If you like the brutally physical challenges on Survivor, where there’s hand-to-hand combat in water or wrestling in the dirt, here is a four-season-old show for you: Steve Austin’s Broken Skull Challenge.
I’ll admit that the title turned me off the first time I saw it. But the show has surprises waiting, starting with its artistry. Yes, I wrote the word “artistry” about a show with the phrase “broken skull” in its title.
In fact, last year, the Directors Guild of America gave its highest award for directing an unscripted television show to the show’s director, Adam Vetri, who was also nominated the previous year, but lost to The Chair.
Vetri also directed Top Shot, and there are visual similarities between the two shows, from the use of beautiful high-speed slow motion to the arid desert location and sepia-toned landscape. (Steve Austin’s Broken Skull challenge is filmed in the same general area north of Los Angeles: Santa Clarita, Calif., not Austin’s actual ranch in Texas.)
The show pits elite athletes against each other in a series of physical challenges, some that are head-to-head, some that are hand-to-hand, and that action is filmed with focus and clarity that keeps us in the middle of the action. The competition is simple: Two people compete; the loser leaves immediately. Eventually, one person remains, and they run an obstacle course solo, competing against the previous episode’s winner’s time. The person with the fastest time gets $10,000, and becomes (or stays) champion.
Ultimately, where it succeeds is in stripping away everything else. There’s nothing except physicality, cinematography, and Steve Austin’s color commentary, which is more amusingly descriptive than Probstian harassment: “it’s a big-ass heavy log.”
While there’s a tiny bit of smack talk—if the title doesn’t give it away, there’s a lot of unbridled masculinity here, though women compete, too—there are no extended interviews, no bios. Contestants virtually evaporate, eliminated every time they lose. This show flips the script of American Ninja Warrior, which, for most contestants, spends more time introducing them than they spend on the course.
So it’s just challenge after challenge with pretty high stakes, at least in terms of this competition: there’s no choice but to win for each contestant.