This review of HBO Max’s Karma discusses results from its first four episodes.
It’s tempting to see HBO Max’s Karma as the 2000s-era Discovery Kids show Endurance, just repackaged and rebranded, and it absolutely is that. But it shares far more in common with MTV’s The Challenge, and that is not a compliment.
Karma has gathered an eclectic and charming group of teenagers in the Sierras for a game that has lofty ambitions, but which actually has some of the worst reality TV game design I’ve ever seen, from the structure of the show to the lack of art design.
Filmed in the Sierra National Forest, which is identified as “alpine wilderness” and is southeast of Yosemite National Park in the middle of California, Karma has an absolutely stunning setting, and the sweeping shots of trees and valleys are gorgeous. (It makes me wish more reality competitions would film in forests, like Fox’s John Cena show American Grit did its first season.)
The Sierra National Forest is the same general location as Endurance: High Sierras, though the cast of Karma doesn’t get cool treehouses. They get bare-bones tents with bunks, and a couple stumps to sit on outside, plus t-shirts with their team color. That’s the conclusion of the production design. The challenges, for example, have zero theming. I don’t need Holey Moley’s set in the middle of the alpines, but I also don’t see any effort on screen.
HBO Max, the confusingly named streaming service from WarnerMedia, describes the show as “sixteen contestants, ranging in age from 12 to 15, completely off the grid, away from parents and the normal comforts of home, to solve puzzles and overcome physical challenges, with the laws of karma setting the rules,” saying it “will test the mental and physical stamina of its young contestants as they unravel how their social actions impact their success in the game.”
That is incorrect. There are no puzzles to solve on Karma, at least not in the first four episodes, which is the point at which I gave up on watching this stunningly inept game. The rules are set by producers who want to latch onto a higher, spiritual idea as a way of concealing the fact that their game structure is based on random chance and rewards bullying, and prioritizes finding ways to get the kids to be mean to each other so those decisions can affect them later. Karma!
The format most closely resembles Big Brother, if it was played in pairs, though there is less nuance and complexity. In that way, Karma just becomes The Challenge: the minimal game elements are just used as kindling to throw onto the fires of interpersonal conflict.
On a standard episode of Karma, there’s a challenge, and the winning team get to choose the two teams who are up for elimination. The challenges are repeatedly physical, despite the disparities in physical strength, and one of those two teams will go home based on random chance.
That is not good game design, and the bad decisions start immediately, when the show eliminates two players after an entirely physical challenge. Why would a show focused on karma dump two players immediately because they can’t swim or lift giant pieces of wood as quickly as others?
The physical challenge that determines which one player gets to form all the teams? Half the cast doesn’t even get to participate in that. Perhaps there’d be some interesting thing to play with in terms of karma for the players who opted out of that competition, but Karma declines to do anything interesting with its alleged theme.
In episode four, host Michelle Khare tells the remaining contestants the challenge is “your first real test of not just strength, but also strategy.” I was so excited—and then they competed in a challenge that was mostly dependent on upper-body strength.
Despite this relentless prioritization of physicality over mental acuity, the results are not always predictable: it’s fun to watch smaller players sometimes outlast the bigger ones, or watch 6-foot, 3-inch-tall Huck show off by doing pull-ups while holding on to his dangling partner—and then dropping her into the water because he’s tired himself out.
Two early challenges also add a political layer: they’re the kind of reality TV challenges that let players target each other. Those can absolutely work in a strategy-focused competition, but the very first team challenge is one of those.
In those kinds of challenges, like on so much of Karma, the players can’t actually do anything to protect themselves from being targeted. The producers rarely let the teams just prove their own worth, which is maddening. It’s like someone aiming a leaf blower at a chess board; why bother with even setting up the pieces?
The kids who are up for elimination don’t actually have the ability to save themselves. Endurance’s eliminations were essentially games of rock, paper, scissors rebranded, which gave the bottom-two teams a chance to save themselves using some strategy.
Karma’s eliminations are entirely based on random chance, with odds increasing for the team that the other kids like better, or the team that the group decides they want to save.
Here’s how it works: At the Cave of Karma, which is not a cave, or anything that even resembles one, each of the bottom-two teams takes turns smashing one of 10 urns. Team A hides team B’s medallions under team B’s urns, and vice-versa. The team with the most medallions obviously has a better chance of staying: In episode two, this means that one team has a six in 10 shot of staying, while the other team has a 1 in 10 chance. It’s still random, though.
Those medallions are distributed before the teams visit to the non-cave Cave of Karma. During The Offering, the safe teams each give a medallion to one of the bottom-two teams. The team with the most medallions has the better chance of staying in the game.
