I went through such a weird progression of emotions while watching NBC’s new drop-stars-into-outrageous-situations show Stars Earn Stripes: At first I thought I had absolutely nothing to say, then I started to warm to it over the course of its two-hour premiere, then I was actually rooting for this kind of show to succeed, and then I was completely disillusioned.
Let me start at the beginning. The premise of Stars Earn Stripes seems to be that you put a motley crew of, say, C-list celebs in basic training, overseen by members of the Green Beret, the Army, and the Navy. Then you put them in high-pressure situations with heavy armor and weapons stocked with live ammo, and see who can complete various combat scenarios the quickest. There are multiple benefits:
- Each of the eight contestants wants to nab the $100,000 prize for the charity of his/her choice
- Stars are people, and who wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to play soldier for a few weeks?
- The Green Beret, etc., groups get to a) raise awareness about our men and women actually fighting in real combat situations, and b) they gain more respect for these entertainers who’ve had it so easy in life
- The celebrities get to promote their various projects
Yes, I have to be somewhat cynical about this. Because it’s still reality TV, and still incredibly calculated. Consider that Nick Lachey has a 98 Degrees reunion concert coming up and a very pregnant wife Vanessa Minnillo about to give birth. Terry Crews’ new film The Expendables 2 comes out in just a few days. Picabo Street retired from sports ten years ago, but the Olympics just ended, so she’s on your mind anyway.
But for most of the premiere, Stars Earn Stripes seemed to honorably distance itself from other reality shows that cater to the lowest common denominator in terms of both contestants and viewers. Sure, there’s a part in the introductions when WWE Diva Eve Torres says a variation on the classic reality TV line: “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to win.” Still, their major challenge, to complete an obstacle course that ends with blowing up a warehouse, played as an entertaining cross between an action flick and a video game. (There were even those little captions telling you each tiny armored figure’s name and stats as they ran through the course.)
This is the kind of show where the producers really have to vet the participants for mental health—so Gary Busey was rejected right off the bat—and they have to ensure that there are no preexisting rivalries so you don’t worry about one famous person shooting another point-blank. On The Apprentice, the ladies can snipe at each other all they want, because the worst they can do is yell at each other in the boardroom. But then we reached the final check-in with the requisite hot female host, and anything inspiring or different the show had done got erased.
See, Wesley Clark—the white-haired, retired general overseeing the challenges—told the assembled group that they had planned on having the two groups with the lowest obstacle course score face off against one another. But since two of the celebrities had failed to complete the challenge, it was only fair that they go head-to-head. The two challengers? Terry Crews and The Biggest Loser trainer Dolvett Quince. Suddenly we’re thrust into the standard “bottom two” situation you see on every show ranging from America’s Next Top Model to The Bachelor to Survivor. And am I the only one who was uncomfortable that it was the two black men?
The worst part is, those last fifteen minutes were when I was the most emotionally invested. I love Terry Crews in everything he does; I first saw him as the hilariously self-obsessed athlete Latrell Spencer in White Chicks and have delighted in his comedic timing in every project since. Sorry Dolvett, but my heart was with Terry, no question. I was actively cheering him on through the last challenge, where each had to shoot seven moving targets with a rifle, then use a sniper rifle to cut the rope holding a box of explosives in the air. (Yeah, I’m sure that a week of training will enable them to do this.)
The final challenge was laughably orchestrated to make it as nail-bitingly intense as possible. For the longest time, it seems like Dolvett is going to win since he’s already in sniper position while Terry still has three moving targets left. However, the pros each star is paired with are standing in as sniper spotters in this challenge; I wouldn’t be surprised if the producers had instructed Dolvett’s partner to tell him he had a clear shot when he didn’t, in order to buy more time for Terry.
Terry somehow comes back by blasting a ton of targets in a row, then gets down on his stomach and cuts the rope in just a few shots. Dolvett gets sent home, and I scream with joy for Terry. Then I hate myself, and the show, for reverting to standard, cheap, manipulative reality TV conventions in order to amp up the artificial excitement.
I won’t be watching Stars Earn Stripes for the rest of its season, even though each week will probably bring a challenge with heightened physical requirements and greater emotional stakes. I thought it was different, but it’s just the same as everything else out there. Oh, and a bunch of antiwar groups are protesting the show for glamorizing battle combat, so who knows if it’ll even finish out its first season.