The Buzz: ‘TKO: Total Knock Out’ Tries, But Fails To Break The Obstacle Course Mold

CBS’s new obstacle course competition TKO: Total Knock Out is not much to write home about. It tries to shake up the obstacle course format by emphasizing its competitors battling against each other rather than just trying to survive the course, but doesn’t commit enough to this idea. Instead, the show focuses most of its efforts on its host rather than on its contestants. Besides this, the show drags on for far too long as the players only compete one at a time and fail far too often. Worst of all though, is a shaky rule that seems to favor those who fail immediately over people who make it farther on the course and leaves the game feeling unfair.

While a good host should always be present making funny or entertaining commentary, it feels like the camera in TKO is on Hart more than its contestants. The camera is often angled over the shoulder of Hart making the participants’ endeavors feel far away and less important. If the camera was focused tighter on the competitors or even stayed on a wide shot of the course things would have felt much more exciting. While we do get shots like this, they’re quick and too far in between. Kevin Hart does his best to provide jokes and humor, but his delivery leaves a lot to be desired. Despite Hart having hosted other shows like SNL and various award shows, hosting an obstacle course is a whole different beast. Unlike those scripted shows, Hart can’t prepare as much material and needs to improvise more. His lack of experience might not have shown as much if the focus was more on the players, but unfortunately, Hart is the literal heart of the show. With some more time and experience Hart could likely grow into his hosting role, but until then the show needs to shift some of the spotlight off of him.

Besides the lackluster hosting, the obstacle course isn’t all that interesting either and gets boring very quickly. The course is unusually short and only consists of four zones with one main obstacle each. On top of this none of the obstacles are all that special or exciting. The first zone consists of a typical climbing based challenge, the second a balancing beam with a flimsy bridge in the middle, the third a platform hopping challenge and lastly a spinning log run challenge in the fourth. While these aren’t terrible obstacles by themselves, they felt more like the first phase of a much larger course. Variety is key to keeping audiences engaged and seeing five contestants slowly try to go through the same four mediocre courses got old real quick.

This leads to the next major issue of the pacing being too slow. Only five participants total competed in the first episode and only one player was ever on the course at a time. Obstacle course shows like Wipeout and American Ninja Warrior will run through as many as three or four times that number of participants. This allows for a steady stream of new contestants to watch whenever someone fails. On TKO though, we’re stuck with the same player even if they fail eight times in a row. Watching people fail is part of the fun, but it gets a little disheartening when you watch twenty straight minutes of failure. Maybe the course was too hard, or these particular people weren’t limber enough, but at least with more contestants, there would have been chances of someone succeeding. Additionally, with more contenders, the show would be able to cut the less exciting personalities and runs. 

What finally did TKO in for me though, was one rule in particular that really unbalances the game. The way this rule works is that if you fail to complete a zone twice you’re able to skip that zone and instead receive a one-minute penalty. It sounds good on paper, but with some of these zones, it seems like it might be quicker to just fail twice than to actually finish. It’s hard to tell with the editing, and maybe this rule was added in for additional strategizing, but it looks like this is something that could be easily abused if you play it right. I can understand that the game inventors didn’t want participants automatically out of the running for failing just one course, but a two-minute penalty would’ve still given contenders a chance without as much potential of abuse.

The one thing I did like about TKO was how the competitors not currently running the course were able to affect the outcome of the game by throwing in extra obstacles. Unfortunately, I quickly became annoyed by the contestants’ constant commentary and attempts to be witty. With so few people competing, it’s very important to screen for only the most interesting and unique personalities, but I never felt much connection to any of the players. None of the participants were that out there or memorable and there was no chemistry between the cast. It would have been nice to see some of the competitors’ personalities playing off of each other, but it was either cut or it didn’t happen. The show tried to paint some characters’ as having rivalries, but with so little interaction I didn’t buy it. Which is a shame because an actual rivalry could have gone a long way to help invest the audience. With no one to root for or hate, TKO had no foreseeable stakes and I didn’t care who won or lost.

At the end of the day, TKO isn’t the worst obstacle based show I’ve seen, but it hardly compares to that of Wipeout or American Ninja Warrior. TKO is not as funny as Wipeout or intense as American Ninja Warrior, and other than for fans of Kevin Hart, I don’t see much of an audience for the show. Maybe TKO is just going through some growing pains as it tries to figure out its style, but as is, it needs a lot of work. Perhaps the one hundred thousand dollar battle royal finale will be more exciting, but I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.