Top 10 TV shows of the decade – # 7
Last Man Standing
Possibly the most astounding thing about Last Man Standing is that it initially aired on BBC3, a channel mostly known for endless repeats of the terrible Two Pints of Lager, and bluntly titled, badly made documentaries like My Dad’s Got Nob-Rot or My Shitty Arse Stinks of Shit. The idea that they could produce something that could crack any best of list is pretty wild. Rest easy then, that the amazing Last Man Standing (Last One Standing in the US) was a BBC co-production with the Discovery channel.
Last Man Standing’s strength lay in its casting. Atypically for a reality show, there were no fame-hungry wannabes using it as an audition-piece for becoming either a host on a late night quiz channel or a footballer’s girlfriend, and who would happily glug back a cocktail of stale poison and puréed urinal cakes if it’d increase their chances of scrambling open-legged out of a taxi and into China Whites, to spend the night rubbing up against a priapic Dean Gaffney. Conversely, like those heist movies that begin by recruiting each member of the crew for their specific skillset, the selection of contestants was a perfectly picked balance of sporting archetypes; body-building strongman, beach bum surf-hippy, Zen fitness guru, dance instructor, posho Oxbridge rower, ultra-competitive “if you’re not first, you’re last” boxer, extreme sports ramp-jumper, firey soccer player, and on and on.
These men (for they were more manly than you or I shall ever be) were sent to far-flung, little-seen locations to live and train with tribal families, for their participation in all manner of frankly terrifying traditional tribal sporting competitions. The modern British travel documentary is a show that has all the invention of randomly picking two pieces of paper out of a hat, one with the name of a “British institution” style celebrity, the other a place most people probably haven’t been. Last Man Standing’s travelogue aspect was so much more than Paul Merton wryly smiling at a Chinaman’s eccentric ways, and as they showed the stranger (to us) aspects of tribal life, they did so without a big song and dance or sarcastic look to camera. Sure, goats were slaughtered and testicles were eaten, but nobody was under any threat of being voted off it they didn’t, it was just part and parcel of daily life, and treated as such.
The sports themselves varied from physical grappling type events to endurance races either on foot or in canoes, more cerebral sports like archery, and a fighting game consisting of beating each other over the head with big sticks. The athletes on the show were almost always the first foreigners the indigenous people had ever seen, let alone entrusted to participate in events that often had great significance. One such contest represented the yearly blow-off of tension between two tribes that had been warring for centuries, giving added pressure that trumps all but the most aggressive of sport’s day fathers threateningly nodding towards a concealed broom-handle at the start of the sack race.
As with the casting, Last Man Standing never cheapened itself by reaching into the big bag of reality TV editing tricks. There was no engineering of drama through messing with the rules or by sneaky editing, and no focus on antagonistic tension between the athletes, other than the natural clashes you get from putting a bunch of dudes into a highly competitive environment. Besides, there was no need for it. The sheer human drama of competition was enough have you constantly out of your seat, encompassing all possible types of sporting narrative along the way; underdog wins, seemingly unstoppable dominations, gritty battles against pain and the elements, meltdowns, injuries, disasters, comebacks – fuck Rocky, week after week, Last Man Standing brought us the greatest sporting story ever told.
It was also impossible to watch without having a favoured contestant or three. Stand-out athletes include the mighty Wolé, for whom anything less than a victory was a near-Seppuku level disgrace, plummy-voiced toff-lads Richard (S1) and Ed (S2), who were so British, they must have looked to America audiences like anthropomorphic cups of tea, and the coolest motherfucker ever, Rajko, who’s basically a Jedi in all but the cape. In Rajko you have a man who cleaved through his foot with an axe, and then dragged himself one-legged into battle to win his tribe’s Trobriand Cricket match, becoming a village folk-legend and having babies named after him in the process. (On the advice of a comment that was posted, I should point out that this isn’t a metaphor, it’s literally what happened)
For someone who still has nightmares about being back in PE lessons, it made me want to trek across the Andes and wrestle a scary looking Nepalese warrior in a special nappy. It’s a show that made me think “I’d love to do that,” and I would, if not for my complete and total fear of everything. The sports looked amazing, the vistas stunning, and the communities so warm and welcoming, in spite of the unimaginably vast gulf of cultural differences with the men they took into their homes as if they were their own, offering up food and beds – literally in one case, with the tribal Dad who slept outside for the week. Such priceless experiences are unlike anything you could ever know in a world where Facebook status updates hold any importance. Without question these would be moments that would change your life and outlook on the world forever (as is the case with season one’s Corey Rennell), but when it comes down to it…I could never poo in a wide open salt-flat. Couldn’t do it.
Other than being broke, the thing that keeps me from travelling is the idea of having to use some horrible foreign toilet that’s up on a ledge, or just a hole in the ground in the middle of the town square with everyone looking like it ain’t no thang. “Don’t be such a baby, just use the communal bowl!” “Nothing’s coming out!” I don’t even like people, but it made me yearn for such a collection of life-long bros, and any show that can make an Xbox hugging cubicle-pisser like me dream of embracing the great unknown has to be doing its job. The closest I’ve come to such a humbling journey of bonding and hardship is playing three straight games of Capture the Flag on Modern Warfare 2 with the same random group of people. Not that our mics were turned on. Although one of them did call me “a gay black faggot,” which may count as brotherly bonding.
Tragically for Brits like me, I’ve now got another reason to curse my terrible luck in being born on the wrong side of the Atlantic – the first being the existence of Robbie Williams – as US audiences got a whole four extra episodes in the first season. It’s also a tragedy that the show only lasted for two seasons, and although the last episode ended with a call for female applicants for a related follow-up, nothing has surfaced.
Last Man Standing was not just an unintentional rallying cry of “you can do better” to reality TV, but to television as a whole.