Back in 1995, before Survivor launched Mark Burnett’s career as a reality television super-producer, he created an insane endurance competition called Eco-Challenge. Held annually and airing until 2002, the contest consisted of teams of four trekking over several hundred miles of wildly varying terrain in remote areas of Argentina, New Zealand, Morocco, Canada, and elsewhere. From mountain climbing to white water rafting to dense jungle hikes, the Eco-Challenge had everything. The top finishers were typically supremely fit endurance racers, with years of experience under their belts, while the less experienced teams struggled just to make it to the end. Burnett didn’t create the sport of adventure racing, but he did bring it to television.
I bring up Eco-Challenge because Burnett’s new reality competition show, Expedition Impossible: Kingdom of Morocco, is heavily informed by it. In this show, 13 teams of three, each wearing color-coordinated clothing and carrying a team theme (the New York Firemen, the Country Boys, the Football Players), race across Morocco, hoping to collect $50,000 apiece—and new cars. In the first episode, teams must hike up a massive sand dune, ride camels across the desert, trek into the mountains, and eventually find the finish line at or after sunset. Each subsequent leg will presumably feature other grueling tests of physical endurance, but the show isn’t a flat-out, non-stop race like its predecessor.
Expedition Impossible also bears the legacy of a decade’s worth of reality competition shows, which means the teams have to stop in the midst of the racing to complete challenges. These challenges seem to serve two purposes. They test the teams’ mental prowess and teamwork abilities in the middle of a day of hard physical racing, but more importantly, they give the less physically capable teams a shot at evening the playing field. The teams also get a break to rest at the end of each leg so that they can start up again, either together or at a staggered start, in the morning.
The teams are also different from those in Eco-Challenge. They’re not strong, focused athletes, since reality TV now demands personality conflicts rather than straightforward competition. So, they include Latin Persuasion, a group of women who have spent their whole lives in New York City: they arrive in the Sahara Desert wearing all black and start arguing amongst themselves almost immediately. Equally ill-prepared, the Country Boys describe Morocco as “Just like Mississippi, but with sand.” And to mess with the audience and the other teams’ expectations, there’s No Limits, a team featuring Erik, a blind man who’s scaled high mountain peaks, including Everest, with the help of teammate Jeff. But for all his physical prowess, Erik’s blindness adds a particular sort of drama to the proceedings.
Drama is key here. In the first episode, one of the Country Boys gets completely exhausted by about halfway up the big dune, immediately proving that Morocco is actually not all that much like Mississippi. The teams must rappel down 30 stories worth of mountain, which leads to at least a couple of freak-outs over the height. The football players move pretty well physically, but ride the coattails of other teams in both of the challenges, much to the consternation of the other teams.
And then we have the camels. They live up to their reputation as stubborn creatures, giving the teams fits, much to the amusement of the local camel wranglers. Eventually most teams give up trying to ride them and set off across the desert dragging their camels by ropes.
This lively premiere episode gets equal mileage from the team members and exotic locales. Burnett’s veteran producers and editors know their way around casting and cutting this type of show, and they’ve hit upon a good formula here. The smart editing means that hours of slogging through the desert are compressed into concise storylines. By combining elements of both Eco-Challenge and The Amazing Race, Burnett has found a middle ground that is derivative yet thoroughly