Saturday, June 27, 2009

This Is Not Your Parents' "The Superstars" on ABC, But It's Not Bad, Either

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

The logos on the participants' shirts are the same. As is the name of the show. And there are athletic competitions. After that, I'm pretty much out of similarities between the new version of "The Superstars" (ABC, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. Eastern) and the original. I'm not saying the new one is bad. It's just not the same.

I guess a little history lesson is in order for readers under the age of 35. In its first (and classic) incarnation, "The Superstars" ran on weekend afternoons on ABC from 1973 to 1984. The show took athletes and pit them against each other in different competitions (there were 10 events, and each participant had to enter seven of them), like swimming, weightlifting, biking, bowling, running and the big finale, the obstacle course. (You can see the 1973 swimming competition here, which included boxing champion Joe Frazier hardly able to make it across the pool.) The top performers in each episode would come back to compete to determine that year's winner. The "Superstars" title went to athletes like soccer player Kyle Rote Jr., track and field competitors Bob Seagren and Tom Petranoff, and football players Greg Pruitt, Charles White and a pre-life-of-crime O.J. Simpson. Hosted by Jim McKay (and other legitimate sports announcers), ABC approached the show as a real sports competition, but with a lighter touch.

As I watched the reboot of "The Superstars," it occurred to me that this wasn't really a remake, but more of a new program combining elements of "The Superstars," "Battle of the Network Stars" and "The Amazing Race." In the new "Superstars," eight male-female teams, made up of one celebrity and one athlete, compete against each other, with one team being eliminated each week. Unlike the original show, which featured ten events, the teams engage in only two competitions (in the first episode, a combination bicycle/running race and a kayak race). The bottom four teams are forced to race in the obstacle course, with the losing team sent home.

In the intro to the first episode, host Jon Saunders, a respected ESPN anchor who hosts "The Sports Reporters" on the network, sets the tone for the program, promising "challenging" and "mind-bending" events (not so much) featuring celebrities trying to "take down the greatest athletes of our time" (not really). Since athletes make far more money today than they did in the 1970s, most contracts preclude them from engaging in rigorous activities in the off-season (the Yankees were famously able to trade for Alex Rodriguez when they voided Aaron Boone's contract after he got hurt playing basketball). So it's not surprising that many of the athletes in "The Superstars" are retired or near retirement (tennis pro Jennifer Capriati, basketball players Lisa Leslie and Robert "Big Shot Bob" Horry, baseball infielder Jeff Kent, and soccer gold medalist Brandi Chastain). The remaining three professional athletes include an at-the-time free agent (football player Terrell "T.O." Owens) and two fringe sport competitors (alpine skier Bode Miller and freeskier Kristi Leskinen). So thanks to the changing realities of the sports world, the caliber of athlete in the new "Superstars" pales in comparison to that of the old one.

And the celebrities are not exactly of the A-list variety, either: model Joanna Krupa (paired with Owens), actress Ali Landry (Kent), actress Estelle Warren (Horry), "Extreme Home Makeover" designer Paige Hemmis (Miller), dancer Maksim Chmerkovskiy (Leskinen), actor Dan Cortese (Leslie), actor and reality show participant David Charvet (Capriati), and singer Julio Igleisas Jr. (Chastain). The word "celebrity" is obviously used very loosely here.

That's not to say the competitions weren't difficult. I liked how the first race, in which both teams had to travel a long distance to and over a steep bridge and into the Atlantis Hotel compound (in Paradise Island, the Bahamas, where the show is filmed) but had only one bicycle to use, was not only a true athletic test (Miller was so wiped at the end he vomited, thankfully off-camera), but also a real brain teaser (half the battle was figuring out when each racer should run, and when he or she should bike). The second competition, a kayak race on the hotel's simulated white-river course, was less difficult (the waves weren't very rough), but it was no easy walk in the park, either, with competitors being accidentally struck with oars and more than a few ending up in the drink.

