I'm not here to promulgate conspiracy theories. But when one surveys the crop of idiotic competition shows that have premiered this summer, it's hard not to wonder if their producers could have possibly known what kind of context would surround them. "Look at those maniacs on Ultimate Tag, racing around an enclosed space trying to touch each other! We're lucky to be home." One month later: "Okay, staying inside this house all the time is starting to get old, but at least our floor isn't lava." This week sees the official premiere of USA's Cannonball, which may cause residents of states where parks have opened to question whether they want to risk getting in a lake if there's a chance strangers are going to be thrown at them with a trebuchet. Are all these shows part of an organized propaganda campaign to keep non-essential workers safely at home by making physical activity look both perilous and extremely silly? Probably not. (Especially in the case of Cannonball, since it's based on a format that already aired in the UK.) But can we really rule it out?
In USA's Cannonball, which sneak peaked last week on NBC, contestants progress through five rounds on various apparatuses erected at what appears to be an artificial lake. With High Water Mark, for instance, contestants lay on an inflatable sled to zoom down the seven-story-high Mega Slide, the end of which is angled upward; then they launch themselves at a padded cylinder, trying to strike it higher than any of their fellow contestants. On Savage Swing, the contestant grips a large bag that arcs out over the lake, trying to drop as close as possible to a target fixed in the water below. Blast Off places the contestant's feet on a cannonball while a firehose threaded through it starts pumping water with increasing force; the goal here is to stay on the cannonball the longest before getting bucked off into the lake. Contestants who've ended up at the bottom of the leaderboard by whatever the metric is for each round get cut until the last four face off in the final round, The Cannon, where contestants return to the Mega Slide, now extended by 20 feet and made 20% steeper at its final launch. The score is based on the addition of the height they can achieve coming up from the chute, and the distance they can travel straight out from there; the victor takes home $10,000.
What Cannonball has over its fellow ridiculous freshman competition shows is that it looks like it's the most fun to do. To compete on Ultimate Tag, you need to be fast, flexible, and nimble, and even contestants who possess all those qualities are visibly fatigued by the time they arrive at the final round. Since a trip through a Floor Is Lava room generally takes less than ten minutes — much of it spent calculating and strategizing — it's not as physically taxing, but (even for those who don't fall in) it's certainly messier. Half the rounds on Cannonball, though, seem like their outcomes are determined by a combination of physics and chance, and that any skill the contestants may bring into the competition is incidental; all you have to do is show up and let gravity take its course. Some of these people end up shooting down the Mega Slide at 80 mph; if the Universal Studios theme park opened this attraction to the general public, hell yeah I'd love to find out what it feels like to fly down a water slide faster than I generally drive my car.
But even if being on Cannonball were no fun at all, it's probably more entertaining than watching it. It seems like all of this year's new shows want what Holey Moley has, and they just don't come close. They're poorly shot, they're too repetitive, and often they're too slow. Worst of all, instead of designing games so that contestants are competing against each other, they compete against the clock — or, in Cannonball's case, sometimes a clock and sometimes a yardstick. An obvious opportunity for interpersonal drama is lost.
Even so, because of the comedy inherent in the ways the contestants are hurled all over the course, often smashing against pieces of the course in face- and spine-distorting slow motion, one can imagine a version of the show in which the repetitiveness of the gameplay could be obscured by inspired hosting — and yes, I specifically mean that I think Holey Moley's Rob Riggle and Joe Tessitore could probably make a silk purse out of this sow's ear. Instead, we've got Mizanin and Diaz.
The former — who worked his way up from Real World cast member through the Challenge system into WWE superstardom and, most recently, his own unscripted USA show, Miz & Mrs. — is affable enough; he does a good job keeping a broadcaster's patter going to fill the silence, but while I realize that working in the WWE requires one to learn the basics of improv, he's not a comedian. Still, he's bringing far more to the hosting booth than Diaz, who started as a radio DJ before jumping to co-host BET's 106 & Park; since leaving that show, she's served as a correspondent on Entertainment Tonight and on HLN's The Daily Share...none of which I would have guessed based on the little she has to say on Cannonball. Granted, no one should expect or, frankly, want ESPN-calibre play-by-play commentary on a show that is barely a game, never mind a sport. But it seems like a decision was made to hire the best-looking co-hosts for the least amount of money and this is who USA ended up with. A pair of unknown comics, who might not have looked as good in their navy show shirts but would have been a lot better at spontaneously roasting strangers, could have made this a completely different show — and probably for much cheaper! (Diaz and Mizanin are joined by Simon Gibson, a touring comic, as the show's "sideline reporter." Gibson actually surpasses his Holey Moley counterpart Jeannie Mai in terms of both charisma and screen time, but when the camera pulls back to show that the "sideline" from which he's reporting is a fenced area the size of a below-average suburban backyard, it's hard not to feel sad for him.)
While Cannonball is, to my eyes, more of a belly-flop, part of me hopes that the producers of Holey Moley are watching and thinking of ways to turn pieces of its set into new hazards on Holey Moley III. I don't need to hear Mizanin and Diaz commentate as a contestant tries to remain upright on a surfboard as it glides on a zipline over a lake... but if no one puts a golfer on it and makes him chip onto a green while Rob Riggle makes fun of his pants, our culture will be worse off for it.
Cannonball premieres on USA tonight at 8:00 PM.
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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.