Watched: The Quest

I’m not sure how my life has been complete before I discovered this: ABC’s new fantasy-meets-reality-tv series, The Quest. If you’re anything like me, right now you’re thinking to yourself, “Fantasy…? And reality tv…? In the same sentence?”

And then your mind is blown.

The good news is that it’s really really well done. In fact, it may be the first reality tv series that I actually would want to go on. (If, you know, I could ride a horse, and shoot a bow and arrow, and swing a sword.)

The basic premise is that 12 ordinary people are taken from their every day lives to a magical kingdom in order to fulfill a prophesy and save the kingdom from an evil being (halfway through the season, we haven’t seen him yet, so I’m not sure if he’s meant to be human or monster). The Paladins (as they’re called) are each given a piece of a magical artifact, and (because it’s a reality tv series) have to complete challenges every episode, and go through an elimination process to find the “One True Hero.” In short, it follows an archetypical fantasy plot. And, for that matter, the typical reality tv format.

The idea of a reality tv series set in a fantasy storyline could be laughably bad, but it’s not. It’s pretty great, actually. It has some fantasy movie big names behind it, and while I don’t know how much suspension of disbelief had to be done on the part of the participants, for the viewers, it’s seamless. The creatures, the set, and the fight scenes look real. In addition to background actors who work in the castle and courtyard, there are several actors who engage with the Paladins: Crio, Royal Steward, who plays the part of host, explaining the world and leading them around from scene to scene. The Queen, their supporter, and her Grand Vizier who very much does not approve (I suspect he may be the mole). Then there’s Sir Ansgar, who is the Head of the Royal Army, and largely responsible for training them. In the first couple of episodes, he was a hardass, but as he’s gotten to know them, he’s warmed up to them. And then there are the three Fates, who are exactly as otherworldly and distant as you might expect Fates to be.

I’m super impressed by the actors: they must do a fair amount of improv, and they seem to be very good at staying in character. Little things, such as when one of the Paladins early on called the Queen “milady.” After he walked away, she turned to her courtiers and said, “Did he just call me ‘lady’?”

The Quest does some things that I wish more reality tv series could learn from. For one, the elimination is not actually the last scene of every episode. Because there is a driving plotline outside of “I’m going to be the winner of ‘The Quest'”, the elimination takes place about 3/4 of the way through the episode, and once this week’s eliminated participant has been banished (which is nicely portrayed by having them walk out of the Hall of Fates and turn to smoke), the remaining Paladins return to the castle, where they almost immediately run headfirst into a new plot twist, which serves as that episode’s cliffhange. For example, in one early episode, the Queen joined them at their dinner table and is poisoned. The next episode’s challenge was to discover and then make the antidote for her poison.

And because the overall goal is to save the kingdom, there is a spirit of camaraderie, not competition, amongst the Paladins. Each week, they have to choose from amongst the bottom two to be eliminated, and in the discussions that take place before the choice is made, there is a great deal of thoughtful emphasis on which Paladin brings the most to the table to ensure the success of the one true hero (whoever that may end up being). Though there are clearly friendships being formed, trying to form alliances and “play the game” ends up actually hurting one Paladin (whom I was glad to see go!), and a great moment is when one Paladin stands behind one of the bottom two just so that she wouldn’t be left standing alone.

So, clearly I love this show, and having binge-watched all 6 available episodes, am anxiously awaiting the next one. But even more, I hope that this kind of “reality tv show with a story” spreads–I think it really brings something new to the table in terms of reality tv shows.

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