CBS’s new reality TV competition Buddy Games has six teams of four friends, and an enthusiastic host in Josh Duhamel, but oh does it drop the ball on its games.
That’s half the title, most of the show, and completely a problem.
Duhamel—who you may recognize from the Transformers cinematic universe or the NBC series Las Vegas—promises us “the most absurd, disgusting, and exhilarating” challenges.
Yet for their first challenge, Buddy Games (CBS, Thursdays at 9) gives the players a choice between three individual challenges: eating cold macaroni and cheese, taking off all their clothes, or dragging a heavy bag.
Yes, simply stripping and running is the entire challenge. This is network television in the fall of 2023. I love reality TV, but CEOs, please hurry up and give the actors and writers what they’ve asked for.
The episode’s main challenge is an obstacle course, with obstacles including running through electrical wires while carrying a log, walking across a balance beam, and then filling a bucket with mud carried on your body. At the end, players imitate beer pong by throwing balls into garbage cans painted like Solo cups.
This looks like a version of a Survivor obstacle course built by a fraternity on a field.
Maybe that is exactly what they’re going for: Buddy Games is, after all, based upon Josh Duhamel’s own reunions with his friends and the dumb games they play and/or the films that were based on those reunions. (I have watched neither Buddy Games, the 2019 movie, nor its 2023 sequel, Buddy Games: Spring Awakening.)
Except: Duhamel describes the games he and his friends played as “the most absurd, exhilarating series of competitions that we can dream up.” Episode two’s big competition is cornhole, just with someone lying on the board, so they sometimes get hit with bean bags.
That’s “the most absurd, exhilarating” thing a team of people could dream up? What about throwing something other than bean bags? Water balloons? Handfuls of spaghetti?
In real life, these sorts of games may be very fun to participate in. Television, though, requires more than just people having fun for viewers to have fun, too. It has to be fun to watch, and Buddy Games strains.
The only new thing Buddy Games offers is a mid-challenge needle drops, such as The Offspring’s “Come Out and Play” and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ “The Impression that I Get.”
The editing tries to make the challenges seem interesting and dramatic, yet still cannot compensate for how chaotic they end up being.
It’s hard to follow progress or even get a sense of the space, and that’s a technical fail—especially for a show that’s supposed to be about friends, and how they work together (or not).
All of this was giving me flashbacks to another competition produced by Bunim-Murray Productions on CBS: The Challenge USA season one, which had some of the worst challenges I’ve ever seen. (That show has improbably but thankfully improved considerably in its second season, thanks to a new showrunner.)
I like a challenge-forward reality TV show. CBS’s Tough As Nails has three challenges in most episodes, and while those are based on real-life skills and trade craft, I’m up for silly competitions, too. I loved Holey Moley, after all.
But they have to be coherent and creative; this just comes across as slapped together.
In the first episode’s main challenge, Josh Duhamel tells the teams, “I’ve donated $5,000 to the winner,” phrasing it as if the show didn’t have the budget for prizes.
Duhamel is the best part of Buddy Games by far, bringing far more enthusiasm than the show itself.
“Let’s fucking go—yes! You have no idea how excited I am to see these pretty faces,” he says in the first episode. I’d love to see him bring this energy to Big Brother’s soundstage.
Duhamel introduces the first challenge covered in mud, telling the contestants, “I tested the very first Buddy Game. Do I have something on my face?”
This isn’t a one-time bit: As he introduces the challenges, we see a flashback of him actually testing the challenge while wearing a “Test Dummy” t-shirt.
As to the teams themselves, the first two episodes, both of which I’ve seen, do not have enough time to develop 24 people into individual characters.
They seem promising—especially because it’s not a group of 20-somethings just out of college. There are equal parts affection and sadness about their friendships which have spanned decades but also have drifted apart.
CBS did not release the contestants’ ages, but between families and stories about knowing each other for, say, 35 years, they have more life experience than the average cast. (At least one face was familiar to me: Team Pride’s Andrew, who ran The Amazing Race 3 with his father, Dennis, back in 2002 as a 21-year-old.)
The show isn’t content with just letting us watch them bonding with their buddies and making new friends. Instead, the producers throw in sabotages and other thin twists.
The season super-tease at the beginning of the first episode, placed there in the hopes it’ll keep you around, reveals that losing teams have to send one of their friends home.
Not a bad reality TV twist, but inexplicable for this show because it undermines the central premise that this is all about people having fun with their friends. There’s not enough drama milked out of a team having to lop off one of their own away to justify the twist. (Update: Duhamel told TV Insider, “That was CBS’ idea, and I loved it because we didn’t want them to be too comfortable all the time.”)
Then again, there aren’t enough teams to eliminate one in each of the eight episodes.
Buddy Games is ultimately a kind of low-budget, throwaway show that feels transported from a 2005 cable network. It’s not good, but not the worst thing I’ve ever seen. It’s just far from “exhilarating” or “absurd.”
Josh Duhamel’s tradition doesn’t make good reality TV. C-
What works for me:
- Josh Duhamel’s enthusiasm
- A cast of actual friends, who are older than typical reality TV casts
What could be better:
- The games
- The filming and editing of the games
- Fewer attempts at stoking drama