Somehow I managed to avoid ever seeing an episode of Fear Factor during its first run. It wasn’t intentional, really—I enjoy reality competitions, public humiliation, and binging on animal parts. But there are only so many hours in the day, and I must have been too busy marathoning the umpteenth cycle of America’s Next Top Model. When I heard Fear Factor was returning to NBC, I was excited to finally get the chance to experience it for myself. And Monday night, I dove right into those 3,000 gallons of cow’s blood.
I’d heard people say Fear Factor was gross (it is) and exploitative (you think?). What no one warned me about is that Fear Factor commits the ultimate reality show sin: It’s really, really boring.
No, seriously. I have a hard time understanding how this show was ever a success. The biggest problem is repetition. Each team attempts the same challenge as the team before—and when you’ve seen one team do it, you basically know what to expect from the others. Not to mention the fact that Fear Factor gives its contestants challenges that are really only interesting when they’re thoroughly disgusting, i.e. swim through the aforementioned cow’s blood to find cow hearts and spit them into a tank. Otherwise, the challenges are big and loud, but nothing we haven’t seen before. And yes, the idea of a truck careening toward explosives is scary, but not when the contestants are on wires that will yank them to safety before they’re in any real danger.
I’m not saying I want to see anyone seriously injured. If I were into that, I’d watch one of those late-night MTV2 shows about skater mishaps. But what’s the point of watching a series in which the death-defying stunts really aren’t that death-defying? One of Monday night’s challenges had contestants strapped to a cement mixer and driven into a series of obstacles. Which, you know, ow. But they were covered in full body gear, and host Joe Rogan nearly salivated when one of the players cut her lip. “Is that blood?!” he squealed. Apparently it was, but it must have been a minor cut because I couldn’t tell and—brag alert—I was watching in HD.
Challenges aside, Fear Factor is not as engaging as other reality competitions because the contestants are different for each episode. That means there’s no one to latch onto, and all the hilarious reality show personalities pop up only to disappear shortly thereafter. The first hour of Monday night’s premiere featured a mother-son team who was definitely too close for comfort. They never stopped touching! And incest is so hot right now, but by hour’s end, they’d been eliminated. The second hour offered an absurd caricature of a playboy in Shawn, who espoused his mantra, “Showstopper lifestyle. Minimizing worries, maximizing life experiences. No fear, showstopper is here.” And wouldn’t you know it? He was the first to go.
These aren’t new problems with Fear Factor, but the series could have used its time off the air to refresh the tired old model. And I don’t just mean by heightening the gross-out factor of the challenges, because I still don’t think anything that aired was truly shocking. (Eating live scorpions did make me very uncomfortable, but only because I felt bad for the scorpions.) The format of Fear Factor works against it, and I’m not sure what could be done to make it better except shaking up that format entirely. Or, you know, maybe go for some (quality!) original programming instead. I get that NBC is on shaky ground these days, but familiar is not always the answer. I’d be surprised if Fear Factor’s ratings stayed put in the coming weeks.
I’m curious to hear from Fear Factor’s devoted fans: Is this iteration of the series new and improved? Or is NBC just trying to pass off the same old thing as a fresh product?