Upstairs, Downriver

Starchy Brits and Jungle Wits

Eco-Challenge is all about the vicarious adrenaline buzz, of course, mixed with disbelief that anyone would voluntarily put themselves through such extremity. Half the fun of watching this four-night extravaganza is withstanding the grotesque close-ups of gaping wounds, oozing blisters, and twisted limbs; the other half is seeing people triumphantly push themselves onward. Mike Trisler of Team Earthlink rows his canoe across the river even though he's semi-conscious from a jungle virus. As his teammate describes later, "He was literally lying there in his own feces and throwing up. . . . [The inside of his canoe] was like a third-world toilet." Any normal person would hail the nearest helicopter outta there, but in Eco-Challenge, if one competitor goes down, the whole team is disqualified.

Burnett sets the tone for Eco-Challenge, and his commentary sounds vaguely judgmental. You get the feeling he sees this as educational programming, full of virtuous messages about life itself. A devout believer in cooperation, Burnett frequently sermonizes about choosing teammates: "Their compassion, the way you gel, the chemistry, is probably more important than being physically fit."

The show chooses a handful of teams to follow throughout the race, and inevitably some are portrayed as saints and others as villains, depending on whether they fit with Burnett's philosophy. The bad guys this year also serve as comic relief. The military types in Team Lupus take a rigid approach to the race; self-appointed leader Scott demoralizes his team and refuses to listen to the advice of their sole female member, Diane, thus incurring scathing critiques from Burnett. On the other hand Team Mad River—a reality TV supergroup composed of former cast members from Survivor and Road Rules—come out of a jungle known as "the Lost World" smiling and cracking jokes, though they've been tramping around for two days nonstop. Could this be a subliminal suggestion that appearing on Survivor makes you a better person?

Manor House: class roles and Edwardian underwear
photo: Annie Chia
Manor House: class roles and Edwardian underwear

Details

Manor House
April 28 through 30 at 9 p.m., repeated in full May 4 (starting 12:30 p.m.) on WNET and May 1 through 3 at 9 p.m. on WLIW

Eco-Challenge: Fiji
May 5 through 8 on USA

David Duchovny serves as narrator this year—a strange choice, but his nasal, neurasthenic voice adds a nicely cynical, doomy counterpoint to the show: "Lost and unable to retrace their steps, Jason and Team Earthlink head into the vastness of the Lost World," he intones. "And they are headed in the wrong direction. Again." Probably as profound a statement about life as reality TV can offer.

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