“How often do you see a reality format that catches and does season after season on network these days?”
That’s Jon Kroll, executive producer and showrunner of American Grit (Fox, 9 p.m. Thursday), candidly assessing the environment into which his show, a brand-new reality format, is being born into.
American Grit‘s format has familiar elements, but it plays with them in interesting ways. It’s like Survivor with endurance challenges instead of Tribal Council, with coaching instead of strategizing. Mount Rainier hovers in the background when it’s not concealed by dense Pacific Northwest forest. There’s also host John Cena, the most visible attempt to defy those odds and catch on.
But there is also a lot happening behind the scenes to try to make American Grit one of the rare broadcast reality television success stories.
The team of people who produced and filmed the show late last year is one Kroll talked of admiringly, often by name, during our more than hour-long conversation in Los Angeles last week. It includes one of the all-time great reality show directors, J. Rupert Thompson, and people who’ve worked on The Apprentice, Survivor, and many other shows.
In the reality TV industry, Kroll said, “there are a lot of people who care, but we all know that there are some people who don’t know how to elevate a show. I think experience really brings you that. We were constantly, throughout the show, looking for what we could do to elevate it, because we thought we had something kind of special.”
I watched the first two episodes, and I agree. I was really surprised especially at how much the premiere—which has an incredibly satisfying narrative arc—feels like a fully realized show, since it can take show a few episodes or even a full season to really find its footing. And first episodes are tough. (As Kroll joked, “every first episode, it’s 10 pounds of shit in a five-pound bag.”)
Despite all the work behind the scenes, like the best reality television, American Grit creates a context and lets its cast do the rest. “I’m a big believer,” Kroll said, that “manipulation is for lazy people who don’t know how to set up a world that has self-governance.”
How American Grit’s world was created
Kroll came on board as showrunner last summer after finishing Fox’s Bullseye, a Fear Factor-like competition. American Grit was, at that point, only an idea that consisted of just three words: military, John Cena. The format was born “sitting in a room with David George, Brent Montgomery, and Will Nothacker from Leftfield, and brainstorming the whole show.”
Everything was on the table: “Would the competitors be military? Would there be competitors?”
The result is a competition where a cadre of four people with military backgrounds coach and mentor teams of athletic but non-military people. There is no voting, only an endurance challenge whose loser/quitter exits the competition each week.
“The lens through which the entire show is seen is the challenge for these accomplished military leaders to lead—not the Bad News Bears, they all have athletic skills—but people who don’t have any military training,” Kroll said. “That’s what got the cadre invested in their teams.” They even picked their own teams, “with broadcast standards standing by. They had to live with their mistakes.”
Their team members have a range of backgrounds, and the show “defines athleticism in different ways—this is something in casting that I really fought hard for,” Kroll said, pointing out that they have, among others, a “yogi, roller derby queen, an equestrian, as well as an Olympic gold medalist, and NFL pro, and a bodybuilder. That gives us a different way of looking at athleticism, and we test them in different ways in the endurance” challenges.
The coaches of the losing teams do choose one person to go into the elimination/endurance challenge, known as the circus, each week, but the results aren’t what you might expect.
“We thought the cadre would go to the weakest link as a logical means of how to handle sending someone to the circus, as a fair way of doing it. Because they have such a team mentality, instead, their approach was, How can I keep my team together?” Kroll said.
American Grit benefits from its ‘Cena sauce’
WWE star John Cena, who had a breakout role as an actor in last year’s Trainwreck, was “an active executive producer” on American Grit. “I’ve never worked with talent that’s been as prepared and as in-control of their own voice as he is,” Kroll said. Fox in particular wanted to “make sure you’re taking advantage of this incredible gift you’ve been given, this big star who’s never done a show like this before,” he added.
In the first two episodes, at least, that really does show on screen—he has the reality host thing down, and his personality is there but never overshadows the contestants.
While the production “played with using an IFB for him”—an earpiece through which a host can hear producers, or sometimes just parrot what producers say—they instead had a producer, Curtis Colden, work closely with Cena.
Colden, “who’s done the Apprentice for years, both the Donald and Arnold, did a great job of putting together material for the show,” Kroll said. “They would work through stuff together, deal with things that were going on with the gaming of the show, where we had to change things if there was a rules thing. We found that more effective than being in [Cena’s] ear.”
