After just a handful of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances throughout two hours of running time, you’ll barely be able to tell that Gus Kenworthy is one of the 16 contestants on the new reality competition “Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test.”
Which makes him, for the first episode, one of the lucky ones.
It’s a show built around the premise: “What if we took the most grueling military exercises known to man and inflicted them on Dr. Drew?” In its premiere episode, “Special Forces” combines base-level armed-forces worship with a discomforting sense of voyeurism to produce one of the most distressing reality TV series in quite a while.
If the first episode is any indication of how the show will play out, the less screen time Kenworthy gets, the better off he’ll be.
There are a few fleeting glimpses of the Olympian as the series begins, but each one is cut so quickly, it feels like Fox hired Michael Bay to personally edit the Kenworthy footage.
His noteworthy appearance in the first 90 minutes features one of the Special Forces staff barking out, “What I want you to do right now is strip!” Immediately, the director cuts to Kenworthy’s first close-up as he goes shirtless.
That is the high point of the episode.
“Special Forces” attempts to set up a back story for most of the contestants, with several of them explaining the life lessons they hope to learn by putting themselves through this challenge.
But despite their best efforts to convince us that they’re trying to use the “Special Forces” training to discover a sense of accomplishment or become a better person, the message that comes across from many of the people most-featured in this first episode is “I just really want to be on TV.”
Kenworthy doesn’t even rate a single talking-head segment despite being the only out gay contestant attempting Special Forces military exercises. It wouldn’t take much to create a narrative of his achievements serving as a rebuke of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Perhaps a future episode might even go there.
The Navy SEAL and Marine staff are played up as all-knowing demigods whose accomplishments in the field of battle are the only ones of any worth.
In the face of their military superiors, the series takes every opportunity to make star athletes like Kenworthy, Mike Piazza and Dwight Howard look like fools and frauds. This is probably meant to set up learning moments and redemption arcs down the line, but given the abusive nature of each challenge, it just feels like we’re watching each celebrity being tortured for having human faults and emotions.
While “Special Forces” wants to present itself as a heroic story, I personally find more heroism and inspiration in 30 seconds of HBO’s traveling-drag-queen reality show “We’re Here.”
Finally, 90 minutes into the episode, Kenworthy earns a passing mention as he completes a challenge crossing over a 300-foot ravine on two pieces of rope. The fact that his success is treated fleetingly, while Howard’s failure is given several minutes of screentime, shows what the show is all about.
He could’ve fared worse. Spice Girl Mel B and Jamie Lynn Spears have their personal traumas turned into painfully cringe-worthy and exploitive reality show “moments.” Spears is even forced to delve into her tragedy with the SEAL and Marine staff after she fails yet another extreme challenge.
While the series seems to say the contestants can solve their life’s problems by engaging in difficult tasks like diving backwards out of a helicopter, I think I’d just choose therapy.
Hopefully the buzz Kenworthy generates in future episodes of “Special Forces” will help him land more work as he pursues an acting and media career. As his social media demonstrates, he’s a fun and likable camera presence who’s wasted on the premiere of such a self-serious and joyless reality show.
At the end of the premiere, one of the “coming up next week” clips depicts Kenworthy being berated by the staff. And although no one wants to see him harangued like that, hopefully that’s a harbinger that “Special Forces” will give him more airtime in the weeks to come.
After all, he’s one of the few who succeeded at a challenge and his story as an extreme sports barrier breaker deserves to be told.