Reality competition television as an art form has evolved little in the years since it first exploded onto small screens, because it hasn’t had to. The idea of starting with a pool of participants and eliminating them one by one each week fits snugly into television’s episodic format today just as well as it did when it was introduced with the Swedish series Expedition Robinson (which would later become the model for Survivor) in 1997. Each week, someone is declared a loser and ousted from the show until there is only a champion left. There’s nothing left to improve on.
Of course, the circumstances around the core idea of weekly eliminations may have changed in shows over the years. Some have gotten more pleasant (thank you, Great British Baking Show) while others have gotten cattier (an extra special thank you, Instant Hotel). Some come with broken financial dreams (“You’re fired!,” a mean, disgusting old man used to blurt out on The Apprentice) while some come with broken hearts (any black SUV ride away from The Bachelor/-ette/in Paradise). And some eliminations aren’t of major consequence (see: Jennifer Hudson placing seventh on Season 3 of American Idol) while others can literally save lives (see: History’s Alone).
But one thing remains essential with reality competition shows that will never change: The elimination itself. It is the only thing that truly matters about the genre (and if you disagree, you are probably one of those weirdos who watches the Olympics “for the stories”). It is the spectacle that everything else in the show builds up to. It is the driving force behind the meme-able behavior that we lap up the next day. It’s the reliable climax that rewards an hour of your invested time. The way shows have captured these moments varies, from the sorrowful, almost regretful “You’ve been chopped” of Chopped, to the torch being symbolically snuffed out at a tribal council on Survivor, but no show — with apologies to Total Blackout‘s farewell to contestants involving a trap door that suddenly opens, sending losers to the basement of Universal Studios or wherever it’s filmed — has rightfully captured the moment of elimination like The CW’s new series Killer Camp.
To go right into explaining how Killer Camp eliminates its contestants without explaining Killer Camp itself would be irresponsible, so here it is. At first look, Killer Camp is more spackle for The CW’s porous summer schedule, an import from England’s ITV that will occupy a slot for a month before it’s probably forgotten for good, but it’s remarkably fun for desperate filler. Modeled after slasher summer camp movies like Friday the 13th, Killer Camp buses in archetypes — the jock, the vegan, the flirt, the nerd, etc. — to a lakefront summer camp where they participate in dumb games to gain advantages in the overarching game. They think they’re there for summer camp fun, but they’re quickly told about the twist: There’s a Jason Vorhees-like serial killer on the loose, and one of the the contestants is secretly mind-controlling him and will be killing off the competition one bye one. Everyone else has to figure out who the secret mastermind is before he/she kills everyone, and the hot ones flirt with each other. It’s The Mole meets Survivor meets Love Island by way of Sleepaway Camp 2, and thanks to the show knowing how utterly ridiculous it is, it’s surprisingly entertaining, especially when it comes to eliminations. In keeping with the tone of the show, losers aren’t just told they’ve been cast off, they’re MURDERED. A hooded figure known as the Handyman, under the control of the mystery contestant who controls him, KILLS THEM. Well, with the help of television effects. But it’s brilliant, and it’s something every single reality competition show can learn from.
I’ve got some spoilers for the first episode coming, but nothing specific to who was eliminated, so read with caution. During the elimination ceremony, everyone left alive gathers around a campfire — some in cheerleader uniforms and letterman jackets, natch — where the host, a goofy American who is clearly on a few adult kickball teams based on his unshaven face and intense energy, lets those on the chopping block know that they’re needed elsewhere for some ridiculous activity. For example, in the premiere, two contestants who had a rough go of it go on moonlit Segway rides (absolutely preposterous and perfect), and the host turns their adventure into a scary ghost story he tells the survivors.
The entire production changes moods for the campfire story, shifting from sunny summer camp reality show to dark, foggy horror movie. We see glimpses of the Handyman stringing barbed wire between two trees at head level, and the suspense builds as the riders, blissfully unaware (or at least playfully pretending to be), steer their embarrassing pseudo-scooters toward the wire. The host builds tension with some “Who’s it going to be?” verbiage, and we’re shown who it’s going to be as the loser rides into the wire, cartoonishly lopping off their head while a geyser of their red essence shoots into the sky and a prosthetic head drops to the ground. “Blood spurted from their neckhole like ketchup being squeezed by a fat child!” the host screams excitedly. It is the greatest elimination ceremony in the history of elimination ceremonies, and captures everything Killer Camp strives to be: goofy, ridiculous, and fun.
There are no exit interviews, no follow-ups, no goodbye hugs from other contestants. The finality of it all is staggering. They are, for all intents and purposes, dead. It is the ultimate elimination, beautifully reproducing the dispensable feeling of slasher-film victims, and transplanting that feeling to reality competition losers. Because what else is a reality competition show than survival of the fittest?
Killer Camp premieres Thursday, July 16 at 8/7c on The CW.