“But Cena put the Cena sauce on everything—that’s actually what we called it. He’s really taking the information we’re giving him and making it his own,” he said.
That includes the one-on-one conversations Cena has with the contestants who are heading into the circus, and they really are conversations, not typical reality interview banter. Kroll told me that Cena was so invested that he spent the night before a particular interview searching the web for information about a contestant to inform his questions.
“John doesn’t want to just show up at the house and hang out with them, he wants his appearances to have purpose,” Kroll said. “He goes there when he’s going to reward the winning team, or he has his one-on-ones with them, but he doesn’t just show up.”
Behind the scenes of American Grit’s challenges
Since there is not a social game, American Grit has to rely on its challenges to fuel the episodes. Its challenge team was led by Nick Bernyk, who’s been a challenge producer on King of the Nerds, Expedition Impossible, and Top Shot—and Survivor seasons 13 to 22.
There are two challenges in each episode, an immunity and an elimination challenge, called the evolution and the circus. The evolution—a team-based challenge that gives its winner immunity and time with John Cena—took a day to film. The circus is an obstacle course that ends with an endurance element that changes each week.
(Between challenges, the contestants stay together, grouped together by team, in a space designed for the show. “Mercedes Younger is the production designer who did the house, and she’s a genius,” Kroll said. “She created this—I like to think of it as being a little Lost, a little Dharma Initiative. She just did a fantastic job of putting it together and building it in about two weeks. It was fast.” Some of the interaction there makes it onto the show, though there weren’t cameras there 24/7.)
Both challenges are coached by members of the cadre, which adds an interesting new dynamic to even the more familiar challenges. “It was very important that they have a significant involvement and can use their coaching skills,” Kroll said. On the day between the episode’s two challenges, the cadre members led team-building exercises, which were “sometimes duds and sometimes amazing,” Kroll said, so not all will be included on the show.
One of the major challenge challenges was that the production wouldn’t know the distribution of the teams after episode two. There could be 4-4-3-3, or 4-4-4-2, and that gets increasingly complicated as the season wears on (episode four could possibly have one team with just one player left, 4-4-4-1, and so on).
“It limits us in some ways” and “gets much harder down the road, and I had to kill some challenges because of it. We knew from the outset that we were going to have this issue; we were never going to merge,” Kroll said. When I asked about how this complicated challenge design, he said, “poor Nick Bernyk!”
More challenges for the challenges
The location also added another layer of challenge—for both the contestants and the production—thanks to the cold of November and December, when it was filmed. “The big negative of choosing this area is the rainfall and snowfall is extensive,” Kroll said. “That was a production concern, but from a creative standpoint,” it adds things like “challenges that take place in horrible rainstorms.”
American Grit was filmed in a 4,300 acre private forest owned by the University of Washington that uses it for forestry education and sustainable logging. The Pacific Northwest and its soaring trees and snowy mountains are an atypical setting for these kinds of shows, which tend to be somewhere tropical or in the desert outside of Los Angeles. The specific location for the circus is pretty striking, and has a Star Wars-ish connection. “I always wanted the circus to be like the Ewok village, to be built into the forest,” Kroll said.
There are 21 on-camera people, and many more behind the scenes, all of whom had to deal with the environment. “The mud, the rain, the isolation—the production team did an amazing job of not letting that stop us,” Kroll said.
The evolution challenges are “60 people running through the forest,” as most challenges cover a lot of ground and require the production to move with the contestants, sometimes across a lake or similar obstacles. “We’re in the middle of the forest—it’s stupid to treat it like you’re on a stage. Let Strong do that, let Ninja Warrior do that. We’ve got a forest to work with! It may drive production crazy when we’re dealing with the elements and everything else, but I want to put it all on the screen.”
Challenges were tested by the challenge team plus locals who were working out at the same CrossFit gym where John Cena worked out, and were created so that they could be handled by all contestants. Bernyk “comes from Survivor, and one of the things they do really well on that show is they don’t handicap women. The women and men compete equally,” Kroll said. “This is something I fought tooth and nail to have happen. I wanted women to compete head-to-head” with men.
