Because TV is as ubiquitous as it is, and as generally savvy as it is, we tend to take narratives for granted. Our reality shows are carefully edited to provide us with heroes, villains, and easy-to-follow arcs; even our toilet paper commercials come with a story. When your story starts out with a compelling hook and a cast the audience can root for against dangerous obstacles, you’d think the story arcs itself. And yet, a one-hour special about injured war veterans racing towards the South Pole and also the time Prince Harry got a headache, Prince Harry’s South Pole Heroes, still exists.
Naturally, there’s potential for a story here. The veterans on each team—all with stories to tell about coming back from the significant injuries they bring with them into training—are trying to raise money for their respective charities, as well as prove to themselves that they can make the arduous journey. And shit, what a journey. The Antarctic landscapes are both gorgeously stark and completely terrifying; a shot of skiers as a line of tiny dolls against unbroken white is sharply lonely and tense. Obviously NBC is not going to use the opportunity to create a scathing indictment of the American war machine and its many heartbreaking casualties, because if it ever tried that Matt Lauer’s face would slide off his skull, but there’s definitely an hour’s worth of compelling footage. Frankly, to do this journey justice, there should be two.
Instead, NBC presented an hour of disjointed and increasingly tonally problematic footage of the journey, lurching in fits and starts that rob the story of much of the resonance it might have had. (“You get wounded together, why not recover together, as well?” asks Harry in the introduction, moments before we see the teams pitted against one another in a competitive race.) Helping nothing, the whole mess is narrated with Lauer’s standard faux-sincere lack of affect, which lends a particularly egregious Fred Willard-in-a-Christopher-Guest-Movie edge to his explanation of Team USA’s time delays with lines like, “Team USA also needs to help Ivan,” referring to teammate Ivan Castro, a blinded soldier, or marking someone’s departure with, “Alex survived two explosions in Afghanistan. But Antarctica has taken him out.”
If the idea of forcing teams to race against each other past the point of exhaustion across one of the Earth’s most punishing landscapes seems like a disaster, you will not be shocked to hear that several veterans suffer injuries on the journey. It takes them until the 45-minute mark to decide to abandon the idea of racing and try to reach it together. Even then, it feels like the beginning of an interesting story about people whose injuries have made them feel isolated finally coming together to share a transformative experience. It’s nothing like that, of course; instead, this special is Team USA all the way, and Lauer largely introduces members of the UK and Commonwealth teams only as injuries remove them from the field. An unbroken narrative thread, however, is the ongoing love letter to Prince Harry (who has piloted helicopters in Afghanistan, shaken hands with vets, and worn a Nazi costume). Alexander Sarsgaard and Dominic West join as celebrity team leaders but promptly vanish from the story—hopefully because they were using their celebrity to raise interest in the fundraiser and had no plans to take up camera time on the road.
The same can’t be said of Prince Harry. His half-dozen video confessionals about blisters and headaches might have originally been to keep public awareness high for donation purposes, but they take place at a strange, chummy disconnect. And they’re sandwiched between the talking-heads with the veterans—which are themselves problematic. The moments with each vet take the time to reflect their injuries and fleetingly introduce them, but also feel creepingly exploitative (particularly Margeaux Mange, who heartbreakingly explains her PTSD from watching a friend die in a vehicle accident as she looks at pictures of the vehicle. One can only hope a producer didn’t ask her to scroll through the pictures herself). These are the only real glimpses of the veterans as individuals we get; despite some one-liners that suggest personalities waiting to come forward, and shots that indicate a camaraderie that would be fascinating to watch unfold on a journey so arduous but uniting, we hardly see anyone speaking to anything but a camera.
Every few minutes—when it’s really trucking, every few seconds—Prince Harry’s South Pole Heroes presents a story that fits the moment, trying to force a racing narrative that’s increasingly discomfiting as injuries and backstories pile up, only to switch to instant triumphant music as the teams come together in the final moments. (“Competition is not the priority,” Matt Lauer assures us regarding Prince Harry, 45 minutes after pitting wounded veterans against each other in a grueling race.)
In the last minutes of the hour, someone knocks over a stove and sets their tent on fire. So disinterested in the charitable motivations that donation information is never mentioned, and so concerned with wedging in the concept of noble patriotism that it barely has time for the individuals it purports to be about except the royal in the title, Prince Harry’s South Pole Heroes boils down to the television equivalent of that.
- This was one of the most disjointed, uncomfortable hours of TV I’ve seen in a while. Pretty much everyone else who liveblogged it agreed.
- The Queen’s advice to the travelers—“Mind the crevasses and things that one might find”—tipped the scales briefly into surreal comedy and/or a tale of eldritch horror which would be one of the many that this special brought up and immediately dropped.
- The Walking With The Wounded website noted that this journey came after “extensive training, from cold weather training in Iceland in March, to team training through the summer, and a final session of snow preparation in October.” News to anyone who was watching the show!