“This is not a game,” Chief Instructor Ant Middleton spits at the line of seventeen celebrities participating in SAS Australia, just as he arrives on the edge of a freezing lake in the Snowy Mountains having back-flipped into it from a helicopter hovering above it.
It is clear from the outset some of the participants (full list here), including former Ironwoman Candice Warner, former Rugby International and indecisive Bachelor Nick Cummins, former Bachelorette Ali Oetjen, actor Firass Dirani, and self-absorbed Sydney-centric PR executive Roxy Jacenko, think Middleton is joking. They learn very quickly he’s not, as barks at them to each prepare for the same helicopter jump and swim, all be forced to change completely into dry clothes where they are so to be ready for the next task in just minutes, and then face a muddy beach crawl. All this before the first commercial break.
As a sign the Staff really do not care who they are (or just to make it easy to work out which participants died during the last exercise), each participant is numbered. This will be their identity for the remainder of the course.
Joining the SAS in real life is infamously difficult. There have been numerous documentaries about the rigorous and brutal selection process, and Middleton himself reminds the participants in his year over 200 applied and only eight succeeded. The training is intended to take highly trained military personnel and transform them into a team of unparalleled covert operatives. That said, we have to acknowledge that while the Staff are there to push the participants to their limit and beyond with a process similar to that they themselves faced, none of the participants are expected to work under a live fire exercise or face a real interrogation experience.
They are, however, expected to punch each other in the face on command. And more.
Across the ten episodes, each themed with a human trait they intend to test or exorcise, Middleton and his ‘Staff’ – Mark “Billy” Billingham, Jason “Foxy” Fox, and Ollie Ollerton – will coerce, force, and challenge each participant to look deep inside themselves and reveal the strength and quality of their character. How do they handle pressure? Will they crack when faced with what seems to be an insurmountable challenge? Can they handle the physicality of the course, mixed with the mental strain they will be put under?
This is the vicarious delight that is intended to keep viewers returning so we can see the “coddled celebrities” stare down that which most would never consider.
Which leads us to the real issue behind SAS Australia, and there’s no sugar-coating this: everyone is expecting Seven’s new localised version of this celebrity-filled reality boot camp to be just like every other celebrity reality series we’ve ever seen: SOFT around the edges.
We’re expecting it to look tough on camera when we know it’s all light and fluffy underneath. We expect trailers and masseuses just off-screen, allowing the participants to seek shelter between takes. We know people will mock the inclusion of many of the participants with a resounding “Who is that?! I’ve never heard of them.” We expect hair and make-up to scurry in so that each participant looks their best for every moment the camera rolls.
We are right to hold this level of cynicism.
As an oft-betrayed and now skeptical audience we’ve all seen myriad C and D-list entertainers packed into the call-sheet of various shows, and we know that chairs with their names on are just out of shot. The conditions they face are as good as their agents can negotiate: be it sneaky smoke breaks in the jungle, or the ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ competitiveness of the size of their on-site dressing room/trailer. We accept they are inevitably all competing for some charity/charitable donation, bundled on top of their appearance fee.
It’s the contract we accept in watching this variant of pre-arranged, inoffensive chewing-gum-for-the-eyes tv.
Seven have been forcefully direct in their promotion of this series: the military instructors take the process incredibly seriously, no special favours have been offered to participants, and what they are subjected to is very, very real. Anyone can voluntarily withdraw (VW) at any time by removing their armband and declaring their failure in just two letters.
If we as the audience are willing to sign the contract Seven hope we do and buy-in, then the stark reality of the participants living conditions and the exercises they are put through across the series means they endured anything but the usual level of privilege and protection. The Staff take no shit and they are not afraid to call a participant out if they think they aren’t taking it seriously… at the cost of the comfort of the rest of the pack.
There’s a schadefreudic pleasure in watching people we would otherwise see all decked in their finery after hours of preparation lay in near-zero temperature water or crawl through the mud, all the while being shouted at to do better, to be better. After all, when have any of them really done that? (Spoilers: some have done that before, but not many.)
Building on this sadist enjoyment it’s not in the slightest bit ironic that the first participant gives up after only SIX HOURS, protesting that “participating reveals the real me” in their talking head package after the fact. Didn’t even make it to the first night’s bedtime. Six hours and, in their words, they haven’t failed.
Mind you, this reviewer wouldn’t last six minutes.
Given the level of interest in the announcement of her casting it should come as no surprise that convicted drug trafficker Schapelle Corby is targeted for special attention across the first episode (the only available for preview). Her reflection on the process compared to her incarceration is powerful, though viewers are unlikely to change their opinion of her from this single ep. An exchange between her and former Biggest Loser trainer Shannan Ponton offers reasonable insight as to how much Corby missed by way of popular culture during her incarceration that would otherwise have helped her understand who most of her fellow participants are. She initially mistakes Ponton for former swimmer James Magnussen.
Importing the Staff, who have helped the UK series become a TV sensation, means they really do have no idea who the participants are in their celebrity. In part this is why some of the background preparation and planning conversations feel a little contrived, but only a little. Not that this should be uttered in their presence for fear of some diabolical retribution.
SAS Australia is brutal in its reality, if you’re willing to buy into the premise. Cynics will find themselves quickly becoming armchair members of the Staff, barking orders at the participants and rolling their eyes at the inevitable excuses and poor performances.
Fans will be barracking for their favourites to lean in, push harder, and reveal the strength we all believe – and hope – they have.
This reviewer found it to be disconcerting, unnerving, compelling television, all of which doesn’t necessarily make for a light-hearted, entertaining experience. Watching people be broken down only to be rebuilt is difficult to watch in the early stages, even though we know we’ll see their mettle bubble to the surface soon enough. As long as they don’t VW first.