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Why Holey Moley’s hijinks on the links succeeds where other shows have whiffed

Why Holey Moley’s hijinks on the links succeeds where other shows have whiffed
Holey Moley contestant Holly Fine and saxophonist Kenny G, who tried to distract contestants while they putted. (Photo by Eric McCandless/ABC)

Holey Moley is a bonkers, absurd mini-golf competition, but that’s obvious from its name alone. What’s surprising is how much more it has to offer than puns and a mini-golf.

New reality competition formats fail more often than they succeed, but Holey Moley has succeeded, both creatively and in the ratings, thanks to its perfectly calibrated combination of levity, preposterousness, and actual competition.

For a quick comparison: Family Food Fight, the other new competition that ABC also premiered last Thursday, had about 60 percent of Holey Moley’s viewers. It has a colorful set and fun flourishes, but it’s the same show that’s been done before. (The best version, I think, is this excellent BBC series, which is on Netflix; Food Network’s version added an unnecessary but quintessential Food Nework twist by having one family stop cooking in each subsequent round.)

The life feels squeezed out of it because its format has been done before, and it doesn’t offer anything new.

Holey Moley does, even though it’s based on a familiar, ubiquitous game, and also draws in elements from other shows—Wipeout’s physical comedy, Big Brother’s challenge set design, American Ninja Warrior’s costumed contestants.

It doesn’t just slap those together, it integrates them perfectly.

Contestants not only have to putt-putt around, but they also have to navigate the course: many holes feature physical obstacles, some of which are actually part of the competition (Kenny G trying to distract players), and others have just been added on as icing (like sending the final three contestants from the top of a volcano to the hole via a zip line).

Critically, though, it’s a real contest: there is putting skill required, and a (relatively cheap, for network TV) $25,000 prize is on the line.

Holey Moley (ABC, Thursdays at 8) has genuinely surprising and intense competition: people come from behind, hit impossible shots, and sink or miss putts.

Of course, it’s also ridiculous. Contestant interviews are backdropped by a lodge with plaid wallpaper and a large portrait of a squirrel holding a golf club behind them.

It doesn’t just stop with one idea, but takes each one three steps beyond where it’s necessary.

While ABC’s one-season revival of Battle of the Network Stars had just one layer—reality stars and C-list celebrities competing in basic games—Holey Moley has developed each component into something rich. And that’s what works so well.

Holey Moley has Best in Show-level commentary, plus Stephen Curry mocking himself

Holey Moley hosts and commentators Joe Tessitore and Rob Riggle
Holey Moley hosts and commentators Joe Tessitore and Rob Riggle (Photo by Eric McCandless/ABC)

Holey Moley is hosted, essentially, by Rob Riggle and Joe Tessitore, and not since Best in Show in 2000 has there been such delightful improvised commentary from a duo.

Rob Riggle appears to mostly be responding to what he’s seeing on the course, and usually does so with a seriousness that makes his jokes even funnier.

Monday Night Football’s Joe Tessitore is often responding to Riggle: sometimes with his own witty one-liners; sometimes with a deadpan reaction; and sometimes by breaking down into laughter, which invariably left me doubled over.

Even the bits are funny, such as when Rob Riggle looked into a camera and said, “What’s gonna happen? Who’s gonna win? Could it be you? No, it could not.”

Timing is everything, and everyone on Holey Moley has impeccable comedic timing, including the contestants.

They’re all given an assist by the editing, which knows exactly how long to hold a joke for, or when to include a beat of silence, or how to situate a visual gag. Even a piece of paper blowing in the breeze becomes hilarious.

The editing may be the true star. Holey Moley is an original format from Eureka Productions, which also produced Netflix’s Dating Around, a show that defied dating show conventions with its casting and editing, which turns several evenings of first dates into one linear story.

Here, the editing is wicked smart: It fast-forwards past the boring parts and, presumably, the less-than-dramatic face-offs. It saves some holes for future episodes, showing a quick putt but barely teasing what that hole and its obstacles have to offer.

CBS’ Million Dollar Mile didn’t realize how boring or unnecessarily complicated it was, but Holey Moley makes me wonder if the CBS show could have saved itself, if it’d had a charismatic host, clever editing, and fewer rules. You know, if it was an entirely different show.

Holey Moley contestants Morgan Reimler and Sierra Marshall get an assist from Stephen Curry
Holey Moley contestants Morgan Reimler and Sierra Marshall get an assist from Stephen Curry (Photo by Eric McCandless/ABC)

Between Holey Moley and shows like NBC’s Making It and Netflix’s Nailed It!, American competition television is tilting toward the realization that pure joy is a lot more fun than abject cruelty.

Holey Moley mocks, with affection and intelligence, everything from golf to itself. It also makes fun of reality shows that are still desperately trying to use celebrity names to lure viewers (which doesn’t work).

While playing the part of celebrity name, Stephen Curry actually does far more than, say, LeBron James did for Million Dollar Mile. He actually is a golfer, and he gives an assist on one of the holes, his only on-course appearance.

Curry lightly mocks himself and is being lightly mocked, from his arrival via helicopter to Rob Riggle’s trash-talking through a robot.

He also shows up for the presentation of the trophy to the winner, and for this cold open, which I hope makes a return in future episodes, because it immediately establishes this as a show that will place fun at the foreground.

There’s a very serious presentation (orchestral strings, slow pans in extreme close-up) of absurd content (a fox, a polar bear, and Stephen Curry in a smoking jacket), which may be the best way to describe Holey Moley itself.

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