The final obstacle course was built up by Saunders and the competitors to be some epic test of strength and endurance, run at night with "American Gladiator"-style lighting for maximum effect. But it is essentially the same course used in the original show, with the added bonus that the wall to be scaled had wood slats for the racers to use to get over it (Rote and the other original competitors had no such help back in the day). The cargo nets provided problems for some of the competitors, with Leslie and Owens both getting stuck in the ropes (Leslie became so disoriented, she accidentally climbed the wrong way out and headed for a moment towards the start line), but the course didn't live up to the hype. Probably a good thing, though, since it would have been awful to try and turn the "Superstars" finale into "Wipeout."

Okay, so the new "Superstars" isn't the old "Superstars." That's clear. But is it entertaining? Somewhat. It definitely had its moments. By limiting the competition to two races (before the obstacle course elimination), we get to see the whole thing unfold, which is an improvement over the selected highlights approach used on the old version (for example, you almost never got to see more than a one-minute recap of the bowling).

There were also moments of insight by the competitors, the two best coming from Leskinen. After the running/bike race, she astutely pointed out that she trains for strength, not cardio, so the race was a grind for her ("my lungs are on fire"). Later, after her team's heat of the kayak race, she pointed out to a slightly down Chmerkovskiy that he did a great job because while she got to race against celebrities, he had to go against "pros."

And there were entertaining moments, too. After the running/bike race, a gassed Owens was asked how he would tackle the course differently if given another chance. "I would ride in a car," he deadpanned.

The much-talked-about highlight of the first episode was the mind-bogglingly poor behavior demonstrated by Owens's teammate, Krupa. She became incensed at Owens when he didn't do well in the kayak race, and when his foot became caught in the cargo net in the first heat of the obstacle course, she became downright apoplectic, dropping "F" bombs all over the place and questioning why Owens gets paid "a million dollars" (look, I know English isn't her first language, but she should be able to figure out that if Owens is on the show, he earns a lot more than "a" million dollars). She refused to slap hands with him as she came across the finish line, and generally demonstrated the behavior of the worst teammate in the history of team competitions.

Krupa didn't even soften up when she was the one responsible for losing the final elimination heat in the obstacle course, still railing against Owens after the race was over. There were hints that Krupa was reacting to Owens's stand-offish behavior over the course of the day (nobody will ever mistake Owens for a teddy bear), but here is a little hint for Krupa: If you behave so badly that you make Terrell Owens a sympathetic figure, you really are doing something wrong with your life. Owens spoke for all viewers during the team's "walk of shame" after elimination, saying in a matter-of-fact way, "I feel sorry for your boyfriend." How often does someone make that comment about a model and have everyone who hears it agree with him?

I'm a big fan of Saunders as a sports reporter, but it was hard to watch him try and be a hypemaster on this hybrid of athletics and celebrity reality. His co-host, retired football star Warren Sapp, is a better fit. His always-trying-to-have-fun, shoot-from-the-hip personality is a good fit for the show. (And it was very impressive to watch him move his huge, approximately 300-pound frame gracefully through a demonstration of the obstacle course, reminding viewers of what a great athlete he is.) Interviewer Jenn Brown is also a good fit for the program. She is energetic and looked like she was ready to jump in and compete with the athletes and celebrities (even dressing like she was racing in each event, like wearing a bathing suit to do interviews before and after the kayak heats).

I did enjoy "The Superstars," but it had too many wince-inducing moments. Landry repeatedly talked about what a great teammate Kent was, something that probably never happened to the notoriously surly ballplayer during his 17-year playing career. She tried to foster a rapport, constantly putting her arms around him, while he looked like he was using every ounce of strength to maintain a painted-on smile. The guys on the old show had fun, but they were also pretty serious about the competition. I liked that. That same trait comes off differently when it comes from the celebs. It sometimes felt false.

But most of all, the remake of "The Superstars," just like last year's reboot of "Password," demonstrates how television executives no longer trust in the concepts of the shows, seemingly believing that they need to amp everything up, both in execution (adding an elimination element to "The Superstars," making the prize a million dollars in "Password") and in tone (having Saunders over-hype the competition and difficulty of events, featuring a lot of women in bikinis in the preview of future episodes at the end of the show).

Part of me wishes ABC just let my memories of the old "Superstars" rest in peace. But without my baggage, the new "Superstars" is a perfectly pleasant summer reality diversion. Too bad Owens and Krupa are gone, though. She put on one hell of a show, even if she didn't know she was doing it.