'Battle of the Network Stars': TV Review

Courtesy of ABC
'Battle of the Network Stars'
Ronda Rousey was going to be a movie star, instead she's on this.
6/29/2017

ABC's resurrection of the 'Battle of the Network Stars' format offers few stars, no network divisions and only the flimsiest of battles.

Since reviewing a reboot of Battle of the Network Stars is a silly endeavor, allow me to begin with a silly digression:

In 2004, CBS threw one of the all-time great Television Critics Association press tour parties on the field at Dodger Stadium. It was tied to the baseball drama Clubhouse, which ended up running only slightly longer than the party to promote it. Amidst the interviews and hot dog gorging, we were able to take batting practice and the limp line drive I blooped onto the apron of the outfield grass is one of the most gratifying things I've ever experienced. CBS had some athletes in its various casts and a few of the network's stars took some legitimate rips, but it was CSI: NY co-star Carmine Giovinazzo who delivered the evening's signature moment, taking a pitch over the fence to left field.

It was an impressive thing to witness, because somebody whose career was in a wholly separate pursuit was achieving an athletic feat that was measurable and empirical.

Per my scattered childhood memories, that's also what I responded to in the original Battle of the Network Stars. Yes, there were stars participating who had no notable physicality to speak of, but my enjoyment came from watching the genuine seriousness with which some of the contestants approached the different events. There were sporting legends involved, people like O.J. Simpson. But there also were actors that played tough guys onscreen who wanted to prove they were tough guys in real life, or actresses who played characters with superpowers and wanted to show their own powers were pretty super as well. I knew what athletic greatness looked like and it was fun watching sitcom and procedural stars try to approach that greatness. I know I'm not the only person who feels that way. It's the same reason Stephen Amell's recent run on the American Ninja Warrior course was such a sensation.

That's a long-winded explanation for what I wanted to see in ABC's reboot of Battle of the Network Stars. I wanted to see a continuation of one side of what made the series so popular way back in the day — the serious and competitive side. I wanted to be stunned by which of my favorite TV stars have untapped abilities to sprint, kayak and swim.

If I just wanted clowning and hijinx, I'd watch Laff-A-Lympics, darnit.

I wanted to come away entertained and with a new-found respect for the ample talent currently working on the small screen. That, however, was not the side that ABC had any interest in bringing to its new Battle of the Network Stars, which I would say violated the brand's title on not one, not two, but three different levels.

First, the stars weren't divided by network, which ABC claimed was because it's a 1,000+ channel world, but really ABC didn't want to give promotional platforms to stars from other networks (or other networks didn't want to free their stars to appear on ABC, whichever). Instead, competitors were split by semi-arbitrary designations based not on current status, but on past celebrity.

So the opener was Sitcom Stars versus TV Kids. Since at least half of the players could have been swapped to the other team, there was no real built-in tension or animus. Why, for example, were Tracey Gold and A.J. Michalka not categorized as former TV kids? During the first episode, I regularly lost track of which team was red and which was blue, and if I could have kept track, what difference would it have made? Even in 2017, TV viewers are always making choices between individual networks. We all have preferences. Ask me to root between FX stars and HBO stars and you're reproducing a choice I make in my own life. I'm never asked to pledge my allegiance between people who used to be child stars, who were also sitcom stars mostly, and people who used to be sitcom stars, who were frequently child stars.

Second, these were mostly nostalgia stars and not stars. The only two competitors in the premiere with actively running TV shows were, not coincidentally, both from ABC shows and Michalka and Nolan Gould are, at best, fifth or sixth billed (or lower) on their respective shows. Sorry, ABC. It's one thing not to pull any kind of current star talent from across the world of TV, but if you can't get somebody on the top three of the call sheet from your own shows, you're not doing viewers any favors. Offering me Viola Davis trying to golf is good TV. Trying to get me interested in Joey Lawrence's basketball ineptitude is not.

And, finally, to call any of these competitions "battles" would be an insult to the true warriors whose exploits were announced by Howard Cosell. If your show's drama comes down to being shocked that Corbin Bleu is able to outsprint Tracey Gold, your show isn't getting any drama. And the editors couldn't be bothered to be interested in how the competition was going either. Because none of the stars were able to do archery, tennis or golf (among other events that allegedly happened) we spent more time watching out-of-competition coach Ronda Rousey (slumming it entertainingly) dunk Tom Arnold in the dunking-booth event. That, to me, does not scream Battle of Network Stars. Then, after letting the episode go slack for nearly 45 minutes, the competition between the sitcom stars and the kids actually did get close at the end, but it was way too late for me to get invested in the shoddily constructed narrative about how Tom Arnold went from late-arriving deadbeat to hero.

Were the teams more competitively matched back in the day? I don't know. Definitely there was a lot of reflection from people like Bronson Pinchot and Lisa Whelchel on being past their battle peaks. Did it mean more to be part of a network when there were only three? Probably, because who feels different levels of pride about just having been on a sitcom when the rival team is people who were on sitcoms at a slightly younger age? Did erstwhile Battle of the Network Stars legends like Gabe Kaplan simply want it more than any of these stars wanted it? Unquestionably. Did ABC and the announcers and sideline reporters just get cheap laughs from an execution that offered almost no action? Probably. How many times did Mike Greenberg think he was entitled to make "Dance of Joy" jokes about Pinchot? Even if it was only "two," it was too many. Sometimes you have to trust that Balki running is punchline enough.

Production-wise, the Battle of the Network Stars premiere was also a sad affair. Returning to the gorgeous backdrop of the Pepperdine University campus was a good idea, but they seemed to have filmed on a cloudy and cold spring day. The actors all looked chilly and miserable and, for some reason, there were no crowds cheering anybody on. Cameras were only occasionally where they needed to be, offering insufficient coverage to spice up dull events and too many shots favoring the gray skies and empty galleries. At least the tan blazers on the announcers and sideline reporters brought back a shiver of recognition.

This was not a battle and there were no network stars. It was more appropriately a battle of viewer nostalgia, a fight ABC has been engaging in aggressively in recent months. If your nostalgia was for the silly and stupid Battle of Network Stars, I guess this was for you. Nostalgic for something different, I won't be returning to this one.

ABC's Battle of the Network Stars premiered on Thursday, June 29.

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