History’s Top Shot [Tuesdays, 10/9C] is a competition show that really does interesting things with reality show conventions. In the second season premiere, the sixteen chosen marksmen face an opening challenge from Civil War days – each must hit a small target at a goodly distance with [have you see True Grit?] a Sharp’s Rifle. With a cast of competitors that range from a restaurant owner to a Homeland Security Agent, from a national champion [USPSA] to a golf instructor, this is one competition/reality series that is genuinely unpredictable.
The two best shooters from the Sharp’s rifle challenge will be named team captains – and it’s certainly a surprise when the two are Jay Lim [the golf instructor] and Chris Reed [hunter/outdoorsman] – neither of whom number among the wealth of top flight marksmen who have major awards for their shooting skills.
The sixteen stay in a ranch-style house in the desert [reality cliché – they’re all in one house] where the competition is set, the two captains take radically different approaches: Jay interviews the other shooters to determine their skills; Chris adopts an ‘improvise and adapt’ posture, selecting seemingly at random. The reality show cliché of the competitors living in the same house is subverted when there is no attempt to begin a series of artificial behind-the-scenes plot arcs culminating in a heroes and villains scenario. I’m liking this already.
After the teams are chosen, they move directly to the first team challenge – a game of billiards. This is, however, not just any game of billiards. Oh, no. The teams are faced with eight targets – the colored balls from billiards, numbered one through eight, placed, in non-sequential order on posts. Each ball is more difficult to hit as a series of intervening striped balls block more and more of the target balls – and the shooters must stand in a small area [three-foot square wooden platforms with the targets’ numbers on them]. To make matters worse, there’s a fog rolling in!
Each team member gets one shot at a target then has to return to a designated firing line and tag the next member of the team. They rotate through the team, one shot at a time, until all eight balls are hits. The losing team then faces the Nomination Range, where the team members shoot the target of the team member they believe should be eliminated [each of the eight targets is labeled with the name of a team member]. The two with the most hits move to the Elimination Challenge – in this episode, hitting moving targets with a .44 Magnum. There is a further twist here, but you’ll have to see it to believe it.
Each week, the challenges will be both different and more difficult.
There are two main reasons I enjoyed the second season premiere of Top Shot – and plan to watch the rest of the series: the obvious desire to focus on the competitors as people without looking to build up artificial heroes and villains and the nature of the actual competition. A third is the beauty of the desert location where the challenges take place.
The premiere is a marvel of editing for time – and not for creating artificial tension. In the first challenge, the winning team completed their goal in twelve and a half minutes, while the losing side took twenty-three minutes and change. Between introducing the competitors and detailing and executing the challenges, there’s no way that everything could fit a forty-three minute episode, so the editing has to be pretty sharp to get every shot in on top of the all the personal detail and challenge description.
Host Colby Donaldson [Survivor] is affable in a no-nonsense way and knows how to move things along without seeming like a jerk.
The competitors are tremendously diverse – in every way. Black, white, Asian, male, female – there’s a pretty decent mix here. The one obvious thing they have in common is a love of shooting, but I expect that, as future episodes air, we will learn a lot more about the remaining shooters. [Did I mention how refreshing it was not to be force-fed arbitrarily chosen heroes and villains?]
As reality/competition shows go, Top Shots is a great ride. I like it. A lot.
Next week: in the Team challenge, the targets are [wait for it…] each other! And are those tommy guns [Thompson Sub-Machine Guns] I see in the Elimination round?
Final Grade: A