It’s a pretty good time for fantasy on television. Not since the heady days of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess have we had so many swords, fortresses, and leather jerkins on our TVs at once—during prime time nonetheless. Enter ABC’s The Quest, a reality show that promises something new: a carefully crafted fantasy world that 12 contestants enter to compete for the honor of being the One True Hero, who will wield the Sunspear and banish evil from the world of Everealm.
At first, I was worried the show was going to be condescending—look at these contestants giving themselves over to the fantasy, committing to the roles, isn’t that goofy? Definitely not something normal people would do. But that fear turned out to be baseless. Instead, The Quest does something worse: It makes fantasy really, really, boring.
It’s kind of an absurd notion that something called “fantasy”—which, as a descriptor, encompasses the entirety of human imagination—could ever be called boring, but it happens all the time, and The Quest pulls it off with aplomb. The show fails to engage with its central conceit in any meaningful way. It operates under the misperception that some Tolkien-y costumes and vaguely English accents are all that you need to call something a fantasy.
We can’t even refer to this as “live-action Dungeons and Dragons” because that’s an insult to Dungeons and Dragons. Yes, D&D is often relegated to the parts of society that live in their parents’ basements in middle age, but as Community proved twice, that’s not the case… and it makes for damn good television. Besides, live D&D is already a thing. It’s called LARPing, and anyone doing it right now is almost certainly more interesting, entertaining, and fun than the entirety of The Quest’s first episode. Seriously, why didn’t the producers just find a bunch of really cool LARPers and give them a budget and an actual castle and follow them around for 10 episodes?
It’s hard to be optimistic about the rest of the show’s run because on the whole it seems so uninterested in everything that could make it interesting. There’s nothing wrong with the idea of an immersive reality show that drops its subjects into a fully realized world with a rich story—in fact, that’s kind of fascinating, the sort of thing that has made fantasy endure all these years.
There’s a story and a world to The Quest, with actors who divulge backstory and give challenges, but it’s window dressing, the television equivalent of walking through the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney. Sure, it’s a pretty cool thing to do, but why would you take the time to watch anyone else do it?
The reason anyone enjoys fantasy or plays Dungeons & Dragons isn’t because swords and castles are cool (okay, maybe that’s one reason) but because anything can happen. They’re writing their own story as they play, and that’s exciting. The Quest touts its story as something that sets it apart from other reality competition shows, but the story is of no consequence. The contestants aren’t even characters—they’re just people who happen to like fantasy and want to win a game. They also don’t have outsized, cartoonish, Jersey Shore-style personalities. How invested they are in this world and how they engage with it has little to do with how successful they are, as long as they’re good at whatever contest is put in front of them.
Speaking of contests, the two big challenges in the first episode, while appropriately themed—shooting contests involving a giant crossbow artillery called a Scorpion and plain old archery—couldn’t be any more boring to watch. There’s no way to tell who’s winning, and it’s directed in such a manner that you can’t even tell who’s doing well just by watching. You just sort of have to believe what the show tells you.