'The Quest': TV Review
Tuesdays at 8 p.m on NBC, beginning July 31
Profiles Television Productions, Court Five, Green Harbor
ABC's "The Quest" attempts to combine fantasy literature with a competition series; essentially, it's LARPing for the masses.
Add to the list of oxymorons the term "fantasy-reality," a new genre ABC Frankenstein-ed for its summer series The Quest. But the show has pedigree, coming from an award-winning group of executive producers, including The Amazing Race's Bertram van Munster and Elise Doganieri, as well as The Lord of the Rings' Mark Ordesky and Jane Fleming. It also twists the typical competition-based reality series format by framing each episode, and its contents, with a story based in a vaguely medieval fantasy world called "Everealm." The goal is for "one true hero" to arise from the group and save the realm from the Dark Lord Verlox.
Essentially, The Quest, which films in Austria, is televised LARPing (or "live-action role play"). Haxan Films (The Blair Witch Project) developed the series' mythology (with ancient magical objects like The Sunspear) and characters (including a noble queen, her shifty advisor, a handsome military commander and a helpful steward, played by the Austrian actors Susanna Gschwendtner, Marcello de Nardo, Peter Windhofer and Jan Hutter, respectively). There are also ogres and hags created by Spectral Motion (Pacific Rim) that help populate the darker side of The Quest's mythical world.
The 12 competitors, known as Paladins, come from a hodgepodge of backgrounds (horse trainer, MMA fighter, bartender, housewife, teacher), though all claim to have some connection to nerd-kind and a love of fantasy literature. They do geek out accordingly when they find out they're going to be staying in a castle, wearing tunics, and riding on horseback in this sanitized version of the Middle Ages. (No boils, plague or excrement in the streets? Fantasy indeed).
The quest for viewers, though, will be getting past the first episode, where stilted, inane interactions between actors and competitors, jerky editing and excessive tonal gravitas beg for parody. But once the competitions get rolling — there's archery, jousting and smashing plaster skulls with hammers — the show settles in to an Amazing Race style of competition that relies on individual strengths, as well as teamwork and strategy. The winner of each challenge is given a special distinction, but it doesn't save them from elimination at the hands of The Fates, who require a final competition among the bottom three performers each week to help narrow down who will be banished (though the ultimate decision lies with the other Paladins).
Despite a shaky start, The Quest actually becomes something interesting — or at least different — within the reality landscape. The unifying story does lend some continuity to the competitors' trials, and also serves to galvanize them ("we must save the Queen!" one Paladin shouts with fervor). By the third episode, the Paladins really get into their quest for heroism, and the camaraderie gives the show a decidedly less cutthroat nature than is seen on other competitive series. Similarly, the story that unfolds around them in Everealm also begins to be integrated more skillfully, losing some of its cheesiness, especially as the actors become more relaxed in their roles (during their interactions with the unscripted competitors, for example). It's still all a little silly, but that's also part of the appeal.
On the other hand, if viewers are looking for real villains, schemes and blood sport, maybe the better bet is to wait for ABC's other summer reality series, Bachelor in Paradise. Had those Bachelor franchise castoffs been chosen to populate Everealm, it might have been more than the Dark Lord Verlox could handle, Sunspear or no Sunspear.