Ask Matt: ‘Eco-Challenge,’ Fall TV MIA, ‘NOS4A2,’ Comedy Central Rebranding & More

World's Toughest Eco Challenge Fiji
Corey Rich/Amazon
World's Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji

Welcome to the Q&A with TV critic—also known to some TV fans as their “TV therapist”—Matt Roush, who’ll try to address whatever you love, loathe, are confused or frustrated or thrilled by in today’s vast TV landscape. (We know background music is too loud, but there’s always closed-captioning.)

One caution: This is a spoiler-free zone, so we won’t be addressing upcoming storylines here unless it’s already common knowledge. Please send your questions and comments to [email protected] (or use the form at the end of the column) and follow me on Twitter. Look for Ask Matt columns on many Tuesdays and Fridays.

The Future of the “World’s Toughest Race”

Question: Since I have followed your advice for many years now, I accepted the challenge from your review to take a shot every time Bear Grylls uttered “world’s toughest race” on Amazon’s World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji. Bad idea! But it did trigger a couple of questions about the race. The version I watched here in the U.S. seemed to be focused mostly on English-speaking teams and particularly the U.S. teams. Are there other versions of the race show in other countries where different countries were the focus? For example, the Japanese team was a blink-and-miss-it moment. Also: Will this become an annual event again on Amazon? — Unsigned

Matt Roush: I did warn you that Bear’s hosting hype went a bit over-the-top at times — although his rapport with the racers when he got out of the helicopter and met them on the ground to cheer them on was often enjoyable. I’m told the version of Eco-Challenge that premiered on Amazon Prime Video was what went out globally to all territories, only with an option for subtitles in other languages. I’m sure the editing process was almost as grueling as the race itself, although the team stories they were able to tell thoroughly were absolutely gripping. (I’d have been OK if this had been twice as long, and I almost never say that about streaming series.)

As for Eco-Challenge‘s future, nothing has been announced officially, but the Reality Blurred website reported that applications are already being taken for a race to be filmed in Patagonia next year — possibly in February/March, or November, depending on the state of the pandemic and production health protocols. (The current season was filmed last fall.) Hard to say when we’ll see it again, but it’s safe to say this isn’t the last we’ve heard of “the world’s toughest race.”

With the Fall Delay, Will We Welcome Back Scripted TV?

Question: What do you think of the networks scheduling unscripted — or in the case of CBS, Star Trek: Discovery reruns) for their fall schedules? Obviously, we all know why this is happening, and I don’t mean to be critical of them for not having scripted programming back as usual. I don’t want it back until it is safe to do, because I want the people who make the shows to stay healthy. But it also struck me that most of my scripted shows are regular habits at this point.

I’ve been watching Grey’s Anatomy for 15 years. Between ending last season early and starting this one late, this will be the longest hiatus the show has ever had. I realized when I saw ABC’s September schedule with Grey’s not on it that I really haven’t missed the show at all since its premature finale back in April, ending what I think was the worst season they’ve ever had. That’s not a feeling I remember having before. So that got me thinking: Will the prolonged absence of scripted fare break the habit for some people? Or do you think it will be a situation of absence making the heart grow fonder whenever these shows do return? — Jake

Matt Roush: First, we just need to accept the fact that the fall season won’t be business as usual, especially where the broadcast networks are concerned and especially in the first weeks and months. So far, they’ve managed to cobble together an ad-hoc schedule of reality and game shows, scripted shows that were either delayed from midseason or picked up from streaming services or international markets. We may see some returning favorites appearing as soon as November — NBC was especially bullish about announcing return dates for many of its most popular series, and let’s hope this comes to pass. And when it does, I’m firmly in the “absence makes the heart grow fonder” camp. There’s no doubt our viewing habits have been changed, even more than they already were, during the months of quarantine in the pandemic, but I don’t buy that somehow we’ve lost our appetite for the shows that bring us even an illusion of stability. What I’m hearing mostly is a yearning for people’s favorite shows to return when they can, as soon as it’s safely possible.

The Devil Is in the … ZZZ …

Question: I thought NOS4A2 was the most boring and unscary scary program ever. Also, haven’t we seen enough people eating people for the rest of the century? Tired of the same old thing and very disappointed — what do you think? — Chuck

Matt Roush: [Spoiler alert] I’ve seen worse — did you catch the misbegotten series version of Stephen King’s The Mist? — but I’ve always thought NOS4A2 would have been more effective as a limited series rather than open-ended. And seriously, putting mini-cliffhangers into the season finale to tease a possible third season, after they’ve put down the Big Bad Charlie Manx? No thanks, although I did prefer the second season to the sluggish first, because the stakes were higher with Vic being so desperate to save her kid from Charlie and Christmastown. That said, I’m not sure it needed 10 episodes to get there.

Beating a Very Alive Horse (Metaphorically!)

