I have only seen one episode of season two, but I am comfortable declaring that Tough As Nails is the next great reality broadcast competition format, and absolutely a worthy occupant of Survivor’s timeslot because of the way it’s defining new ground in reality TV competition.
It is, of course, only temporarily replacing Survivor, which has been unable to film in Fiji during the past year. But even after Survivor returns, Tough As Nails is a competition show that I will enthusiastically watch, because it is is truly excellent on its own.
That’s not been the case for CBS’s most recently attempts at new competition formats, most of which crashed and burned in their first seasons: Million Dollar Mile, Total Knock Out, Candy Crush.
The noteworthy exception up until now was Love Island, which is great, though it was based on a proven international format, and one that already had somewhat of a following here thanks to Hulu streaming the UK version.
Tough As Nails started from zero, with only Amazing Race host Phil Keoghan’s name recognition, but it immediately established itself as an equal among CBS’s high-quality reality TV anchors, Survivor and The Amazing Race. (I haven’t forgotten Big Brother, which is, as always, complete garbage.)
Why Tough As Nails works so well
In late January, during a Television Critics Association virtual press conference, CBS executive Thom Sherman said, “You learn so much during a first season of a show. So season two is going to be even better. This season is elevated, from casting, to production values, to the unique job site challenges, which are even bigger and better than last season.”
That’s setting a high bar, but it also turned out to be accurate. Tough As Nails works because it has all the right elements, and they’re just as strong this season.
A great reality competition begins and ends with its cast, and this series has delivered again. It’s a diverse group in everything from age and occupation, and someone deserves a casting Emmy just for finding people with nicknames like “Eyebrows” and “Knuckles,” “Freight Train” and “Zeus.”
The cast includes a UPS driver (“Freight Train” Patrick) and a mariner (Tara), plus a retired Air Force Colonel and the only Black woman to ever fly the U-2 spy plane (Merryl Tengesdal).
They’re impressive and hilarious. “The love that I have for concrete just goes beyond words,” Mikey “Eyebrows” says while smashing concrete with a sledgehammer. Then Celi tells us, “I don’t even know what these words mean. What is aggregate?”
The one-hour premiere introduced everyone briefly, but of course only focused on a few people, especially Savage Crew team leader Mikey “Eyebrows,” who we learned lives in a two-bedroom apartment with his kids and lives paycheck to paycheck, and desperately wants to be able to buy a house.
It’s that kind of detail that, to me, is so much more powerful an argument about how our society treats people who work in the trades or do manual labor, and may lead us as a society to one day pay people actual living wages for helping our society function. (The show has thankfully dropped the patronizing language of the season one premiere, and is instead focused on defining and redefining toughness.)
Tough As Nails also has very strong challenges. I love a reality TV challenge, and typical episodes—starting next week—give us three challenges: a team challenge, which gives the winning team $12,000 to split; an individual immunity challenge; and an elimination challenge. The last person standing wins $200,000 for themselves; the team that wins the most challenges all season wins $60,000—$10,000 for each member.
Those challenges are all grounded in real-world trades, but translated to reality TV scale: two teams assembling the framing for a garage, or smashing rocks with a sledgehammer to try to fit them through a grate and tip a scale.
All of this is staged, shot, and edited with reverence: lens flares from the setting sun between studs, or through the backdrop of aged machinery.
What made the show stand out immediately, though, was its choice to have simultaneous team and individual competitions, eliminating people from the individual competition each week but keeping them around to compete in the team challenges.
Earlier today, as a thought exercise, I asked on social media what other competitions should try something similar and would benefit from keeping their eliminated players around. I appreciated Gordon Holmes’ reply, which succinctly made the point that this very thing has been done badly on this same network (Edge of Extinction, I’m looking at you!).
EW’s Dalton Ross made an excellent point: “it is part of the concept of the show (and not a twist).” I agree, and that is why it works so well here when it’s failed badly on Survivor.
How the Tough As Nails season two cast deals with the challenge of working together as they are eliminated one by one remains to be seen, though some of them are already talking about prioritizing the team over themselves.
(I asked a few of the contestants about this during a TCA press conference, and Merryl said that even the cross-team camaraderie continued. “I fell during a competition, and not only did I have a teammate pick me up, but I also had the opposite teammate pick me up,” she said.)
The show itself continues to make interesting and new choices. Season one’s teams chose names, Savage Crew and Dirty Hands, and they’ve kept those same team names for season two.
My initial response to this—okay, let’s be honest, my initial response to many things!—was skepticism. What if Survivor had named every tribe Tagi and Pagong for 40 seasons?
But keeping the same names and colors builds on last season without diminishing nor ignoring the show’s history. Host Phil Keoghan called this the “legacy” of those teams, and that’s an apt description. The new Savage Crew was committed to overcoming the underdog label, even before competing in a single challenge.
Tough As Nails was an underdog, too, in the sense that it’s really hard to launch a brand-new broadcast competition format 20 years after Survivor changed the TV game.
Broadcast reality TV has had a few hits recently, from imported international formats (Fox’s Masked Singer) to brand-new concepts (ABC’s Holey Moley), and it’s great to add Tough As Nails to that list of creative successes. It’s resolutely entertaining, and if it also increases viewers’ appreciation for its contestants’ jobs, even better.
Tough As Nails: A
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