Did BBC One’s new celebrity gymnastics show manage to stick the landing?
It’s been a fairly dry summer reality TV-wise, because unless you count the World Cup (where apparent ringer team Brazil’s semi-final meltdown was admittedly straight out of the Mark Burnett narrative handbook), all we’ve had to contend ourselves is a fairly tortuous series of Channel 5-era Big Brother (which is due to end on Friday and might well merit a blog entry of its own if I can organise my thoughts sufficiently coherently) to sate our hunger.
Now, serving as an appetiser for the main course of Strictly Come Dancing vs The X Factor in a few months, which has managed to stir up its fair share of drama before even hitting the airwaves (Cheryl Tweedy-Cole-Fernandez-Versi-Terwilliger-Hutz-McClure is back! Mel B won’t touch the plebeians because she thinks they’re diseased! RPATTZ!!!!!…’s sister has auditioned! James Jordan has been fired and is being comically bitter about it all over Twitter! Robin Windsor’s back injury has ruined his chances of being one half of the show’s first-ever same sex pairing for at least another year! As a result, Marcus Collins is now definitely available for panto!), BBC One has thrown out celebrity gymnastics contest Tumble, which aired its first episode last night. I’m not really convinced it’s going to generate enough material for weekly blogging (as much as I enjoyed
the traffic I got from writing about Splash!, I did run out of things to say about diving quite quickly), but as a dedicated follower of reality shows, I thought it might be worth sharing some first impressions.
Nice Opening: The show actually got off to a fairly strong start: a seemingly endless onslaught of professional gymnasts leaping, rolling and double-triple-super-mega-aerial-cartwheeling across the studio, and host Alex Jones (for whom I will always have a soft spot) descending from the ceiling in a giant hoop. Then all the couples sprinted the length of the studio as they were introduced to us. Yep, sprinted. I’m gutted no one ever thought to do that on Strictly, because just imagine Nancy Dell’Olio doing that. And the first performance was Amelle from the Sugababes, also dangling from the ceiling in a giant hoop, accompanied by a handsome young man with no shirt on. (One of the most consistently entertaining parts of the episode for me was how he had to sit there without his shirt on for the first of the episode, looking vaguely uncomfortable about it.)
I mean, I apologise if this means I’m easily pleased, but frankly my finger was hovering over the “series record” button at this point.
Balance In Broadcasting: Unfortunately, after about three couples had performed, I felt things starting to flag a bit. The 90 seconds or so that we spent on each performance felt vastly disproportionate to the amount of time we spent anticipating them/discussing them afterwards. I realise that’s true of almost every show of this nature (particularly Splash!, where you could easily blink and miss the actual performance because, well, gravity), but it just felt more pronounced here. I wonder if it might be connected to the fact that there were only really two types of performance on offer: aerial hoops or a floor routine. I was genuinely gripped by the ambition and athleticism of Amelle’s opening number, but once you’ve seen one celebrity do it and realised it’s possible, you’re inevitably in for diminishing returns. Especially when Andrea McLean virtually promises to vomit on live television and then doesn’t deliver.
Tasty Oreo: The other issue I had with the performances themselves was that the floor routines never really felt much like watching gymnastics. There would be the odd impressive isolated manoeuvre, but the rest of the time it felt like watching one of Tyce Diorio’s ill-advised contemporary routines from So You Think You Can Dance. And it’s not that I don’t enjoy contemporary dance – I watched every episode of SYTYCDUK, after all – but it wasn’t really what I tuned in for. At the very least I wanted some ribbons. Or some rings. OR A POMMEL HORSE.
There Are Too Many People On This Show, Please Eliminate Three. I Am Not A Crackpot: The other overwhelming feeling as episode one rolled on is that this show is overcrowded. For starters, ten contestants is too many for a six-part series where the first episode is a non-elimination. In addition to that, each celebrity had both a professional partner and their own personal gymnastics coach. This might well have been necessary in terms of getting the stars up to competition standard in the rehearsal time that they had available, but I’m not sure that they all needed to be on camera – not every routine benefitted from being performed by two people, and I’m struggling to think what would’ve been lost from the experience if the coaches had just been sat in the audience rather than on stage. We had a limited amount of time to get to know everyone in this opening episode, and it felt like it was all spread too thinly.
Panel Beating: I wonder if some of the pacing problems stemmed from the feeling that all the air was sucked out of the room whenever the judges got to speak. They all seemed pleasant enough and I’d be a fool to question their credentials from a gymnastics perspective, but there wasn’t much energy in their feedback. Obviously you don’t get someone of Nadia Comăneci’s stature on this show and not make her Head Judge, because that would be ridiculous, but she seemed rather nervous and faltering in her feedback, which undermined her authority a bit. Louis Smith’s presence as an Olympic medallist and Strictly Come Dancing 2012 champion is probably the panel’s biggest selling point, but he always had a slightly blithe attitude to the competition on that show and he feels similarly removed from it all here. I don’t want to criticise Sebastien Stella because a) he has a brilliant name, and b) there will literally never be an occasion in my life when I have no need for a hot Frenchman,
but he was already massively overscoring everything from the beginning, which makes me wonder where there is for him to go. (And also ruined the perfectly good “well, he can give me ‘1’ any day” joke I had all lined up.) Craig Heap offset everyone else’s generosity with the scores which should have been helpful, but even then he was so determined to stake out the role of The Mean One for himself that he didn’t always remember to explain why his scores were a couple of points lower than everybody else’s. Also, perhaps it’s just old Strictly habits dying hard, but the Sebastien-Louis-Nadia-Craig order of announcing the scoring felt all wrong, because more often than not you started with the highest score and ended up with the lowest, meaning that the audience reaction was HOORAY-BOO!, not the more widely-accepted BOO-HOORAY! It made it feel a bit Dancing On Ice, and nobody wants that.