So what we have is a game that’s paired kids up and put their fate in the hands of their physical strength, groupthink, and random chance.
What’s delightful to watch, though, is that even the kids pick up on how dumb this all is.
“Everyone keeps using the excuse that you guys are a strong team,” pink team member Avon tells perpetually targeted yellow team member Illya. Avon points out that neither Illya nor her partner Eli have won a challenge, either separately (during the two individual challenges that take place before teams are formed) or together.
“We haven’t even given you guys to chance to prove yourself in a competition, because every time there’s a competition, we’re either going for you or we’re going for Gray [team]. So how can you guys prove yourselves? That is really making me mad,” Avon adds.
Me too, Avon, me too! But what kept me watching for as long as I did because of moments like this from cast members like Avon, and Ilya, and Jack, and the others.
Karma’s cast and host save the show
As frustrated as I was with the game design, I was compelled to keep watching, thanks to the cast—and especially because of the underdog stories.
Illya is not just trying to represent Muslim teenagers who wears a scarf, but also fighting against her teammate and everyone’s perception that her team is strong, which is based on nothing they’ve actually done in the competition, as Avon pointed out.
In the very first episode, Jack, in a moment of cockiness, declares that he’s here to win, leading Adren to wonder if Jack isn’t secretly playing everyone and lying about his lack of physical ability. Jack’s not lying, and gets eliminated in the first challenge.
“I’m not an outdoor kid, but I have watched 38 seasons of Survivor, I’ve watched every single episode, and I see the excitement in it, strategy of it, the thrill of it. It’s something about just going for it that beats any other feeling in the world,” Jack says.
I wish this show offered more of Survivor’s strategic game for him to play, and maybe he’ll end up on CBS in five years.
Thanks to a kid dropping out due to homesickness—which is handled a little too exploitatively for my taste, with audio of his crying layered over a shot of a tent at night—Jack pops back in episode two. But poor Jack’s demonstrable lack of physical prowess has his new partner, Skyla, upset, because she’s convinced she’s going to lose. “Having a partner whose first response to seeing you is bawling her eyes out isn’t exactly a great welcome,” Jack says.
Skyla comes around, though, and these young adults tend to quickly work through their problems, which is inspiring. They display a range of emotions and maturity, often in the span of a single episode.
Watching Karma, I tried to overlook all the bad decisions, waiting for the game to recover, because I genuinely like the cast, and the way they reacted to the game and each other. They’re simultaneously bonding and also highly suspicious, which makes for some compelling television, like when a small group of players decide plant false information with Luke, whose trust they’re questioning, to see if that gets around.
The game itself is constantly trying to stoke tension. After the two teams likely to be nominated start fracturing internally—Presley wants her partner Adren to humble himself, and he instead mocks her as she cries—host Michelle Khare walks in and is met with chaos and tears. She says, “I am sensing a really strong lack of community and communication here.”
“Shocking! I wonder why,” Presley says. Presley is referring to the behavior of her teammate, Adren, and others, but it’s not shocking because the “lack of community” is literally what the producers want.
Endurance host J. D. Roth is the executive producer and creator of Karma, but is off-camera, though you can watch him reacting to their drama in an amazing behind-the-scenes video that host Michelle Khare created: “I Became A Network TV Show Host.”
Michelle’s hosting—and her increasing comfort with her role—is a high point of the series, and in her video, you see her as she pushes back against cue cards and words spoken to her through an earpiece, and gradually gets more comfortable with the role. If only the game had more for her to do.
All too often, though, she has to talk about karma and the game as if they have any real meaning. “Karma’s here tonight,” she says, as if it’s a magical ghost floating around. “Karma is real tonight,” she says, like it’s an alien that just beamed in.
But she’s talking about a team that managed to pick the right urn despite having only a 10 percent shot at doing so. Karma may have increased their odds, but hasn’t given them anything to actually play.
There are moments when decisions players make end up hurting them. Elijah wins a challenge and has to create the pairs, and he decides the best way to do that is to give no one the partner they wanted. That backfires immediately.
But placing him in that position was setting him up for failure, even if he hadn’t made that particular decision. He won a challenge and his reward was being put in an impossible position, and turned into an easy scapegoat.
In Michelle’s video, J.D. Roths says, “What I’m hoping is that kids will make mistakes: emotional mistakes, tactical mistakes. And then they’ll have to go back to where they live with the other kids—they can’t hide being their social media, behind their parents. And in that moment, will they realize that the mistakes don’t define them. It’s what they do after the mistake that defines them.”
The players sometimes are able to do that, and it’s impressive. But they rarely get that opportunity, thanks to all of Karma’s mistakes. What will J.D. Roth and HBO Max do about those?