Earlier this summer, The Quest set out to show that, at last, nerd culture was as ripe for demographic capitalization as every other cultural standby that’s already been turned into a reality show. The concept was simple but suitably catchy: How About LARPing With A Winner? The producers, who appeared at the top of each episode as if to reassure the wary, had geek cred and TV chops: Elisa Donganieri and Bertram van Munster created The Amazing Race, and Mark Ordesky produced Lord of the Rings. Thus happened Everealm, a war-torn kingdom that brought over twelve paladins from our world in a last-ditch effort at rescue. The paladins would undergo tests until at last the One True Hero emerged to wield the Sunspear that would defeat Verlox, the Darkness. (Got that? Of course you do; audiences right now are primed for quest fantasy. That’s why this show works.)

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If you’re already cringing, this was never the show for you. If you have Game of Thrones and Xena in your DVD collection, you’re the target audience here. And if you’re morbidly interested just to see how far they’ll take it, good news: the show has spent the season doubling down on its defining elements—enthusiastic contestants inside an immersive fantasy world. The world definitely worked. The Austrian castle and forests lent a big-budget feel to the lo-fi exploits, there were an impressive number of peasants dragging goats through the courtyard, and the actors could barely contain their glee during the scripted set pieces. (Peter Windhofer, whose Sir Ansgar was in charge of the contestants’ challenges, did the most work, but for sheer cape-swirling archness, Marcello de Nardo edged him out for the win.) And the contestants were very nearly great; committed to the story in front of them, and determined to become the One True Hero of the realm.

They’re also, through no fault of their own, the show’s ongoing disconnect. At every turn, The Quest championed working together to find the wisest, most honorable choice, but the challenges—though suitably themed—were well-worn obstacles with obvious ends, which feels if nothing else like a missed opportunity for all that LARP energy. Often, the best scenes were those with no clear winner, as the paladins tried to assemble the pieces of a map, or worked to discover the proper potion that would cure the poisoned Queen, or tried to decide if the dismissive Vizier was actually a traitor. (He was; they may have figured it out before they were supposed to, though that’s unclear.) Their talking-head interviews were candid but rarely nasty, and the sense that they genuinely enjoyed one another’s company buoyed the show past all but the most awkward and staged moments.

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And while the challenges became integrated into the larger story, the regimented competition always chafed a little against the organic group interaction, a pallor of sameness over a show that found some lovely moments of spontaneity. The structure of the challenges kept the contestants in an understandable sense of safety, so that even when the enemy was bearing down, everyone did as they were told. And for a show that pretended that even its challenge-and-dismissal dynamic was terribly sincere, nerdbro Christian managed to get exactly the same villain-edit/several-saves pattern we’ve seen a thousand times. But the challenge format definitely lends itself more easily to hour-long blocks, which makes it hard to leave behind, even if it meant that on the verge of the finale, the last quartet standing were set to prove they were the One True Hero by beating the crap out of the friends they’d made.

Turns out the best moments of the finale were the ones in which role-play became a crucial element at last. The quick, unscripted moments were delivered with blistering sincerity (Andrew: “Should we get down on one knee?” Patrick: “We do it for the queen, no one else”), and provided that sense of genuine spontaneity that the challenge format never quite allowed. They’re small things, sure, but one of the best moments of the finale was Lina shoving through the ranks to face off with the Rana Chief as he called for the paladins to explain themselves, moving so fast the actor hadn’t quite wound down yet. This chance to be in character bled over into even the scripted moments; once terrified to speak without being prompted, the finalists managed some pitch-perfect Game of Thrones dialogue this episode. When Ansgar admits, “I failed you, my queen,” Patrick doesn’t miss a beat: “No one’s failed anyone yet.”

The game play falls out as it usually has on the show; my favorite was the banshee, purely for the way Shondo politely presented eggs to the actress clawing at his face. But after it was down to Lina, there was still half an hour of fantasy shenanigans left, and that’s where The Quest pulled out all the stops and went for every joyful trope in the quest-fantasy larder. The approbation of the Fates, the assembling of the sacred weapon, the swearing of fealty on the verge of battle—it’s all here. And the return of the eleven banished paladins to provide cover for Lina’s attack felt both like a reunion and a chance to give everyone some more time with their swords and sorcery, just for the fun of it all. That group diversion, with everyone making the best of their quasi-training as the camera cuts back and forth to Lina’s showdown with a particular Minas Tirith energy, was the most fun set piece in the whole series. It was unabashedly enthusiastic. It was hilariously staged (nothing like seeing trained evil guards fall down with a single strike). It was gleeful.

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And that, as much as anything else, is what the show’s been after. Though the premise is certainly riding the Rise of the Nerd as its reason for being, it uses the familiarity with fantasy tropes as shorthand for this world. Sure, the contestants are buying into things more than you are, but the show does so little explaining of the trappings that it’s clear you’re meant to understand what’s at stake. And you do, of course, which means even laughing at them turns a little bit into laughing with them; for every Falcon Helmet, there are the murmured in-character asides that remind you everybody’s having a blast. “In the end, I got to live the fantasy,” says Jasmine in the closing remarks, and—rare in a reality show—that feels like what the show wanted, too.

Stray observations:

  • Was pleased that Lina got to whip out some fantasy dialogue of her own. Verlox: “If you don’t give [the Sunspear] to me, I shall take it.” Lina: “You can try …” Perfectly Xena.
  • A round of applause for Peter Windhofer, Jan Hutter, Marcello de Nardo, and Suzanne Gschwendtner, whose acting was pitch-perfect and who, according to interviews, never broke character in front of the paladins.
  • Kudos also due to the announcer, who made those contestant introductions sound exactly like the fantasy-film casting sketches they were supposed to sound like.
  • While sitting in a blind made of shrubbery: “Lina, I love how you decorated the place…this contemporary furniture is to die for.” The Fates tell me Shondo is going to be on TV again.
  • Your personal threshold about the contestants’ unrelenting earnestness will vary throughout the season. (I couldn’t get through Bonnie’s tribute songs to the actors.) However, no matter how hard you laugh at everyone’s openmouthed terror at the first appearance of Verlox (and you’ll laugh, it’s pretty priceless), it’s clear that under all the gasping is the thrill of being part of the game. It ends up being a little contagious.

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