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Attempting to further capitalize on the popularity of shows such as Dancing with the Stars, NBC’s newest celebrity offering Stars Earn Stripes pairs eight recognizable competitors with members of the U.S. military (representing a variety of different branches of service) for the chance to win $100,000 for a veteran or first responder foundation of their choice. The pairs compete in military-inspired challenges to earn “stripes” (cash), with the threat of elimination each week if they do not complete their missions or are ranked last.
As with the network’s other celebrity series, the term “star” is a loose one, and in many cases, “recognizable” is not particularly apt in describing the competitors. The series features actor Dean Cain, former boxer Laila Ali, former boy-band star and current presenter Nick Lachey, former Olympic gold medallist skier Picabo Street, action movie actor Terri Crews, The Biggest Loser trainer Dolvett Quince, former WWE champion Eva Torres, and Sarah Palin’s husband Todd (identified only as “4-Time Iron Dog Champion.” Of course, how else would we know him?)
General Wesley Clark oversees the proceedings as a kind of Master of Ceremonies, watching the competitions from a Mission Control center whose setup makes for uneasy comparisons to video games. There have been protests in recent weeks that the show attempts to turn war into entertainment. If only. There are extreme amounts of platitudes offered by the contestants to the military, and while the reverence and deference towards the soldiers may be well earned and deserved, it does not make for interesting television.
The complaint that the show unfairly sanitizes the gruesomeness of war is valid. It does seem to belittle the soldiers’ experience to turn what they do into a competition. Worse, after merely one exercise the celebrities already begin talking about how they “understand what the soldiers have been through.” Doubtful. In an awkward moment in the pilot episode, Laila Ali cavalierly asks her partner if he’s ever killed anybody. “We don’t really talk about that,” he replies, and she apologizes. But it sums up the feeling of the show — it’s a playground. The inclusion of the military is an insulting partnership, undermining the gravity of what the military is actually about. And despite claims of danger from every sector, there’s never a feeling of truth to it. Yes the competitors and soldiers are using live ammunition, but most of the “dangers” are movie-like effects — random explosions and helicopters circling low to create a militaristic atmosphere. Cynically, one knows an insurance company has already made sure that there’s no real danger to be had, a point reinforced by producers and the repeated phrase “redundancy of safety.”
Even given the hectic atmosphere enhanced by POV cams and dizzying jump cuts, the action itself is not very engaging, possibly because the stakes are so low. When Quince gets bogged down in his military gear and starts to sink into the choppy waters, he’s immediately pulled out but a nearby rescue team, not his teammates. Though the contestants spend some time slogging through the mud and crawling under barbed wire, the jumpiness of the camera never let’s the viewer soak in the grueling nature of the course. Additionally, the fact that the pairs not currently engaged in the mission watch and comment to host Samantha Harris (“look at that shot he just made!”) during the other team’s trials further adds to an odd, video game feel.
Though in this inaugural episode the easygoing personalities of the celebrities and the respect everyone shows each other is nice, no one seems able to admit to anger or frustration or any of the other real emotions that bond an audience to the competitors. This could change as the competition goes on, but without villains to root against or a clear sense of what’s at stake, viewers may not feel compelled to stick around much longer to care who earns what.
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