As a format it predates almost all reality TV, and that’s precisely why it works in 2019, writes Duncan Greive.
There’s something deeply comforting about watching Celebrity Treasure Island. It is a very pure form of escapism, largely because it explicitly recalls a world without the internet, and before everything started going to hell. It first came out in 1997, before Survivor, Idol, Fear Factor, The Bachelor, Big Brother and the whole reality explosion.
Watching the rebooted version truly transports you. While it has some modern flourishes – notably its multi-night structure and the dramatic, contrast-heavy Survivor lens it’s shot on – it feels enjoyably out of time. Compared to the psycho-sexual torture of Married at First Sight Australia, CTI, with its dorky challenges and camping in the woods, is literally child’s play.
The premise, such as it is, is this: two teams of seven apiece, are transported to a desert island. They’re divided up and made to complete challenges, which alternately win them clues to a $100,000 prize (for charity! It’s nice!) or lose them players, as celebs are eliminated each episode. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough.
Not at first, though. The first episode was an absolute shocker, leaden-footed setup, bad writing, almost no drama. The only thing of note was a horrible little set piece. Team Kahu won a challenge, allowing them to raid their rival Team Mako’s camp and make off with anything “not tied down”. Ex-Shortland St legend Karl Burnett ambled in and, noting the beds weren’t available for theft, spied a part woven flax covering, by the adorable Moses McKay of Sol3 Mio.
Burnett, seemingly driven by some primal force, walked over and picked it up and joylessly tore it apart. It was truly one of the more unpleasant things I’ve witnessed on reality TV in a while, a solid analogue to colonisation – white man shows up to pristine environment; ruins it almost instinctively – in miniature.
Burnett, an adorable man who genuinely seemed unaware of what his hands were doing, belatedly clocked to its functionless cruelty, and was drowning in guilt soon after. He went downhill fast, and it’s to the great credit of cast, producers and particularly McKay, that his depressive episode was handled so gently, and the resulting exit ended up being oddly moving. A low-key reality TV landmark, in terms of the handling of a moment like this.
That aside, the first episode was genuinely awful. Which, when you do a podcast about New Zealand reality TV every week, is deeply chilling, given that reality shows are now two or three times the duration they were just a few years ago.
Thankfully, there was a marked change in episodes two and three. The characters became far better developed. The Olympians Barbara Kendall and Eric Murray had that classic elite athlete thing of being just a bit too intense for the world. Ladi6 is cool as fuck, and tremendously affecting when talking about her father. Matty MacLean, a Survivor junkie, is eyes-out-of-his-head engaged in a game no one else is playing. Hosts Bree Tomisel and Matt Chisholm are loud and silly. Captain of Team Kahu, Sam Wallace, emerged as a true clown, at once incredibly earnest and completely ill-suited to his role, involved in multiple altercations and looking confused a lot.
Lily McManus clocked to Wallace’s incompetence, and quickly built this feminist alliance, uniting Ladi6 and Shannon Ryan in setting distracting tasks for the group’s men, while, as Ladi6 winningly put it, “we’re organising a coup”. Time and again the brilliant McManus provides wry lines and narration, and keeps this whole enterprise from taking itself too seriously.
And that, ultimately, is what’s so fun about CTI. From production to hosts to cast, it’s well aware of the low stakes. No one’s trying to find love, or even get good at dancing. They fire up mightily for the competitions, but most are aware that it’s ultimately just a weird holiday. And that, functionally, is what it is for the audience too – a break from reality and reality TV, and a blast from the distant TV past, when all we wanted to watch our celebs do was have a good old-fashioned wriggle in the mud.
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