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How Tough As Nails Became This Summer's Surprise Reality Hit

Years in the making, Phil Koeghan's CBS passion project was the right show at the right time.
  • Phil Keoghan and the contestants of Tough as Nails. (CBS)
    Phil Keoghan and the contestants of Tough as Nails. (CBS)

    Tough As Nails should have tanked. Given its niche subject matter and risky attempt to subvert various competition reality tropes, it certainly didn't seem like a hit. At best, it should have been a mildly interesting space-filler in the traditionally fallow CBS summer lineup (made even more fallow thanks to the pandemic), after which it would be relegated to the annals of trivia alongside other forgotten one-off summer series like Whodunnit and The Quest. Instead, Tough As Nails upended expectations, bringing a fresh energy to the reality TV landscape and serving as a rare bright spot in a particularly bleak summer.

    As any recent interview with show creator and host Phil Keoghan reveals, Tough as Nails is a true passion project for the Amazing Race host. Keoghan, who spent ten years unsuccessfully pitching the premise to networks, was inspired by his grandfathers — one a mechanic, the other a carpenter — and wanted to produce a show that celebrated essential workers well before current circumstances burned the term into our vernacular.

    And while nobody would ever accuse Keoghan of phoning it in on main gig, both on and off the air, his enthusiasm for Tough As Nails reaches another level — and it's contagious. Equal parts entertaining, inspiring, and educational, Tough As Nails has been exactly the right kind of reality escape for this year (and possibly beyond — CBS recently picked it up for a second season). Here are a few of the secrets to its unlikely success:

    It's Aggressively Noncontroversial and Positive

    The patronizing-sounding elevator pitch for the series — a competition show designed to celebrate blue-collar jobs — raised some eyebrows upon its premiere, but throughout the course of its first season, Tough As Nails has declined to editorialize about the public perception of skilled tradesmen and women. It has never suggested that blue-collar workers are somehow more American than other workers, nor has it ever implied that such jobs are something less than any other. It's merely a career path out of many possibilities — and an underrated one at that. The social status and personal beliefs of the contestants on the show, or the people doing these jobs out in the world, is never relevant to the conversation.

    Each one of the show's twelve contestants have jobs that are wildly different from the others — there's a roofer, a fishing-boat captain, a welder, and a farmer, to name a few — and each one passionately loves what they do. Per the title, the jobs are shown to be tough, but they're also portrayed as intensely fulfilling. People who have worked in jobs like this will find kindred spirits among the cast; people who haven't can gain an understanding of what's great about these professions; and youngsters who haven't previously considered pursuing a trade might discover a career prospect worth exploring.

    It Celebrates Traditionally Undervalued Skills

    Through clever design and a recalibration of typical competitive-reality success metrics, Tough As Nails has found a way to celebrate a broader spectrum of intelligence than most reality shows. Whether they are team-based or individual, Tough As Nails challenges require a combination of strength, stamina, and complex problem-solving skills that allow contestants to demonstrate how their lines of work have enabled them to hone these qualities. Put another way, there's "book smarts," and there's "street smarts," and then there's the ability to look at three truckloads filled with different types of gravel and understand instinctively which one should be unloaded first, even if you've never worked with gravel in your life.

    And because the challenges test for a wide variety of problem-solving abilities, the top contenders haven't always been the people you'd expect. On most other shows in this genre, a contestant like 62-year-old airport gate agent Michelle Kiddy would have been the first one eliminated. But (spoiler alter) Kiddy not only outlasted five of her fellow competitors, she fought her way back from the brink of elimination twice, both times besting men who appeared to be physically stronger.

    It Flips Traditional Reality-Show Storytelling on Its Head

    From the earliest days of the genre, nearly every serialized competition reality show has revolved around the premise that viewers will be hooked by the prospect of finding out who will be eliminated next. Not so with Tough As Nails. It's true that one contestant will win a huge cash prize at the end of the season, and every week, another contestant becomes ineligible to win that prize. But as contestants leave the competition, they don't leave the show — they continue to compete in team challenges, where each victory earns them an additional $2,000 each.

    Messing with a format that's succeeded for countless shows over the past twenty years is a radical move, and it's one that shouldn't have worked. But Tough As Nails manages to preserve enough suspense to leave us on the hook, and what's more, the format allows for deeper and more interesting character arcs. Keeping all of the contestants on the show allows editors to continue to tell their stories, meaning that as the show pulls up to the finish line, viewers (and other contestants) have gotten to know all twelve contestants equally well. It's not only freed production of the constraint of having to tell a contestant's entire story before they're eliminated, it's given the contestants more time and space together for these stories to happen. The individual competition, which would have been the backbone of any other show, almost feels like an afterthought.

    It Embraces Teamwork, Unity, and the Power of Learning From Your Mistakes

    Interpersonal conflict has always been a large part of the "realness" on which reality TV's success depends, and viewers who have come to enjoy this genre for the drama factor might find themselves scratching their heads at the lack of yelling and screaming.

    This isn't to say that Tough As Nails is free of conflict. Certainly the personalities that inhabit its universe are just as strong as on any reality show. The difference is that when conflicts arise, they're explained, examined, and resolved. No contestant is afraid to speak up when they see a problem, but they're also not afraid to take criticism to heart and even adjust their approach. After one team, Savage Crew, suffered four consecutive losses, they were able to rally, in large part because they candidly discussed their errors and changed their methods. Contestants on other shows frequently pay lip service to how the experience has changed them, but rarely do viewers get to see those changes applied in real time.

    Over the course of the season, the diverse cast has also forged unlikely friendships that cross age, geography, gender, and racial lines. In most episodes, the two teams get into squabbles while driving their vans to and from the challenges, but most episodes also feature poignant one-on-one conversations between people who would never have met were it not for the show, in which older contestants mentor younger ones, struggling contestants get a pep talk, or, perhaps most memorably, a Black man and a deputy sheriff talk about their shared desire to make the world a better place.

    It's a tall order to call upon a reality show to fix anything in the real world; after all, it's just a show. But in a world where it's become increasingly difficult to find situations where conflicts are settled amicably, it's not surprising to see a successful effort to bring us into a universe, even temporarily, have such broad appeal. In a year where each of us has been forced to get a little tougher in our own way, a show that celebrates toughness seems like a perfect fit.

    The two-hour Season 1 finale of Tough as Nails airs tonight on CBS at 9:00 PM ET.

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    Jessica Liese has been writing and podcasting about TV since 2012. Follow her on Twitter at @HaymakerHattie

    TOPICS: Tough as Nails, CBS, Phil Keoghan, Reality TV