I found out that "The Quest", the reality TV single-season wonder from the producers of 'The Amazing Race', is now on Netflix. This thrills me to no end, as I saw the first episode during its original run and missed the entire subsequent event, and it really is one of those things you have to see in order.
For those who never saw it, it's basically a big-budget LARP. The producers have rented out a castle, hired experts in practical special effects, make-up and stagecraft, and gotten a bunch of actors to portray the inhabitants of the mythical kingdom of Everealm. Then they got a dozen genuine fantasy enthusiasts and brought to Everealm to spend a whole season competing for the right to save it.
See, Everealm has a problem. As with all mythical kingdoms, Everealm is under attack by Verlox, who goes by the nickname of "The Darkness", and only a heroic paladin bearing the legendary Sunspear can defeat him. But each of the twelve heroes from our Earth has just one piece of the Sunspear...and over the course of a season of mock-combat, tests of nerve and skill, and good old-fashioned Survivor-style voting, the false heroes are winnowed out leaving only the destined savior of Everealm to assemble the Sunspear and defeat Verlox!
(I will confess, due to a habit of slight mispronunciation on the part of pretty much everyone who isn't the closed captions, I keep hearing it as "Sunsphere". Which is a problem, because I keep hearing Bart Simpson say, "Remember, everyone. We're parked under the Sunsphere.")
I won't lie. This is cheesy as hell. But it's cheesy in all the right ways. It hits that sweet spot of SCA/LARP and low-budget fantasy movie, where all the professional actors are speaking in Fantasy Trope-ese and all of the paladins are reacting to it with genuine, sincere enthusiasm. They're living their dream--someone has actually constructed a fully immersive, days-long live-action D&D campaign just for them with Hollywood production values and they get to play it for FREE! That child-like excitement transcends the cliched nature of the storyline and turns any amateurishness into a virtue rather than a fault. It's at a strange crossroads between obvious fraud and vivid reality, and somehow both enhance the other.
The paladins were apparently not competing for a prize (hopefully they were compensated in some form, but the winner's only reward was in defeating Verlox and bringing peace to the Twelve Kingdoms). In a way, I think this was the smartest decision they could have made--if they'd been playing for money, it would have encouraged the worst Survivor-style backstabbing and conniving, which would have utterly broken the immersion of the heroes as paladins attempting to find their inner hero and save the day. There's still a little of that, of course; human nature being what it is, not all the paladins are equally noble. But that too is part of the fantasy charm--it wouldn't have much tension if all of the heroes were bland ciphers of nobility, would it?
(On a side note, there's a pleasingly large amount of race and gender diversity among the paladins. In fact, it's a lot better than most genre work in that aspect; frankly, I'd be a lot more likely to read a generic "Earth person is transported to fantasy realm and must defeat magical evil" if the hero was Shondo Blades, an African-American mixed-martial arts fighter who spoke almost exclusively in sports motivation cliches. Because he's freaking awesome.)
I know that there's currently a fan campaign to get a second season, but honestly I feel that it kind of stands perfectly as a single story. A second season would invariably have contestants who'd seen the original, forcing them to either rework the story in possibly-unsatisfying ways or deal with knowing, ironic contestants rather than the charmingly innocent folks they got. The Quest feels like lightning in a bottle to me, the kind of thing that you can only do well once. A sequel would suffer badly from diminishing returns, whereas this feels, in its own quirky way, just perfect.