entirely dodge the obvious potential for cheese, but the surprisingly impressive production values help keep things on the right side of ridiculous. As the co-creator of “The Amazing Race,” executive producer Bertram van Munster knows his way around classy reality competitions, and former New Line exec and “Lord of the Rings” executive producer Mark Ordesky adds an extra dash of fantasy genre cred.

Despite the medieval warrior wardrobe they’re asked to wear, the contestants are otherwise encouraged to react to everything as themselves, and the typical reality tropes — personality clashes, scheming and strategizing — inevitably come into play.

As one contestant admits, “I’ve always lived in this fantasy world in my head.” The goal of “The Quest” is to bring those daydreams to life in a landscape overloaded with generic talent competitions and culinary showdowns. While that may not exactly qualify as a noble pursuit, it’s a bold enough ambition to hope the fates are in their favor.

Popular on Variety

TV Review: 'The Quest'

(Series; ABC, Thur. July 31, 8 p.m.)

Production: Filmed in Austria by Profiles Television, CourtFive and Green Harbor Productions.

Crew: Executive producers, Bertram van Munster, Elise Doganieri, Mark Ordesky, Jane Fleming, Rob Eric, Michael Williams; co-executive producers, Mark Dziak, Shannon McGinn, Tiffany Faigus; director, van Munster, Jack Cannon, Doganieri; camera, Mark Kohl; production designer, Stuart Frossell; editors, Scott Winlaw, David Berenbaum; casting, Neal Konstantini, Lucky Englander, Fritz Fleischhacker. 60 MIN.

Cast: Jan Hutter, Peter Windhofer, Susanne Gschwendtner, Marcello de Nardo, Florence Kasumba, Mai Duong Kieu, Stephanie Buddenbrock, Douglas Tait.

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