Tough Enough has been giving me actual emotions, which I don’t appreciate. First of all, there’s been constant vitriol from the coaches/judges directed at one of the contestant’s, Sara, since week one. I don’t know if it’s a (lazy) calculated attempt to stir up drama, or eventually create some underdog tale, but it has the effect of watching hyenas tear apart a gazelle carcass. I mean week after week they just bludgeon this girl, and it’s not even like she is weak or incompetent, she is just QUIET. Un-reality show contestant-y. Last week was dedicated to berating Sara for smiling. Sara has a nervous habit of smiling, she even says her smiling has nothing to do with her emotional state in her little interview/diary segment. So naturally everyone has been barking at her for not taking the competition seriously / not taking the judges critiques seriously / being incapable of being threatening in the ring… Fine, it’s a reality show, not a training camp. Maybe their real life training techniques and attitudes towards the trainees differ from what is displayed in the show (although several real life lawsuits would suggest they don’t) but they’ve been dragging this argument out for six weeks now. “Sara, stop being nice” “I’m not being nice, I’m just on edge because everyone is constantly screaming and this is my on edge face” “You still look nice.”
My point is, (besides demonstrating zero-ability to work with different personalities, which may not be the greatest public relations move for a company that is constantly criticized for how it treats it’s talent) unless Sara’s storyline suddenly does a 180, and she becomes the girl that grew so much from this experience, you get the feeling the powers that be have been gunning for Sara since day one. Every week is a new argument from coaches and judges alike about why Sara doesn’t deserve to be here. Yet every week Sara remains.
Why? 1. because it’s a fucking trainwreck 2. because there is still one thing it shares in common with actual wrestling.
Tough Enough has aspirations of being a much better produced program with a much larger budget, so naturally instead of scaling down they attempted to cram three days worth of American Idol style programming into one hour on the USA Network. So there is this constant confused cutting back and forth from “training” and life in “the barracks,” to the ill-conceived live interview / nomination / judging / make the contestants stand in a line and pay penance / more judging / possible judges’ “save” / viewer voting segment.
Like any other reality show, the challenges are a joke. “Designed” around broad concepts in wrestling, i.e., athletic skills, character development, storytelling through body language, what the challenges actually test is fuck all. No one is excelling at any of them, so they are completely irrelevant. Additionally, as per reality show tradition, there are segments showing the contestants in their group dorm “the barracks” which is truly the saddest reality show housing situation I’ve ever seen. They are literally living in a conference room / storage locker in an office park with a weird chain link fence on the wall. The barracks brings the promise of infighting and debauchery and barely restrained competitiveness bubbling out into violence. Except no one is really fighting. No one is doing anything really, even with a hot tub in the middle of Conference Room B, the moment with the most sexual tension came when “The Yeti” tried to improve MMA-bro Tanner’s pick up artist skills through an ill advised roleplay sesh by the pool table. It doesn’t matter anyway, because the Tough Enough contestants have no impact on each other’s success or failure. The judges nominate, the viewers vote, and beside a ten second throwaway segment where each contestant names the person they think should be sent home, they don’t have any mechanism to engage with another contestant.
The complete clusterfuck voting procedure is the only entertaining aspect of Tough Enough and thus the reason it is my current hate watch.
Each week, the three judges independently nominate a contestant each with little to no explanation. After the judges nominations, the vote goes to the viewers, who vote for their favorite by tweeting their name. This is done in all of 45 seconds, because they crammed everything into the one hour show. I don’t know how they separate “votes” from people who are just tweeting about the show and mention a contestant’s name during that time period, there isn’t even a separate hashtag. Let’s be honest, it is a sloppy, inaccurate system at best, even for a C-level reality show no one watches. After the votes are “locked in” the judges are given an opportunity to save a nominee, one save per season, without prior knowledge of how the audience has voted.
The audience, at least the voting audience, has consistently voted in favor of contestants the coaches and judges appear to hate. And no matter how much certain contestants are built up to look incompetent or unworthy, they are untouchable if the audience keeps tweeting. So you get challenges and barracks segments that are void of purpose or entertainment value, interspersed with one-sided live interviews where the judges berate a contestant for some… thing that is unclear because the challenges are purposeless and their interactions in the barracks don’t matter, followed by an audience vote that does not relate to anything that happened in the first 50 minutes of the show. Throw on top of that the fact that I get the sense production has either zero grasp of reality or no social engineering skills. It is truly beautiful. As someone who genuinely, passionately loves terrible television, and terrible reality television in particular, it is the greatest spectacle I have ever seen.
