The inspired casting of Tāme Iti on a fundamentally silly reality TV show paid off in an impossibly resonant scene last night.
The scene is unimaginably pretty. Somewhere outside Wānaka, on an island far from any road, two men wander along the lakeside. The pair are bathed in sun despite a slate grey sky, with brooding maunga rising all around. It is, generously, a May-September friendship, with a stout Tūhoe kaumatua placing his hand gently on the shoulder of a rail thin Pākehā tāne from Dunedin.
In a year notable for acclaimed dramas and intimate, accomplished comedies, it’s hard to imagine any local show will top 10 minutes of extraordinarily powerful reality television on last night’s Celebrity Treasure Island. The show brings 20 or so celebrities together to live rough and remote and do challenges to raise money for charities, and its 14th season has proven that its recent post-Covid run of powerfully resonant television is no fluke. How? Either you were watching, and you know, or you weren’t and find the idea utterly nonsensical. It almost defies explanation.
But here goes. The two protagonists are Tāme Iti and James Mustapic, who are unlikely to run across one another in any other aspect of their lives. Iti needs no introduction, a 71-year-old whose biography is so rich and textured it reads like fiction: raised in rural Ruatoki, part of the Ngā Tamatoa Māori rights group, a communist who journeyed to China in the 70s, arrested during the 2007 botched Urewera raids, an acclaimed artist and excellent actor. Mustapic is, in his words, “a comedian who makes fun of psychics”, but also perhaps one of the most brilliant, funny and acerbic assessors of New Zealand’s recent cultural past.
Mustapic has been made captain of his team, and honestly, it feels unlikely. It’s full of stars and type-A personalities. Mustapic is a genius but this is his biggest gig to date, and his main collaborator is his mum. Still, you can see him swelling in the show, instantly beloved by his teammates to the point where, yeah, why can’t a skinny gay guy in his mid-20s lead a team with ex-Warriors captain Steve Price, Good Morning legend Mary Lambie and former Bachelor star Matilda Green on it?
A big part of the answer might be Tāme Iti. On that walk beside the lake, Mustapic doesn’t know, but Iti has already decided to leave the show on his own terms. Iti takes him aside for a talk about leadership – and just imagine how that must feel. “I know you’ve got the kaha,” he says to Mustapic. The screen cuts to Mustapic in what is known as an “in the moment” interview, where he discusses what’s happening in the aftermath. “What the hell? I’m on an island with Tāme Iti. He’s a national treasure. And he’s talking to me? Telling me that I’m a great leader? It’s insane.”
Well, yes. But also, Iti sees something in Mustapic, and voices it. “Don’t be fooled by his size,” he says in his own interview. “It’s like a decoy.” At the end of the walk, they hongi. “Ka pai my bro.” Mustapic, clearly profoundly moved: “I struggle to put into words what something like that means to me.”
Then back to camp, where Iti delivers his news. “Coming here changed my whole routine. Gave me a bit of a shock treatment.” He’d been focusing on his health and the hard conditions and tough physical challenges were messing with that. You can see the shock and sadness on his teammates’ faces. Wearing a trademark bowler hat and a bright pink t-shirt, he launches into a karakia and the whole thing cannot help but give you chills. “Ke te pai, I’m here in your heart.” He says, “I love you.” He blows a kiss.
The team takes turns paying tribute to the great man. There are few dry eyes. A few minutes later he does it again, when they meet the next team ahead of a challenge. “I’m going to go home to my blind dog, let him lick my wounds,” he says. Then he’s gone.
The whole scene feels utterly surreal, his entire appearance on the show more the stuff of dreams than something that could ever really have happened. The whole thing took 10 minutes of screen time, handled with real grace despite the abrupt tone shift.
Recently, reporter Tāmati Rimene-Sproat was interviewed for The Spinoff’s My Life in TV series, and, asked for a controversial opinion, said “Reality TV is trash. I don’t think that’s very controversial.” And it’s not. This genre is still, 25 years after it emerged, routinely dismissed and maligned.
As with any form of pop culture, it frequently earns that verdict. But sometimes it really doesn’t. Celebrity Treasure Island outwardly presents as a show with no chance at greatness. Yet due to a decision in recent years to take a very expansive view of the word celebrity, and lean into a form of hyper-diverse casting, it has become a place which regularly produces extraordinary scenes, some of which would naturally sit in any rational cultural hall of fame for this country. Yesterday’s was one of those.
Of course it didn’t last. They dried their eyes and hoed into the next challenge, splashing about in the water and playing puzzles. The show still does what it says on the tin. But Tāme Iti and Mustapic also prove it contains multitudes, and their quiet kōrero needs to be marked for the pure and elevating vision of Aotearoa it represented.
Celebrity Treasure Island: Te Waipounamu is on TVNZ2 at 7.30pm every Monday to Wednesday, and streams on TVNZ+. For weekly recaps, get amongst The Real Pod Extra on Substack.