Podium Potential: That’s not to say I don’t have faith in the panel’s ability to bed in, though. There was a bit of amiable filler at the end where Craig had to do a vault because reasons, and Nadia stood on a podium in her white suit like a featured dancer on Dick Clark’s Dicking Rocking Dicky Eve and judged his performance.
She felt free to be much sassier and shadier with him, presumably as a peer, and as a result that one brief section was significantly more enjoyable than most of the rest of the show. I’d like more Sassy Nadia please, and less Nervous Nadia.
A Pizza Hut, A Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken And A Pizza Hut:
Thank Goodness For Lucy Mecklenburgh: Not because she was a brilliant gymnast, but because she turned up right at the point where my boyfriend and I were starting to think that everyone was a bit too good at what they’d been asked to do, and it was a bit samey and boring, and then Lucy turned up and was not very good at all. Phew!
If I Were The Sort Of Person Who Noticed These Things: I would say that Bobby Lockwood has magnificent eyebrows.
Good job I’m not that sort of person, eh?
A Fine Showmance: Literally two seconds after Bobby’s VT has introduced his professional partner Kristin: “OOOH, AREN’T BOBBY AND KRISTIN GETTING ON WELL TOGETHER? THEY MAKE SUCH AN ADORABLE COUPLE! OH HOW CONVENIENT, WE’VE GIVEN THEM A REALLY ROMANTIC ROUTINE!” Christ on a bike, I know reality TV abhors a showmance vacuum, but let us learn who Bobby Lockwood is first before you start clamping Kristin onto his genitals.
The Professional Touch: I have a feeling that this is going to be one of those shows where it’s quite difficult to hide the times when the professional in the partnership is the one doing all the hard work. It was particularly obvious in Lucky Meck’s and Emma Samms’s performances this week. When I’ve already watched one of the celebs do an actual somersault, I’m not really going to be impressed by an assisted somersault, am I?
Sharing The (Common)wealth: On a similar note, getting Louis and his Commonwealth Games chums to perform together at the end of the show was an excellent idea, but it did kind of enfeeble everything that we’d just watched. Especially since they did actually have a pommel horse. I realise we’re not going to get performances from the stars that are anywhere near the level of quality that the professionals can deliver, but I do hope they’ll be adding more disciplines over the series, because there are so many aspects of gymnastics and it feels a real shame to limit it to just two, particularly if they’re going to tease us with showcases of all the other ones.
Fair Comment: Having a commentator is an interesting move (if, again, worryingly reminiscent of Dancing On Ice), but they might want to fix things in future so that it sounds a little bit less like he’s doing it on a mobile phone from Ulan Bator.
Keeping Up With The Jones: I thought Alex Jones was generally a good choice as presenter – she’s got a solid light-entertainment background, tons of live TV experience, she’s competed on a show like this before (she made the semi-final in Strictly Come Dancing in 2011) and she has a warmth about her as a host that I think is often underrated, possibly because she tends to mostly do light and fluffy stuff. Admittedly, there was one rather hard-to-ignore clanger right at the end (trailing next week’s show, she teased an appearance from “Beth Tweedle”) but I thought she did a good job of keeping the whole thing on track, trying to get some banter going with the judges (especially considering what she was up against) and being suitably empathetic toward the contestants. Also, I loved that when Louis got up to perform his showcase number, she sat in his seat whooping and hollering like she was at the rodeo.
So What Next?: Well, as I said, I probably won’t blog this every week, but I might revisit it from time to time if I feel there’s a good reason for doing so. (“Lots of shirtless male gymnasts” may be considered editorially justifiable, just fyi.) In terms of the show itself, I’ll be tuning in next week because I did enjoy it despite the pacing issues, and also because the early episodes of formats like this are often a work-in-progress as they figure out what works and what doesn’t. (I remember how episode two of Splash! was a much better piece of television than the first one because the production team presumably read some of the criticisms and addressed them.) In addition, I’m quite intrigued by how the eliminations are going to work – as far as I can tell, next week the scores from both sets of performances will be added together, then the lowest-scoring stars will have to perform The Vault (which sounds like it could be fabulously anticlimactic in the way that The Jump was on The Jump, but hey, at least they didn’t name the whole show after it on this occasion) and then Nadia will decide who to eliminate. If they are forgoing having a public vote entirely, as it sounds like they might be, then that’s a brave move and I’m interested to see how it plays out – British TV audiences aren’t really used to not having a say in the outcome of their reality shows, so will that put viewers off in the long run, or will it prove to be a smart move that underperforming contestants with powerful fanbases can’t outstay their welcome?
Prediction: Public vote or no public vote, John Partridge is winning this, surely?