When it premiered eight years ago, ABC’s The Quest proved itself to be the best hybrid reality TV show, combining fiction and an actual reality TV competition in an organic, compelling way.
The Quest season 2, which has moved to Disney+ and premieres today, elevates everything: the plot, the action, the integration of challenges, the setting, the world-building. (Just watch the season-two trailer below and compare it to season one’s—which was excellent!)
The show provides attention to details that few reality TV shows are even aware of, and there are plenty of scripted shows on broadcast and cable with weaker acting and writing.
The season opens in the middle of a battle, unspooling its story via a considerably-sized cast and plot that branches out in more than one direction, and to multiple locations.
Not to break the illusion, but I remain stunned that this was filmed at a winery in California. There are some built sets, but it makes great use of the location. The special effects, too, are impressive, both practical and computer-generated.
But The Quest’s storytelling and production are so thoroughly immersive, it nearly entirely swallows the contestants, making them more like props than main characters.
For its move to streaming, The Quest has shifted its cast from 12 adults to eight teenagers—Ava, Caden, David, Holden, Myra, Serean,Shaan, and Toshani—whose ages range from 13 to 16.
The show gently mocks this. “You mean to tell me that these are the heroes summoned by the Fates? Children?” says an actor playing Prince Cedric, while someone else jokes that a 16-year-old is “practically middle-aged.”
These contestants, called Paladins once again, compete in challenges. All challenges earn the contestants talismans on their way to becoming the “One True Hero,” while some of them focus on retrieving the four Gems of Virtue in order to stop this season’s big bad, Tavora, who’s taking over Everrealm for villain reasons. (Her motivations are the least-developed part of the story at its start.)
That general storyline may be familiar to MCU fans, though instead of Thanos gathering Infinity Stones for his gauntlet to kill half of the universe, the Paladins must gather Gems of Virtue for a crown to save this world.
Interestingly, one of the contestants, Serean, told The Seattle Times’ Rob Owen they were not allowed to reference other fictional properties such as The Avengers. They “couldn’t name drop anything, which is hard when you take a bunch of teenagers and put them together and they can’t say the name of a band or shows,” she said.
I think that’s a missed opportunity, because, as they say in the series, they’re kids from America. They know movies and TV! Why not let the show be self-aware like Scream? Plus, Disney owns Marvel anyway—and episode two has a blatant, hilarious reference to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
The contestants/Paladins seem in awe of what surrounds them, but they mostly get to stand around and react. It’s like they’re walking through the world’s most impressive theme park attraction.
More than a half-hour passes in the first episode before we they have a conversation with each other, and it’s pretty much never that we get to know them as individuals, either in that episode or episode two. (There are eight episodes; I’ve seen the first two.)
At the end of the first episode, David says, “Coming into The Quest, I had fear that I wasn’t enough and I couldn’t live up to my full potential, but now, thanks to my teammates and my family, I know that I am enough.” That’s wonderful, but it’s not earned, because by then we’ve learned nothing about David, his fears, or his family.
The Quest’s first challenge resembles a leg of The Amazing Race, just in the woods: figure out how to find something, go here, go there, get this. It’s refreshing in that there’s no instruction, no Jeff Probst screaming at them—well, until the second episode. That’s when an evil monster taunts the contestants during a very Survivor-esque challenge, and I am going to assume that choice is fan service for me.
I will not spoil the way that first challenge ends, but it left my jaw hanging. The production design is exceptional in every way, and there’s a surprising amount of violence, terror, and grossness for a kids’ show.
In the first challenge, some of the kids work together, while two others are left behind, and don’t even get to see how it ends. I got the sense that it was an individual challenge that most of them ended up doing together. Are those left-behind kids upset? There’s some talk of team versus individual later on, but it’s so brief that it just evaporates.
In some ways, all of this makes The Quest season two the inverse of season one, which was lighter on plot and heavier on reality TV.
Now, there are no more confessional interviews. There’s no disclaimer at the start that breaks the fourth wall.
Most significantly, there are no eliminations. The first season eliminated its contestants one by one (and actually spoiled the order in a pre-season promo!)
Thus, Disney+’s The Quest plays much more like a movie, especially without commercial breaks.
Yet what makes this franchise so remarkable is its combination of reality TV and scripted storytelling, and I’m really missing the reality piece. I don’t even mean cutthroat competition or juicy drama, just more focus on the real people who are experiencing this amazing world.
We spend considerably more time with The Quest’s actors, developing their characters with full scenes that advance the plot but that the contestants never see. The actors‘ talent is impressive, and even more so when they improvise, in character, with the kids.
Is this a Disney+ choice, choosing to prioritize the fictional story? Is it the editing, because not much of interest happened with the cast? Is it part of the limitation of having kids on set? (There’s a “studio teacher” listed in the credits.)
Whatever it is, by the end of episode two, I still couldn’t name most of the cast members, and that’s a problem for a reality TV competition with just eight contestants.
The Quest season 2 dazzles in so many ways, and I am excited to watch the rest, but as reality TV, it’s a rough start for its journey.
Epic and impressive production design can’t hide the fact that The Quest’s contestants are not its stars. B
What works for me:
- A+ production, from cinematography to set design to creature makeup effects
- The immersion and integration of storyline and the reality TV elements
What could be better:
- Focus on the contestants
- Developing the real people’s characters as much as the fictional characters