Endurance challenges were also tested, though Kroll called that “an inexact science,” pointing out that the actual runs sometimes lasted longer or were over faster than they’d hoped. Some endurance challenges get harder as they progress, speeding up the competition. For legal reasons, though, all of that was mapped out in advance.
“We don’t make those decisions on the fly,” Kroll told me, though he admitted that one challenge didn’t go as planned. “I tried to make one once—we were talking to standards about, Can we do this? We had mis-planned [an endurance challenge] so it was going longer, and going to go indefinitely, it seemed like—and not in a way that was entertaining. There are ways that can be really good, but it just wasn’t. I actually think the competitors would have been fine with” the twist, but producers and standards and practices “had a conversation about it and ultimately determined that it would not be appropriate.”
Keeping contestants safe
The many trailers and teasers for the show have shown one image again and again: a wet contestant collapsing in front of ice baths and being carried out on a stretcher. After the challenge disaster on this season of Survivor, challenge safety and the responsibility of production was at the front of my mind when I watched that scene.
That particular challenge, Kroll told me, “was designed and tested with medical personnel standing by. We knew from the all the research we had done and the medical opinions we got that this challenge would end due to either someone giving up or exhaustion. The only way the person would have gotten something resembling hypothermia would have been getting in that ice bath and sitting in it for 30 minutes. She collapsed from exhaustion. It’s the kind of thing our medical staff cleared everyone as being able to do.”
Safety, he said, was considered as challenges were being developed. After they were tested, risk assessment staff checked them, bringing in medical personnel to help evaluate if necessary.
“There’s a whole plan, from a safety standpoint, for every single evolution and every single circus, to make sure that we’ve gone into it with the proper testing and knowledge, and that we end it giving them the proper attention, so they can be well cared for,” Kroll told me. “We want them to look scarier than they are.”
Still, there’s the possibility someone could get hurt. “We thought we might lose someone to an injury over the course of this, and thankfully we did not,” he said.
A competition that is not ‘playing soldier’
There’s a message and argument woven into American Grit—and explicitly stated repeatedly by many different people—about things like toughness, and there are connections made to military training and combat.
However, while American Grit stars four members of the armed services as coaches, it is actively trying to avoid being Fox’s Boot Camp or NBC’s recent Stars Earn Stripes, which have civilians act as if they were in the military.
Instead, Kroll said that challenges are “inspired by military training, they’re never based on. We’ve all seen Boot Camp, we’ve all seen Stars Earn Stripes, we’ve seen these shows. One thing we were consciously avoiding was playing soldier, especially with having real ones there, and especially because so many of our cast have connections to the military of some kind.”
While there are no uniforms or military props, and teams wear primary colors, the show does sometimes use military terminology. The final obstacle course is called the circus, a term from Navy SEALs that is used for punishment given for failing to complete certain training benchmarks. “In researching this show, I’d read a commencement speech by a Navy SEAL turned admiral that he gave to the University of Texas, and he referred to a circus. I was like, That is the coolest name for something horrible ever!,” Kroll told me. He said that for another part of the competition, “I wanted to call it the tribunal, which is what you’d call it in the military, but there was some concern that was too much like Tribal Council.”
The cadre, the four coaches, often refer to their own training and combat experiences, and sometimes compare them to what’s happening on the show.
“Those military touchstones always come from the cadre themselves,” Kroll said. “We had conversations about this: We don’t ever want to trivialize your stuff by you comparing when someone died to what we’re doing. They were cognizant of that. It also helps them apply the lessons they’ve learned in their combat to competition and teamwork and competitiveness and missing your family.”
To be sure that what’s happening on screen won’t be read as offensive, “we have military consultants who review every episode and look for things that can potentially be red flags—generally they’re flag stock footage that has the wrong uniforms and stuff like that,” Kroll said. Those consultants are former Army officers who “keep people out of trouble by looking at this stuff.”
For Jon Kroll, though, the show is personal. “My father was an officer in the Navy,” he told me, and added that his late “father in law was a fighter pilot and a general in the Air Force. Everything I do with this show I try to look at as, This is the show I would have liked him to have seen. I want to honor that memory and my father’s service, and want to be really careful not to do something that undercuts what we’re trying to do—which is, these guys are bad-asses, these guys are great leaders, these guys have lessons we can all learn from.”