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Ultimate Surfer is ABC’s near-perfect combo of talent competition and drama

“This is a surf competition, this isn’t a kissing competition,” surfer Juli Hernandez says upon learning that the first challenge on ABC’s The Ultimate Surfer is spin the bottle. “If I wanted to kiss someone, I would have signed up for The Bachelor,” Brianna Cope adds. I, too, was rolling my eyes, ready to give up on what seemed like a surfing-themed knock-off of Bachelor in Paradise, the show that precedes it.

But The Ultimate Surfer (ABC, Mondays and Tuesdays at 10) has more than I gave it credit for. It’s a self-aware series—not to the degree of winking fourth-wall breaking of Nailed It!, but enough to continually set up and the subvert my expectations.

After a caravan of shirtless bros and tanned women arrive at Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch, they surf and then meet host Jesse Palmer. Kayla tells us she’s “fan-girling so hard” because she recognizes him from ESPN. As my eyes did a few rolls around—please!—another contestant, Anastasia, did the work for me: “I recognize Jesse from The Bachelor.”

Add that to some impressive surfing, and The Ultimate Surfer is a compelling reality TV competition with just the right amount of strategy and interpersonal drama that could lose its balance and sink into the surf later in the season, but is balancing perfectly right now.

Jesse Palmer explains The Ultimate Surfer's first challenge, spin the bottle, to the cast, who are all surfers
Jesse Palmer explains The Ultimate Surfer’s first challenge, spin the bottle, to the cast, who are all surfers. (Photo by ABC)

While this is billed as “a new competition series featuring Kelly Slater,” Slater isn’t around in the first episode, appearing only briefly via video, but his long, artificial pool with its perfect artificial wave is the only star we need. On The Ultimate Surfer, the wave machine itself doesn’t get much attention, but I’d love to see more of how it works. I’ve only seen the first episode, but I’m in for the season because I love talent competitions between people who excel at their craft.

In the meantime, it’s also a major challenge, since we’re told that this wave is much faster than ocean waves. The contestants live close by, in Airstream trailers, which makes all of this a controlled environment, perfect for pandemic-era production.

Many of the surfers have pre-existing relationships, from training together as kids to being in a romantic relationship to just knowing of each other’s reputations, smart casting that makes the show feel less constructed for our benefit and more like we’re being dropped into something that was already happening.

There’s a very structured competition at play: Three challenges, with two surfers exiting each week. The last two standing, one man and one woman, get $100,000 and wildcard entries into three competitions so they can try to land a spot on the World Surfing League’s World Tour. They’re judged by pros who watch remotely and give numerical scores, so while the evaluation is subjective and not always explained, at least there’s a number to use for comparison.

The challenges are the Beach Battle and the Wave Challenge, on which teams of two compete and are scored together. The winning pair gets immunity. The others are at risk for going into The Surf Off, a strictly individual competition, where head-to-head battles between two men and two women result in two people exiting every week.

There’s strategy on The Ultimate Surfer: The winners of the challenge choose a team that goes into the Surf Off, and then that team chooses which team they want to face off against. Four people go in, and the two who win the Surf Off become a new pair. “I didn’t think of the team I could be creating,” one person says about the first episode’s results. There are alliances and considerations about whether to try to get rid of strong teams early or not, and I’m interested to see how all of this develops.

The Ultimate Surfer puts its contestants to the test on an artificial wave
The Ultimate Surfer puts its contestants to the test on an artificial wave. (Photo by ABC)

In the meantime, the surfing is beautifully shot, with multiple angles and the camera getting surprisingly close, thanks to a jet ski that travels alongside them. There’s plenty of slow-motion shots of water folding over itself, foaming and splashing. The first Surf-Off takes place at night, giving it a distinctive look, the water glowing green.

When the actual challenges begin, the show switches over to Joe Turpel and Erin Coscarelli, whose color commentary is a considerable weak spot, with flat delivery that’s neither entertaining nor helpful to me as a surfing dummy. They do explain some things, but I still didn’t understand the context in which they used those terms. That’s okay: my ignorance doesn’t make the surfing any less impressive.

I just wish the commentators were more interesting to watch, considering how much screen time they get. Thankfully, we also get to see the other competitors watching via a feed, and their reactions are full of emotion, whether it’s sympathy or reverence.

While I was watching The Ultimate Surfer, I thought more than once of the Colby Donaldson-hosted Top Shot, because that too was a compelling competition about something I never thought I’d care about. Perhaps that’s an apt comparison, since the production company is Pilgrim Media Group, which also produced Top Shot (though that’s no guarantee of success, since they also produced the worst reality competition I’ve seen this decade).

I’ve only seen the first episode, but I’m in for the season because I love talent competitions between people who excel at their craft. The Ultimate Surfer is an amped-up competition that could wipe out any time, but seems like it’s ready to take off.

The Ultimate Surfer

A talent competition that doesn’t succumb to its urges to become Bachelor in Paradise B+

What works for me:

  • A competition that combines talent and strategy
  • Excellent casting of surfers with pre-existing relationships
  • The impressive and clear cinematography

What could be better:

  • The flat color commentary
  • More variety in challenges, which hopefully will be coming in future episodes

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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