After The Traitors took the world by storm, high concept reality shows which aren’t about dating are hot properly.

The Underdog: Josh Must Win is the latest bingeable reality show “with a twist” and it appears to be setting itself up as a series which pierces the image of the typical reality contestant in favour of elevating an average bloke called Josh, who is neither especially handsome, nor polished, nor confident and therefore is not what we have come to expect from such shows. It’s pitched as a nicer brand of reality show. But is it, really?

The set up is this: nine contestants think they are on a popularity contest called “The Favourite”, but secretly they are actually in a show called “Josh Must Win” and are being manipulated off screen by four “celebrities” – presenter Nick Grimshaw and former reality stars Vicky Pattison, Amber Gill and Pete Wicks who control the tasks the contestants take part in, in the hopes of making outsider Josh become more popular in the house. At the end of each day contestants vote for their favourite and least favourite contestants. The favourite then picks a second contestant to go up against the least favourite in a “public vote” to see who gets evicted. Only the public vote doesn’t exist and the “celebs” are just picking who they want to send home. So until the finale Josh literally can’t be voted out. There’s an added dynamic that every time Josh isn’t voted least favourite the prize pot for all the contestants gains another 10k. But frankly, who cares whether a bunch of strangers win frickin’ loads of money or just quite a bit of money? This mechanic is in fact also a fix. The maximum amount of money in the prize pot, we are told, is £100k. But even though Josh has been in the bottom, therefore not adding any money to the prize pot, in episode seven £20k is added to the pot rather than £10k, meaning that the maximum is reached. Do you know what this also means? It’s all been utterly irrelevant.

So as a game, it doesn’t really work and it is basically inconsequential… But still, the real USP of the show, is to raise Josh’s confidence and reward the contestants who show him kindness and empathy despite them all being gorgeous, outgoing, influencers and him being a guy who lives with his mum, never goes out and wants to be a professional wrestler.

At face value it looks as if it could fit into the make-over subgenre of shows like Queer Eye which are all about making people feel included, accepted and good about themselves. But the subtext here is different, and it’s closer to “make-under” show Snog Marry Avoid, which told people they mustn’t stand out and need to conform if they want to have any hope of finding a partner.

By the final episode of the show Josh has done a topless fashion shoot, he’s undertaken some grim I’m a celebrity-style tasks and emerged a hero. He’s made some friends, some of whom you feel certain would stab him in the back if it meant winning. And he’s had validation after “discovering” the viewers have voted for him to stay in the competition. Only they haven’t, have they? And if it was a real show he’d have gone home in episode one. What’s that gonna do for your confidence when the cameras stop rolling? You’re only in this competition as a social experiment, no one actually did vote for you and it seems reasonably likely that at least some of your “friends” are only voting for you because they don’t see you as competition.

And then there’s the rest of the contestants. Gabby, who is voted out first and is genuinely relieved to learn that she isn’t actually hated by the viewing public having had all of about ten minutes of air time, and is the only one who seems very happy to discover the ruse. Then there’s Myles, who comes across badly, but to be fair to him, he is playing a game he cannot win. He’s annoyed other alpha Louie who has branded him a fake and his attempts to form a rival faction, which is a common tactic on reality TV, could never have worked because… Josh Must Win. He’s wasted his time only to be insulted on TV for pointing out that Josh is a bit different from the other contestants. Which he clearly is. Or what about poor old Andre, a conspicuously attractive chap who takes part in the photoshoot in a see-through mac, manages to make it look amazing, but is denied the joy of seeing his lovely shots when the celebs pick the worst one. He’s obviously still upset when he comes out of the show. What about lovely Sofia, who thinks the viewers have saved her three times? They haven’t… Then there’s Louie – Josh’s defender from the start who has been gentle and loyal to Josh but did look suspiciously like he might have been willing to chuck him under the bus if it meant Louie would win. Check out the egg game in episode 7… (although to be fair to Louie he does vote for Josh at the end, so he’s a good guy really).

Further to the time wasting and low level character assassinations, what this show is teaching is not to fight for the underdog but conformity. A weird, fake lesson in how to be “reality popular”. Don’t be yourself, Josh, you need to be skillful, sexy, confident, funny, creative, memorable and more, and we, the gifted ones, can manipulate you into appearing as such. Maybe Josh is fine as he is, hanging out with his mum and enjoying his wrestling. Maybe he doesn’t actually want to be an alpha in the mold of every other person in the house. Sure, he opted to be in the show, as he says, just to do something a bit different. But in the real world he’s not getting cast. He is only cast because he is, indeed, an underdog. But rather than celebrating the underdog, Josh has to have that manipulated out of him. There are sweet moments here, sure. Janette who started the show going on about how ten out of ten she is on every level, is clearly a nice lady who threw vanity out the window when she had to dunk her whole head in a bucket of sour milk to retrieve an ox tongue. Sophia showed mad determination in the egg task despite being considerably smaller than some of the other contestants. But none of these good traits that have risen to the surface actually make any difference ultimately, despite the nice speeches at the end. All that matters is whether you’re mates with Josh or not – you could be a massive dickhead and still make it to the final if your allegiances were with Josh. Liking Josh isn’t intricately morally superior to preferring one of the others.

So Josh did win and he says he feels validated (but he doesn’t know at this point he would have definitely have been sent home were the evictions not fixed). And everyone got a share of the money so they were all cheerful (though as an aside, would Janette really have got £100k all to herself if she’d have won? That would have been an insane ending!!!). But when the dust has settled we wouldn’t be surprised if some of the contestants feel a little bit weird about the whole thing. Let’s hope E4 has some decent aftershow care.

The whole series of The Underdog: Josh Must Win is available to stream on Channel 4.

The post The Underdog: Josh Must Win is Way Meaner Than it Looks appeared first on Den of Geek.

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