This isn't a problem with "Contender," not with 16 boxers all plugging away for the same break, sharing the same hopes and dreams. You can't pretend in a boxing ring when somebody is trying to pummel you. You just can't. And with the way it's edited gratuitous family shots, gut-wrenching music, almost like one of those old Sally Struthers commercials with the hungry kids you're emotionally invested in each fighter before his big showdown. Does it come off like a bad Hallmark commercial sometimes? Absolutely. But it's impossible not to feel something for the loser of the big match every week, as he walks back to the darkened locker room, faces his disappointed family, questions his career and dreams, then limps out of the building with a gonging noise in the background, like the 10-count of a bell.
(Note: Last week's show was especially poignant since it was the one when Najai Turpin, the boxer who committed suicide just five weeks ago, got knocked off. His show turned out to be hauntingly manipulative and I'm not entirely sure they should have shown it; I couldn't get him out of my mind on Sunday night. Too many questions left unanswered after the fact. Did he kill himself because of the show? What were the circumstances? Was he more troubled during the taping than they made it seem? There was something sneaky about the way they presented it, like they were holding back information from us. Still, I can't remember a show affecting me like that in a long time. It was like watching someone die right in front of you, even though he wasn't dead yet.)
2. Genuine violence
What's the hidden goal with every reality show? Conflict. There's a reason they have people turning on each other in Trump's boardroom, just like there's a reason Jeff Probst tries to stir up trouble at every tribal council, or "The Bachelor" producers stick all the female contestants in the same house, or MTV splits the teams on the "Real World/Road Rules Inferno" into the "Good Guys" and the "Bad Asses." They want people hollering and bitching at one another. Of course, for all the bluster and name-calling, there's one rule in reality TV: Don't attack another member of the show or you're kicked off ... well, unless you're on P. Diddy's "Making the Band." Then it's OK for some reason. Everywhere else? Not OK.
For instance, on "Inferno" this week, Tonya flipped out because Beth told Robyn that Tonya slept with Robyn's boyfriend, even throwing Beth's suitcase in the pool. Was it ever coming to blows? No way. On "The Contender," they would have taken it to the ring and settled things the old-fashioned way. As much as I enjoyed Beth's reaction to seeing her clothes floating in the pool, I would have much rather seen them knocking the crap out of each other in a boxing ring for five rounds.
On "The Contender", the feuds evolve more organically like the Ishe-Ahmed feud, which started with innocent trash talking and ended up playing out like the Burr-Hamilton duel. Poor Ishe had bitten off more than he could chew, to the disgust of his teammates, who believed he was grandstanding by bypassing an opportunity to fight Ahmed in Episode 2. His manhood in question, you could see Ishe breaking down emotionally questioning his own character, questioning what was important to him before summoning the courage to challenge Ahmed in Episode 3. He ended up vanquishing the cocky Moroccan, who had already earned official "villain" status by roughing up a somewhat startled Sugar Ray Leonard during a sparring session earlier in the show. I'm telling you, by the time these guys actually stepped into the ring, it felt like Ali-Frazier III in Manila.