Top Shot – Season 3

| April 17, 2012

The History Channel’s smash hit series is back for a third season.  16 new competitors face a gauntlet of unbelievably difficult challenges while having to master an array of weapons ranging from pistols and shot guns to cannons, knives and rocks.  And of course, this is a History Channel show, so as each episode features a new weapon system, the audience is given a quick profile of its history, development, and purpose.  These vignettes going into detail about each weapon are really interesting; in fact, all of the individual elements of the series are really interesting, and having them all in the same show, makes for a fascinating hour of television.

It takes a few episodes to start being able to tell the individual competitors apart.  The 14 men and 2 women run the gambit from law enforcement to military to self-taught amateurs to professional competitors.  However, it quickly becomes clear to the casual viewer that all of these people are amazing marksmen and regardless of their background; any of them can go all the way to the end.  On top of the individual competitors’ remarkable skill, Top Shot has another major advantage over the typical competition-based reality series:  with only a couple of exceptions, these people are all incredible sportsmen.  Their admiration for each other and the honor they exhibit in deciding who to send to any given elimination challenge is completely refreshing given the amount of cynicism and childish behavior usually found in similar competitive shows.

Even Top Shot is not immune to these more negative elements.  One competitor, Jake, a former Navy Seal quickly establishes himself as a petulant cry baby, dragging down the morale of the house and resorting dishonorable (for lack of a less profane word) tactics to throw his fellow competitors off their game.  These tactics include sleep deprivation and trying to pick fights in order to get a select few competitors disqualified from the show.  Jake serves a purpose in that he gives the audience someone to hate.  Plus, he creates a lot of conflict within the house, which is at least entertaining.

Jake aside, the other competitors are consistently in awe of each others’ abilities; to the point where each of them can’t help but get visibly excited when one of their “rivals” makes a particularly difficult shot.  In many cases, the marksmen look forward to elimination challenges against their strongest competitors simply because they want to know that they are the best.  The series then promotes a genuine comradery and friendship that is rarely seen on reality television.

The individual challenges are awesome.  You’d expect challenges in a show called “Top Shot” to focus on accuracy, but the show also tests the competitors’ ability to adapt to the various types of weapons during this season, and their ability to reload very quickly.  On top of all this, many of the challenges tax the competitors physically.  A few challenges require everyone to run through an obstacle course before taking their shot.  Another spins the competitors around in a giant circle, forcing them to take out a series of topics while their center of gravity is constantly shifting.  Some of these may seem gimmicky and unnecessary in a marksmanship competition, but seeing the competitors rise to the various challenges they’re faced with (or not) makes for some very entertaining television.

At the end of the day, this is a television show and while it has a historical element and the allure of a sporting event, it’s meant to entertain; something it does very well.  Visually, it’s a very pleasing show.  It’s a bit exciting when a target gets shot and it immediately explodes.  This ends up being almost a joke as the series continues – as one competitor will jump on a rope in an obstacle course to climb to the next shot but the ground beneath him explodes and sprays mud all over the place.  One half expects that during a challenge in which the competitors must knock over tin cans with rocks, that each can will explode upon being struck.  Beyond all that, it’s more than fitting that a show about shooting would utilize some really impressive camera work.  Every episode uses a lot of close up slow motion shots of bullets leaving guns and hitting targets.  While it is interesting to see a target shatter and explode in slow motion, the real benefit of this technique is to show the viewer how close someone is when they miss.

There’s definitely one obvious criticism of Top Shot that comes to mind.  Despite all its many many good qualities, the show’s biggest downside is its host, Colby Donaldson.  Obviously, Colby is a charismatic individual, who is just as excited about the competition and the various weapons used as the competitors themselves, but the way Colby narrates each challenge gets really annoying.  The occasional remark about how nearly someone misses a shot has value, but talking for the sake of talking just gets annoying.

Episode after episode watches the competitors get eliminated until one is crowned “Top Shot.”  This is standard for most all reality television, but Top Shot has a few tricks up its sleeve in terms of keeping even this basic convention fresh and interesting.  Although, to be fair, it’s not the producers of the show forcing this uniqueness, but rather the contestants themselves.

Special features include a looking back special with interviews of all the marksmen, a few extensive featurettes looking more in depth at the weapons used and the various challenges that made up this season.

Available on DVD from A&E on April 17

About the Author:

Joe Sanders Joe Sanders is a podcaster, playwright, and college instructor in Kalamazoo, MI. He has a master's degree in playwriting and a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Western Michigan University, where he currently teaches thought and writing, and is the host of the Quote Unquote Guilty podcast, part of the Word Salad Network.
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