ABC couldn’t have chosen a better time to premiere its new reality competition, The Ultimate Surfer. Under-the-radar for far too long, the sport made an audacious debut a few weeks back at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, where an incoming tropical storm brought big waves, big ratings, and a gold medal for American surfer Carissa Moore.
Set at the World Surf League’s (WSL) state-of-the-art Surf Ranch in Lemoore, California, The Ultimate Surfer follows 14 up-and-coming surfers as they compete to win $100,000 and a wildcard spot on the WSL Championship Tour, the pinnacle of the sport. Some of these surfers have experience — a few have already competed on the “CT,” as they call it, while others are still looking to prove themselves — but at the Surf Ranch, the playing field is leveled by Kelly Slater’s human-made wave technology, which pumps out a “perfect” wave every few minutes. With everyone (literally) on the same wavelength, The Ultimate Surfer takes the vagaries of Mother Nature out of the equation and ensures that surfers are being evaluated on raw talent and skill.
Each episode the surfers compete in individual and team challenges focused on specific surfing disciplines, such as combo turns or backsides, with the winners earning immunity for the week. The bottom four (two women and two men) then face off in a final challenge, and the two with the lowest scores are sent home. At the end of the competition, one man and one woman will be crowned The Ultimate Surfer, an honor that's intended to serve as a springboard for greater success on the global stage.
Surfing may be the world’s fastest-growing sport, but there’s a steep learning curve when it comes to the actual logistics, and The Ultimate Surfer goes to great lengths to explain the basics to newbies. In addition to consulting on show, Slater, an 11-time world champion, serves as a special correspondent, introducing the contestants (and viewers) to his human-made wave and its unique properties. “This wave, it’s a little bit tricky. It goes a lot faster than the average six-foot wave in the ocean,” he explains. “My advice: don’t fall, don’t think about losing, just go out and do what you do best.”
Joining Slater on The Ultimate Surfer is WSL commentator Joe Turpel, known as “the voice of surfing,” NFL Network anchor Erin Coscarelli, and host Jesse Palmer (of NFL and The Bachelor fame). Before each challenge, Slater demonstrates the skills that will be on display in a slow-motion clip, while Turpel’s voiceover explains exactly what we’re seeing on-screen. The videos serve as a primer for newcomers to the sport, enabling viewers to better distinguish the good runs from the great.
Palmer, meanwhile, is responsible for wrangling this motley crew of surfers, most of whom already know each other. As Koa Smith, a blonde-haired surfer from Sunset Beach, Hawaii, explains, “The surf world is actually really small,” and many of the contestants have been competing against one another since they were kids. This shared backstory separates The Ultimate Surfer from its rivals in the sports competition genre, as it makes the entire affair feel far more personal. It also leads to drama right off the bat: two of the women, Malia Ward and Brianna Cope, have beef, and it plays a role in the first surf-off. The premiere doesn’t indicate why these two don’t get along (Malia says she doesn’t like Brianna’s “energy,” and that’s about it), which is frustrating from a narrative standpoint, but the feud does inject some interesting drama.
This is just one of many conventions ABC seems to have drawn from Bachelor in Paradise, Ultimate Surfer’s lead-in. Except when actually surfing, the contestants spend most of their time shirtless (it so happens they’re all exceptionally beautiful), and two have a romantic history. The show even cooks up a few activities heavy on the sexual tension, including a game of Spin the Bottle that’s used to determine teams for the first challenge. To their credit, the contestants are very aware that they must hold up this end of the bargain in order to get what they really want — a spot on the WSL Championship Tour — and they’re not afraid to anger their ABC overlords by making jokes about the corniness of it all. “If I wanted to kiss someone, I would’ve signed up for The Bachelor,” says Brianna, as the threat of Spin the Bottle looms over the contestants’ heads.
When faced with this group of DGAF, camera-ready surfers, it’s hard not to feel like reality television has been sleeping on professional surfing. Here’s hoping The Ultimate Surfer changes that, because this drama-filled world deserves more than a two-week stint in the limelight once every four years.
The Ultimate Surfer premieres Monday, August 23. New episodes air Monday and Tuesday nights at 10:00 PM ET on ABC.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the TV Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.