Not only is it completely incongruous, but Tough Enough has developed a pattern of the judges sending the more qualified contestants home. Judge The Miz used his save on model Amanda, because she had nice tits (seriously) and because he has massive dedication to the douchebag character he plays on WWE, which sent Mada who (I think pretty unanimously) was viewed as a more serious competitor, home. Next week he nominated Amanda because he felt she let his love of her tits go to her head. Paige nominated actual MCW wrestler Patrick as a sort of scared straight wake up call, because she felt he got too cocky which was promptly followed by his elimination thirty seconds later. She then spent the next couple episodes bitching about how Patrick didn’t deserve to go as if she wasn’t the one who nominated him.
On a show that is theoretically a wrestling competition, the front-runner is ZZ, a 19-year-old alligator wrangler and former child participant on Wife Swap, who is massively overweight, can only handle ~90 seconds in the ring without becoming out of breath, and once made his entrance with a Beanie Baby stuffed into his ample bosom which led his coaches to lose their fucking minds and claim he was making a mockery of the sport.
Although ZZ’s position could easily and justifiably be chalked up to Tough Enough being a Frankensteinian hot mess of a program, or Vince McMahon being a fecal Midas, I think ZZ is also representative of a larger churning undercurrent in wrestling, showmanship vs. athleticism. It’s not surprising that in an industry that once dubbed itself “sports entertainment” there is a tension between performance and technical skill. Like any other junction between art and commerce, wrestling fans will raise their Mountain Dew can shivs, step into a Slim Jim, and attempt to shank the fuck out of each other over Daniel Bryan vs. John Cena, like musicians over Kurt Cobain and Joe Satriani. There’s never a definitive victory because there isn’t opposition, just a kind of arbitrary drawing of a line.
Theoretically, competitors like ZZ and Sara should lie on the showmanship side of the continuum, their stronger personalities but relatively weak athletic abilities balanced out by the strong athletic abilities but less engaging personalities of their opponents. But this isn’t life, this isn’t even wrestling, this is Tough Enough. The physical challenges read more like high school track and field day. ZZ and Sara, the only two contestants who don’t have the personality of a wet loaf of bread, still score poorly in creative challenges, and the only two trained wrestlers on the show were either accidentally eliminated by Paige (Patrick), or nominated by the judges for being too advanced (Chelsea).
It’s been pointed out on the show Tough Enough’s contestants are largely inexperienced and should be commended for their willingness to learn and fail in front of viewers, which I don’t disagree with. However, you could not choose a worse format for a show if the aim of said show is to take people from novices to professional athletes. No one has ever made that journey in 90 days via obstacle course. But as in seemingly all of WWE’s undertakings, instead of using their billions to create a show that could conceivably achieve this goal, a la ESPN’s Hard Knocks, or taking the less arduous route, creating a throwaway reality competition, cast with ready-made athletes, and trading in a portion of legitimacy for entertainment value and quick profit, WWE attempts to do both simultaneously. For a lot less money.
Tough Enough’s true downfall is not it’s over-ambition, or the glorious clusterfuck caused by that over-ambition, but their stubborn refusal to change course. Instead of taking the obvious route, and simply not cutting down ZZ, Sara and the like once they emerged as fan favorites, they attempted to strong arm other contestants into the public consciousness, which has created a three month long stand off between a giant, publicly traded corporation… and Twitter. Using the easiest, cheapest, and least obtrusive tool in its arsenal, changing the narrative, Tough Enough could have spared itself and its contestants the last remnants of an aura of “authenticity.” Throw in a line about “underdogs” here, a question from the judges about “heart” there, talk about everyone’s “unique gifts” and “path in life,” throw in a group hug, then underscore the fact it’s “up to America” if you are so goddamn scared of the outcome of a reality show. Shit salad no more.
But that is not what Tough Enough does. Tough Enough is a show that berates it’s audience for not taking it seriously, while coming across as a corporate team building retreat conducted by Chris Jericho. It has no one to blame but itself.