Fox’s new competition series Ultimate Tag is not as serious a celebration of athleticism as NBC’s American Ninja Warrior, nor is it self-aware and ridiculous like ABC’s Holey Moley. It is successful with enough frequency to at least make it watchable, though it may end up being as forgettable as CBS’s attempts at similar shows (Million Dollar Mile, Total Knock Out). This is dim praise, I know, but it matches the experience of watching it: sometimes I was bored, sometimes I couldn’t track what was going on, and others times I was transfixed and totally in to the action—so it’s kind of like watching football.
First, Ultimate Tag (Fox, Wednesdays at 9, repeats Saturdays at 11) is less like tag and more like flag football, as the taggers have to tear glowing strips off the contestants’ shirts in order to tag.
Likewise, J.J. Watt and his brothers Derek and T.J. are less like hosts and more like people who stand there (Derek and T.J.) and read things (J.J.), and sometimes accidentally let some personality spill out.
You may recognize the taggers from American Gladiators—not literally, but their nicknames and their mission to stop the contestants from succeeding are certainly familiar. The taggers are impressive to watch as they fly around the course and pursue the contestants. Many of them are parkour athletes, and traverse the courses as if they are Marvel characters, unbound by the laws of physics.
I spent much of the first episode petrified that someone was going to impale themselves on an obstacle, because very little is padded; this is not the course of Wipeout.
The taggers chase after three contestants in a variety of games, and the contestants earn points in a variety of ways. (The six contestants are divided by sex, so there are two parallel competitions happening; the last man and woman standing each get $10,000.)
By far the best of the games are Dome Tag, which is tag on a dome suspended high above the arena and a large air bag, and Revenge Tag, which the announcer calls “most thrilling course yet.”
Revenge Tag is Human Pac-Man, and tonight’s premiere completely skips except to mention it in a recap, a baffling choice because it’s by far the most easy to follow visually. It’s also the most layered, involving visible strategy from all players.
The contestants run through a maze-like course, and if they touch a power pellet—I mean, “active column”—they get to chase the taggers and try to earn a bonus point. After 10 seconds, the ghosts—I mean, taggers—go back to hunting them.
I also appreciated that game because it removes the taggers’ parkour advantages, as they can’t jump over or run atop the barriers, so it feels a little more even. Ultimate Tag is ultimately an unfair fight in that the taggers 1) know the courses and 2) constantly tag out, even mid-game, so they’re well-rested while the contestants don’t stop.
The first and last courses have the weakest game design: The first is basically playground tag, where one tagger chases three people and just picks one poor kid to chase and humiliate *raises hand.*
The final course, which is run by two contestants, has two taggers, one of the ground and one at the summit of this show’s version of the Aggro-Crag. If they successfully tag, the player loses five seconds, and the player who gets to the top the fastest, with penalties included, who wins.
But it’s quickly clear that trying to avoid a tagger can take longer than five seconds, so the correct strategy is to just run it as fast as possible—and some of the contestants do successfully outrun the taggers.
The taggers have been given and/or chosen nicknames. Here are the taggers’ personas and, if you’re curious to find them on Instagram, their real names:
- Atomic Ant (Lorena Abreu)
- Banshee (Carrie Bernans)
- Beach Boy (Travis DesLaurier)
- Big Deal (Austin Raye)
- The Boss (Brooke Ence)
- Bulldog (Ruel DaCosta)
- Caveman (Josh Yadon)
- Dynamite (Yessenia Cossio)
- Flame (Caitlin Hutson)
- The Flow (Tavon McVey)
- Geek (Omar Zaki)
- Horse (Zac Gordon)
- Iron Giantess (Laura Micetich)
- The Kid (Corbin Reinhardt)
- La Flair (Jesse La Flair)
- Rocket (Julian Daigre)
- Spitfire (Sydney Olson)
- Viking (Ross Forte)
A few of them are committed to the persona—Geek tries to argue that he used math to tag someone on the dome, and Banshee does her best to be terrifying—and they also attempt some trash-talk, as do the contestants, all of which I found to be less interesting than trying to remember which Watt was which.
You can tell that the producers really want this to be the next American Ninja Warrior, but I doubt it will become a new sport that people build gyms around. It may not even be a second season. That’s because it feels too underdeveloped. “It’s time to play some tag,” J.J. Watt says before each competition, and like that tagline, more effort could have been expended across the arena, like in developing the actual game play.
Ultimate Tag’s greatest accomplishment may be that it has easily vaulted itself atop that pile of forgotten but rather similar reality competitions.
It is far better than that Kevin Hart mess Total Knock Out, on which contestants tried to knock each other off obstacle courses, and failed to keep me awake, or that Tim Tebow mess Million Dollar Mile, on which he and the producers of Big Brother made a one-mile race as dull as possible.
What Ultimate Tag lacks in execution, it makes up for in momentary thrills, surprising victories and startling defeats, though I sort of wish they’d seen the brilliance of Revenge Tag and just made Ultimate Pac-Man instead.