The 1970s offered a smorgasbord of TV fantasies for prepubescent boys. Foremost, perhaps, was Battle of the Network Stars, a frothy mix of chauvinism and sex that was a near-perfect distillation of the decade. While Adrienne Barbeau and Lynda Carter jiggled around in braless majesty, alpha males like Robert Conrad and Telly Savalas fought like Spartans to win whatever race they were in. The spectacle, which was already ridiculous, seemed about to explode into a swinging key party at any second. A slightly more serious interpretation of the format was a show called Superstars, in which elite athletes from disparate sports competed against one another in a populist version of the decathalon. The show was never quite as much fun as it promised, but it had an unmistakable appeal, kind of like trying to figure out who would win in a fight between Dracula and Bigfoot.
Eventually, both of these shows—which sparked the imagination of preteens across the nation—fizzled out, America’s celebrities having grown too large for such rinky-dink endeavors. No matter, this summer ABC has dug back into the past for inspiration, and foisted upon us a hybrid of the two classics called The Superstars. However, this time around, unable to corral bone fide celebrities or top-tier athletes, ABC has opted to showcase a bunch of vaguely familiar types who inhabit a kind of celebrity limbo. And so, we’re presented with nine jocks, now in states of varying degrees of decay and inactivity, paired with nine “celebrities” of the opposite sex.
Among the celebrities: somebody from Dancing with the Stars, a couple of pinup girls whose acting credits likely don’t expand beyond “Screaming Girl #2,” and the older brother of Enrique Iglesias. Similarly, the athletes include Kristi Leskinen, a skier who ranked #90 on FHM’s list of 100 Sexiest Women of 2005, soccer player Brandi Chastain, and retired Major League ballplayer Jeff Kent. With his shirt off and a baseball cap permanently fixed on his head, a now thick-in-the-middle Kent looks exactly like some dude heading out to his driveway to wash his truck.
Considering this, it’s ironic that the promos for the show luridly promise that the competitors will be wearing “minimal clothing.” To be fair, there are a few hard bodies on display, but they all seem to be joylessly muscled, existing only for the vain gratification of the owner and not those watching. The hardest body on display belongs to the show’s only high-profile athlete, Terrell Owens, who is famous for catching footballs and shooting off his mouth. Standing waist-deep in the ocean, he looks like a completely different species than say, Kent. At any rate, Owens is paired with Joanna Krupa, who we’re told is a supermodel.
In an attempt to capitalize on the psycho/sexual couples dynamic that propels as show like The Amazing Race, the producers of The Superstars hope the audience becomes invested in the chemistry and sexual tensions that emerge between partners. However, nobody seems to be getting turned on, and we end up listening to people who are known for their physical gifts trying to entertain us with their wit.
The only couple that really holds our attention is Owen and Krupa, and that’s because they’re both so aggravating. Krupa is a bitch and Owen a preening and entitled millionaire who knows he’s in an entirely different league than anybody else there. At any rate, this team was the first eliminated, but for reasons that were far too complicated and suspect to examine, were brought back for the second episode, thus ensuring that both the villains and the star power, such as it is, remained.
The events in which the cast competes are bastardizations of standard athletic pursuits, designed to highlight the glorious vacation retreat in the background and minimize whatever advantage a physically competent person might have. And so, instead of having a straight long jump, you have to long jump into the water, and instead of merely sprinting, you have to sprint on the beach in some sort of relay, but whatever the so-called superstars are forced to do, they must do so in the midst of the natural vacation beauty that surrounds them! The truth is that the show is little more than an infomercial for a Bahamas resort, and we are never, ever allowed to forget this product placement.
Each event is laboriously drawn out so that 10 seconds of actual competition is stretched to fill half an hour of programming. We’re beset by repetitions and slow-motion instant replays, as a team of cheerful correspondents dissect the action and make inane observations. One such correspondent is ex-NFL star Warren Sapp, who is all rippling neck muscles and mumbled speech. He makes a series of surreal intrusions where he conducts incoherent interviews before darting off camera.
Each episode of The Superstars builds toward an obstacle course, in which one team is finally, mercifully eliminated from the competition. This, again, is absurdly complicated, and we get to see the obstacle course run a couple of times instead of just once. No matter, they try to make it dramatic, combining all the grandeur and fury of American Gladiators with a Japanese game show, only drained of all the camp, whimsy, and unpredictability that makes such things a pleasure to watch.
Billed as the “Drama in the Bahamas,” The Superstars is anything but. Although it attempts to conjure happy feelings of nostalgia in the audience, the show is a dreary and heavy-handed piece of marketing, one that any 12-year-old boy would immediately turn off before heading outside to play.