Question: I am amazed that Yellowstone is never listed as one of the 25 Top Shows. It’s so good and the actors are great. I know it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s beautifully scripted and yes, some scenes are intense. Kevin Costner makes it real. Maybe it’s because I was born in Montana and I love the scenery, the horses and cattle. The stories are intelligent and so good. — Jo

Matt Roush: If you look at the fine print in our recent TV Guide Magazine listings of the 25 Top Shows, you’ll see that it currently applies to “broadcast series only.” Believe me, Yellowstone is a hit — and when you factor in delayed viewing, it’s a monster hit. (Paramount Network’s latest tally for Yellowstone‘s season finale was a remarkable 10.7 viewers in L+3.) This show has found its audience, and it’s big, loyal and vocal — as are its critics, but that’s always the case when a show makes this much noise.

When Navigating TV Is Like an Archaeological Dig

Question: I laughed out loud when I read, “Nobody said watching TV would be easy,” which is how you wrapped up your August 25th Ask Matt column. Did you ever read Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television? It’s been almost 40 years since I did, and I think the ease of watching was what was so insidious to the author. Unlike watching films projected on a screen, we are completely passive to the television images beamed into our eyeballs. So this activity, ostensibly, couldn’t be easier and require less of the viewer. However, the book was written before even the Fox Network started, so he had no idea of the massive research project television viewing would become. On Prime it is almost like going on an archaeological dig to find new obscure shows to watch. Love the column and your reviews. — Mike, N.J.

Matt Roush: I love that you made this connection — and was amazed to realize that book came out (in 1978) before I even began writing about TV, which seems impossible, because I often assume I’ve been doing this forever. I’ve always been aware of the book, though I hated the title, because TV has been very good to me, and eliminating it never felt like a feasible option. His main points, as you noted, were not so much about the content of individual TV shows but about the cumulative effects, including psychological and sociological, of the medium on the viewer. Whether the argument still holds, after the advent of cable and much more recently streaming, I leave to the deep thinkers. I find myself more worried that TV has created so many niches that few are able, or willing, to see the full picture anymore.

And to your last observation: I can’t tell you how often I’m asked about a show and I have to look up whether it’s an import on Netflix or an obscurity on Prime or another streamer. It’s too much to keep track of — now excuse me while I go settle in for another 10-episode binge.

Not Laughing at Comedy Central’s Changes

Question: I wrote to you before about USA’s switch to mostly reality programming, which I disdain, and now another network has switched to something else that I am not particularly happy about. And that is Comedy Central’s decision to primarily have new programming of adult animation. What is up with that??? I guess that they think it is cheaper, but don’t they take a long time to produce? And they must think it costs less, as they originally gave Tosh.0 another four seasons only to back off. Are live actors that much more expensive? And you need voices for these animated characters, which to me would also cost a lot, so why do it??? I wanted to see The Other Two, which I enjoyed on Comedy Central, only to be switched to HBO Max, which even though I subscribe to HBO and am supposed to get I cannot get, because I only use the cable hook-up for TV and I do not want to stream on my computer.

Which brings me to the question of how come I can get Netflix, Prime and Peacock directly through my cable, but not Hulu or HBO Max, but would have to stream or get Roku??? Also, how come all programs that originally aired on NBC platforms are not available on Peacock???? I wanted to watch Chuck, which I originally missed when new, but was shocked to see it was only on Prime. — JV

Matt Roush: That’s a heck of a lot of rant to tackle, so let’s start with Comedy Central, which like many brands within the ViacomCBS tent is going through an upheaval as it figures out its identity between servicing the linear and digital worlds. Without getting into the economics of animated-vs-live-action programming — and few shows have a quicker turnaround time than South Park (not that many animated shows work that way) — the current spike in adult animation on Comedy Central seems to be more about taking advantage of iconic brands like Beavis and Butt-head, Daria and (a personal favorite) Ren & Stimpy and reintroducing them to a new generation. I’m more annoyed at the new trend of taking shows that once aired on a basic-cable channel and putting them behind a streaming paywall — although if it keeps the shows in production, that’s the upside.

Regarding your issues with streaming services being accessible via cable, that’s more of an issue between cable operators and the streamers — and considering that HBO Max and Peacock have yet to reach a deal with the digital portals Roku and Amazon Fire, it’s likely to stay messy for a while. The reality is that you’re probably not going to be able to access everything you want the way you want for quite some time, and it won’t come cheap. In many ways, we’re still in the early days of this evolution — or revolution, depending on your perspective — and I’ll repeat the line that made Mike laugh: No one said it would be easy.

And Finally…

Question: Sometimes I would see commercials on Paramount Network for a show called Coyote, staring Michael Chiklis. Do you know when it will premiere? — Marques

Matt Roush: It’s still in the pipeline, but no air date yet. Just add this to the long list of shows currently in limbo. Let’s all hope for a return to some kind of normal in 2021.

That’s all for now—and until after Labor Day. Thanks as always for reading, and remember that I can’t do this without your participation, so please keep sending questions and comments about TV to [email protected] or shoot me a line on Twitter (@TVGMMattRoush), and you can also submit questions via the handy form below. Please include a first name with your question. Everyone stay safe and healthy, and have a great holiday weekend!