While television programming this summer is shaping up to have some quirks all its own, the summer TV season remains a time when the legacy networks tend to take a break from any shows that might have been award plays and devote more of their primetime schedules to silliness. ABC is bringing back its celebrity-studded game shows; NBC's got The Rock's Titan Games and America's Got Talent; and CBS... well, the plan was for there to be new seasons of Big Brother and Love Island, although for obvious reasons, those aren't coming back for a while. And while Fox never really takes a break from the nonsense — see The Masked Singer and Lego Masters, both unscripted hits this spring — it's saved its most spectacular idiocy for this summer. Turn off your brain and open your heart to Ultimate Tag.
I know what you're thinking: "Ultimate...Tag? The playground game where someone is 'it' and they try to chase down and tag the other players?" Yes, exactly. But! Much as Holey Moley (which returns this week for its second season on ABC) was introduced as "miniature golf...TO THE EXTREME!!!," Ultimate Tag is like tag, but the ultimate version of it. Get it?
Here's how it works. Each episode starts with six contestants. Three men and (separately) three women compete against one another for a cash prize of $10,000. But instead of having any of them tag one another, the contestants are all prey for the Taggers, who are, in the schoolyard parlance, "it." In the manner of American Gladiators, the Taggers — who've been recruited for their expertise in acrobatics, martial arts, crossfit, freerunning, and even cheerleading — have comic book-ish personas and costumes: Flame, Beach Boy, Iron Giantess, Atomic Ant, etc. (We'll see if Marvel tries to sue over Banshee.) The contestants try to elude the Taggers on a variety of different courses and game formats; the Taggers, in turn, pursue and corner the contestants in order to tag them by pulling ribbons off their uniforms, as in flag football. There are opportunities to earn points in all the various tag permutations: in Chase Tag, by outlasting the Tagger and the other contestants; in Dodge Tag (also an elimination round), by making it from one end of the course to the other and hitting what is essentially a "home free" button. In The Showdown, the final round, the contestant who makes it through the course the fastest — while also trying to avoid two Taggers, since getting tagged in this round adds seconds to your total time — wins the money.
Ultimate Tag is to be commended, first off, for its ambition. A producer on a show like this could easily have developed it as a half-hour format with a single course, and just made the contestants go through it a bunch of different times, maybe adding impediments or advantages to mix it up. But the course for each game is entirely different, making play surprisingly gripping to watch. Dome Tag is played on, you guessed it, a giant dome — but did you imagine it was suspended from the ceiling of the arena above a huge air mattress for when either the contestant or Tagger falls?! Revenge Tag sets the contestant and a Tagger loose in a maze with pillars the contestant can activate by touch: once activated, the contestant has ten seconds to go on the offensive and tag the Tagger for a bonus point. It's Pac-Man! I suppose I should also note that the show is hosted by Houston Texans star J.J. Watt and his brothers, Derek and T.J. While I generally have a dim view of athletes as entertainment personalities, the brothers Watt seem affable, are fairly comfortable on camera, and — most importantly — stay out of the way of the action.
Much as was the case with Holey Moley in its first season, though, Ultimate Tag has room for improvement. For one thing, as you might expect from a show that's about one or more people running away from someone who's chasing them, the action moves quickly. It's definitely useful to get a close-up view of what's happening on the course level when a contestant is cornered, or when players are making interesting use of the hurdles and cubbies. (Several Taggers come from parkour, and it really shows when, for instance, they're jumping from beam to beam above contestants' heads.) But in some rounds — especially Dodge Tag, always the opening game, where the Tagger is in pursuit of all three contestants — the viewer would really benefit from a bird's-eye view of the course that marked all the participants as they moved through it or, as also sometimes happens, take cover to run the clock up for points while the Tagger sets his or her sights on just one contestant who's out in the open. There's also the matter of the Taggers' personas. Some are clearly more comfortable performing characters: Caveman gamely plays a semi-feral beast; Big Deal, the cheer veteran, gives good face; Geek...wears glasses. Horse, an "extreme stuntman," whinnies and struts to taunt contestants, and is so much more fun to watch than any of the other Taggers that it feels like either they all need to try to reach for his level of showmanship, or Horse should maybe leave for so wildly outshining his peers. (Iron Giantess: yes, you're tall. That's not a personality.) Finally, as on Holey Moley, we're told about games that are played offscreen and affect players' point tallies, but of which we only see highlights. This happens with a round of Revenge Tag in the pilot, denying viewers a chance to see one of the show's best games until the second week of its run.
But, much as my quibbles about Holey Moley stopped me neither from watching the whole season nor enthusiastically recommending it to everyone I know, Ultimate Tag's pleasures far outweigh its minor deficiencies. And, like Holey Moley, Ultimate Tag might even act as sports methadone while you wait for the various major professional leagues to clear players to go back to work. At a time when real life could scarcely be more oppressively grim, this is precisely the kind of weightless escapism you should seek out for any hour you want to take a break from thinking about, really, anything at all.
Ultimate Tag airs on Fox tonight at 9:00 PM ET
Talk about Ultimate Tag in our forums. Join the conversation.
Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.