They’re Finally Setting Celebs on Fire for Our Entertainment

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/FOX
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/FOX

This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by editor Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.

It is laughably early to be making proclamations like this, but I feel confident enough to say it anyway: Special Forces is the greatest piece of entertainment we will receive in 2023, if not for the rest of the decade and beyond.

Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test is a reality series that debuted on Fox this week. (You can watch the premiere on Hulu, and future episodes air on Wednesdays.) Forget the Emmy Awards. This gem of a television show transcends such traditional honors. Get the Nobel committee on the horn. Can someone give me Joe Biden’s cell? A Presidential Medal of Freedom is in order. Do they give Pulitzer Prizes for casting reality series? We are in the midst of brilliance, folks, and attention must be paid.

There is something both inevitable and inspired about Special Forces. The pitch is so obvious, and yet so preposterous. “We need another big reality show. Any ideas?” “I don’t know. I guess we could get a bunch of celebrities and then…set them on fire? Would that work?”

<div class="inline-image__credit">Pete Dadds/Fox</div>
Pete Dadds/Fox

Attempting to kill former child stars and Olympians on reality TV was always where the genre was going to go, wasn’t it? I’m just shocked that we actually got there.

The premise of Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test seems like something that has to have already existed on reality TV, yet somehow is a new show. Fox gathered the most random assortment of celebrities, brought them to the middle of the desert in Jordan, and subjected them to a series of grueling, terrifying stunts meant to mimic training exercises used to select elite military personnel.

When you spend roughly 53 hours of your week watching reality television, you do eventually become hip to the fact that a lot of what you are seeing is orchestrated by producers and perhaps even recreated for cameras. But there’s no question that what you’re watching throughout most of Special Forces is real. These celebrities thought they were about to die.

The 8 Most Underrated Reality TV Shows of 2022

This show is so goofy, yet so serious at the same time. I cackled at how dumb it was. I also cried. That essentially sums up my precarious emotional and mental state as we enter this new year, but also is a legitimate summation of the quality of this horrible, beautiful, repulsive, and transcendent show.

A solid 40 percent of Special Forces happens in slow motion. That is a wonderful thing. In the premiere, the cast of celebrities is asked to dangle off the side of a helicopter, lean backwards, and then fall out of the sky into the ocean headfirst, with no control over their body or how they enter the water.

In slow motion, we watch as Mel B of the Spice Girls breathes herself into a calm state and then literally falls out of a helicopter backwards and crashes into the water. The girl who played Lucy Camden on 7th Heaven (Beverley Mitchell) winces as she throws caution to the actual wind and leans out of a flying chopper. Jamie Lynn Spears studiously listens to the commander’s instructions, lets out a deep sigh of faith, and then over-rotates as she plunges into the sea, fully doing a belly flop. “Buffoon!” the commander, who, I kid you not, goes by the name of “Foxy” shouts. “You clown!”

<div class="inline-image__credit">Pete Dadds/Fox</div>
Pete Dadds/Fox

Everything in that preceding paragraph is an assemblage of words that should not exist. Yet this is a real thing that I watched with my own two eyes.

I wish I had the eloquence or wherewithal to articulate the magnificence of the casting for the series. Celebrity-cast reality TV shows are their own subset of the genre. From Celebrity Apprentice to Big Brother, it’s nothing particularly new or revolutionary. Actors, musicians, athletes, and politicians who are starved for attention—whether it’s because they’re has-beens or they think that appearing on reality TV could elevate them to a new tier of fame—subject themselves to certain humiliation. We, as viewers, get to delight in some sort of karmic balancing of the scales: seeing the rich and famous be demeaned and treated like shit.

Listen, it’s not noble or something I’m proud of. But I’m not going to act like Donald Trump yelling at Marilu Henner isn’t good TV. (Hell, put Joan Rivers in the mix and it’s excellent TV.)

Wait… Is ‘Dancing With the Stars’ Actually High Art?

The casting of these shows is an artform. It’s a delicate house of cards built on people who were maybe very successful at one point, but you haven’t thought about in a decade or two; athletes with aggressive publicists who want them to be seen as “fun;” people who won gold medals at the Olympics and now have nothing going on; tabloid fixtures who want to be seen as “more” than just their controversies; and Real Housewives. Dancing With the Stars has always been gifted at this. Special Forces just raised the bar.

The show includes former New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza and Olympian Gus Kenworthy. Gymnast Nastia Liukin is competing on the same show as former Jon & Kate Plus 8 reality star/villain Kate Gosselin. Real Housewives of Atlanta’s Kenya Moore and celebrity psychologist Dr. Drew Pinsky are jogging through the desert alongside Food Network chef Tyler Florence, R&B singer Montell Jordan, and former Trump White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci. At one point, Mel B and NBA star Dwight Howard are filmed taking a shit next to each other. Truly, what fresh hell is this? (It is heaven.)

<div class="inline-image__credit">Pete Dadds/Fox</div>
Pete Dadds/Fox

The heavily scripted dialogue used by the military coaches is laughably corny. (“If you should die, that’s nature’s way of saying you failed” is repeated multiple times throughout the episode.) But it does its job of making you realize how intense this all is.

In the premiere, the celebrities really do that backwards swan dive out of a moving helicopter. They are forced to run several miles in 100-degree desert heat. They go through an obstacle course so difficult that several of them collapse after completing it. One person is sent home after injuring her neck. Another suffers heat exhaustion. A third flat-out leaves because he’s so concerned for his safety when told that he would have to cross a canyon using only two thin ropes to balance on.

When Kate Goselin has a full-blown panic attack before the helicopter stunt, it could, on other shows, be an opportunity to laugh at her. But what they’re doing on Special Forces is actually scary. You feel so bad for her.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Pete Dadds/Fox</div>
Pete Dadds/Fox

After Jamie Lynn Spears belly flops and is called a buffoon, she throws up when she gets back to land and starts weeping. “This reminds me of rescuing my daughter,” she says, referring to an incident in which her little girl nearly drowned in a pond. Kenya Moore starts crying in the background. Beverley Mitchell is consoling her. You start getting teary-eyed. “What the fuck am I watching?” you might think. The answer is Special Forces, the greatest series of our time.

I can’t remember the last time I was so captivated by a reality show. It has all the trappings of everything terrible and unwatchable about the genre. Yet there’s something intangibly riveting about it. It’s all so random, yet the stakes really do feel legitimate. There’s a viral clip that’s gone around of a future episode in which Gus Kenworthy is set on fire. I can’t think of a greater metaphor for our relationship to celebrity culture right now, and I can’t wait to watch.

Keep obsessing! Sign up for the Daily Beast’s Obsessed newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Get the Daily Beast's biggest scoops and scandals delivered right to your inbox. Sign up now.

Stay informed and gain unlimited access to the Daily Beast's unmatched reporting. Subscribe now.