There are a lot of worrisome things I could point out about NBC’s newest reality series, Stars Earn Stripes, in which celebrities that range from professional athletes to actors and musicians and one spouse of a politician pair up with actual members of the armed forces to train in real military exercises before being sent out on missions to allow them to earn money for their charities of choice. If one of the outlets for which I freelance wanted to pay me for this series review, I would list them all. But today I'm really only here to focus on one distinct issue.
If I wanted to dive into snark, I would point out how Nick Lachey compared the brotherhood of the armed forces to the brotherhood of growing up in a boy band (!). If I wanted to call out someone whose celebrity I don’t feel was earned at all, I could note how Todd Palin made a wisecrack about the challenges being so hard, he couldn’t remember why he even signed up (um, how about to benefit a charity, you fame whore!?). If I wanted to raise the big questions, I would ponder why a producer like Dick Wolf, known for making stars, felt the need to draw upon famous names at all to create a gimmick for such a show, rather than just turn his attention on the real-life military personnel assembled on-screen.
In all truth, the Operatives here may not be recognizable in most households, but they are impressive on their own and any one of them could carry this show on his back alone. Having eight individuals there to show off individual specialty weapons techniques and tactical maneuvers is worthy of its own show. The “celebrities” may end up dragging them down.
But I digress...
Because, instead, though, I feel the need to focus on one particular element that worried me since I saw the show presented at TCA and was teased with the "danger" to come.
Live ammo! Barbed wire! Helicopter drops! And all performed by usually pampered, coddled celebrities. More than just tripping down a hill and ending up with a face full of mud, Stars Earn Stripes was going to give America the opportunity to see these celebrities stripped down and fighting in unimaginable ways. What could possibly go wrong?
Look, there is a infinite amount of time to train for any exercise, being filmed for reality TV or not. Each celebrity’s skill level is different. Being led through belly crawl exercises and sniper training is one thing, but being told to jump out of a helicopter with a third of your own body weight in packs and equipment strapped to you, landing in a (presumably freezing) body of water and expected to swim to the real start? Well, that’s just an obstacle course designed by Satan himself. And if that’s what the show wants to explore, then the show better damn well make sure those it throws into the situation know how to swim!
I have no doubt that the production team of Stars Earn Stripes had medics and other trained professionals standing by to aid the operatives should something go horribly awry, but I have no doubt about that because I have worked in this business long enough to know the behind-the-scenes. To an average viewer at home who saw both Terry Crews, a former professional athlete, and Dolvett Quince, a current personal trainer—men who actually earn their living from being physically fit—practically drown during that first mission, it should have been a wake-up call. Not to not try this at home. Not even to honor your troops that much more because of what they can and will do for you of which the average person is incapable. But that even though its message is one of patriotism, Stars Earn Stripes is still a reality show, and that means getting the best “shot” and story possible, regardless of legitimacy.
Because here’s the thing: after both Crews and Quince floundered in the water and were pulled to safety by their operatives, ending their missions early, there was a lot of talk around them about how they were so brave for jumping into a situation like that with virtually no training. If that is true—if there were no practice drills in the water wearing these packs—that’s not brave, nor commendable; it’s just plain stupid. Anyone in real civilian world would be scolded for such an action, but they were patted on the back, presumably to save a bit of their bruised egos. And shame on the production and shame on all of these men and women—operatives and celebrities—for allowing that, for not speaking up to ask for a practice run when their lives could literally be on the line. It may be a soldier’s mentality not to question an order, but these people are not soldiers; they are merely playing a game.
And if the statement is not true-- if they did have the practice drills but just chose not to show them in the brief package that led up to the mission-- then shame on the production for writing copy to imply otherwise, and shame on the men and women for going along with it and spoon-feeding the story the show wanted you to believe, not what was actually the truth. We all know reality TV scripts situations and conversations; we all know creative editing makes even more of a story; but this is just detrimental on a much wider scale. Countless times within the episode, we're spoonfed by contestants, operatives, and the voiceover just how "real" these scenarios are. It's a bastardization of a beautiful concept: designing a show to honor our service men and women.
The show can’t have it both ways: it say the stakes and tension have never been higher and then manipulate elements otherwise. Stop posturing; stop repeating mere words; and prove it. I'm not saying I want to see someone get seriously hurt, but if I have to hear Dean Cain exclaim that he “could actually die” one more time, I'm going to have to insist the producers pay it off before the end of the season!
Stars Earn Stripes airs on Monday nights at 8 p.m. on NBC.