So, you say you’re tired of the same old backstabbing routines on Survivor, you’ve never bought an album from an American Idol winner, you don’t want to see any more teams of yuppies or busty blondes on The Amazing Race, and you won’t stoop so low as to sit through an episode of Big Brother? Well, Bunkie, what if I told you there was a reality competition show on TV that was genuinely fun to watch, one that featured a unique setting and challenges, lots of laughs, a little romance, and interesting contestants with three-dimensional personalities? And what if I told you it was an animated cartoon?
Created in Canada and debuting in 2007 on Teletoon there and on Cartoon Network here the following summer, Total Drama Island manages to send up many of the conventions of that “outwit, outplay, outlast” program and its ilk while offering slapstick comedy and satire that may go over the heads of the intended ‘tween-age audience, which accounted for its demographic-crossing ratings success. And with season two, renamed Total Drama Action, now airing on both sides of the border, the timing is right for next week’s release of the complete first season of TDI (as it’s known to fans) in a four-disc collection.
The set-up: 22 teenagers are brought to Camp Wawanakwa, “the oldest, moldiest, most run-down, bug-infested summer camp” in Ontario’s rural Muskoka region, where they’re divided into two teams and spend the next eight weeks (in on-screen time) battling each other–not to mention wildlife, natural disasters, the show’s smarmy host and bad-tempered chef, and the occasional Sasquatch–for a $100,000 prize. Along the way, the participants get put through an array of camp-themed challenges (cliff diving, dodgeball, a talent show, a paintball hunt, and even dealing with a hockey-masked psycho killer with a chainsaw and a hook), with the losing squad voting off a member to walk down the Dock of Shame and board the Boat of Losers at a ceremonial campfire.
The impressively large cast of TDI runs the gamut of high school and reality TV archetypes. There’s Gwen, the sarcastic Goth girl; easy-going party dude Geoff; Heather, the manipulative villainess; punk-haired delinquent Duncan; Type-A overachiever Courtney; Justin, the hunky “man candy” that girls, guys and even animals fall for; inseparable BFF’s Katie and Sadie, who dress, act and talk alike; sassy and streetwise Leshawna; Owen, the fun-loving fat guy; and so on. It’s to the credit of series creators Jennifer Pertsch and Tom McGillis that–as with their earlier, “life in a mall” show 6Teen–they and the writers manage to make each of the computer-animated campers more genuine and complex than most of the live competitors Jeff Probst or Julie Chen are forced to deal with. As a result, you actually care when Gwen and Geoff debate whether they’d ever socialize if they went to the same school, when Katie–or is it Sadie?–is voted off and encourages a devastated Sadie–or is it Katie?–to continue without her, or when by-the-book Courtney is drawn to the “bad boy” appeal of Duncan (although my favorite hook-up was Owen and the vine-swinging, manic motormouth Izzy). It’s because of the making-out references, along with a tootload of flatulence jokes and a slight bit of (pixelled-out) nudity, that TDI gets a PG rating on its Cartoon Network airings (It turns out Warner Home Video is putting out the censored U.S. version. Ahh, American squeamishness.).
Oh, and did I mention it has one of the snazziest openings of any show today, with the catchy (and very apt) theme song “I Wanna Be Famous”? Check it out, check out TDI’s official blogspot, and then–if you’re as intrigued as this way-past-‘tween age cartoon geek was–check out the season one set. You’ll never look at Survivor the same way again.