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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Rebecca Nicholson

The Underdog: Josh Must Win review – this sham reality show is like old-school Big Brother, but better

Pete Wicks, Amber Rose Gill, Vicky Pattison and Nick Grimshaw in The Underdog: Josh Must Win
Will they make the lovely thrive? … Pete Wicks, Amber Rose Gill, Vicky Pattison and Nick Grimshaw in The Underdog: Josh Must Win. Photograph: Matt Monfredi / Channel 4

Last year, a new series on Amazon Freevee – a free, ad-supported streaming service – called Jury Duty became a sleeper hit. In it, a man called Ronald thought he was taking part in a documentary about the US legal system. In fact, he was the unwitting star of a reality television show in which everyone was playing a carefully curated role – except him.

It turned out to be far sweeter than your usual “gotcha” fodder. If you squinted, you could see it as a rare example of a reality TV series that said something positive about human nature.

The Underdog: Josh Must Win is cut from similar cloth, although its premise is less elaborate and much more meta. Here, a houseful of what you might call typical reality TV types is competing in what they believe is a competition called The Favourite. To win – and earn themselves £10,000 – they think they must be voted the most popular housemate.

But also taking part is Josh, a contestant who is different from the others. Unbeknown to everyone in the house, including Josh, The Favourite is a sham show, Nick Grimshaw is a decoy host and the real game involves a panel of celebrities trying to manipulate proceedings so that Josh, an unlikely contender, rises to the top of the social hierarchy. If he is crowned the most popular, the housemates will share £100,000.

There are many potential red flags in a project such as this. One is that it risks sneering at the audience it is trying to attract. The non-Joshes are recognisable reality TV archetypes, mostly buff, polished and extremely well versed in what it takes to be a professional personality. Their social media followings range from the tens to the hundreds of thousands and they know they have to be brash to get attention.

In the first episode, The Underdog: Josh Must Win occasionally makes the mistake of conflating who reality TV audiences like and who they like to watch. Often, these are not the same – and viewers know this. For a moment, I wonder if it might be in danger of wagging a finger at its own format.

Once the introductions are done, though, it becomes clear that there is a genuine fascination with reality TV. Looking at the mechanics from a different angle proves a worthy endeavour, although you have to be a reality fan. The celebrity panel is made up of Grimshaw, a self‑confessed reality TV show obsessive, as well as The Only Way Is Essex’s Pete Wicks, Geordie Shore’s Vicky Pattison and the Love Island winner Amber Rose Gill. Pattison is particularly good on the inner workings of the industry: the types who tend to do well, she says, are either lovely or “absolute bastards”.

Can they engineer it so that the lovely thrive? I have a long-held pet theory that the bedsit in Big Brother 5, in which two housemates were fake‑evicted and then watched their fellow contestants as if they were the audience, has influenced reality TV and popular culture in a way that is vast and yet to be fully acknowledged. This is very much the BB5 bedsit, updated and expanded. The contestants think they are being watched by a genuine TV audience when, actually, they are being watched by reality TV show alumni as they perform in a simulation of every familiar reality TV show and trope.

It is entertaining and puts a welcome spin on the genre. It is slightly less coherent about what it wants to say on fame and the attention economy and better when it lets that play out. Josh is quiet, wears glasses, loves his mum and doesn’t look like a Gladiator. That this makes him the underdog is faintly depressing, as is the fact that one contestant, Myles, seems puzzled by the fact that he is enjoying a conversation with Josh. “Are you a good listener, like?” he says, amazed that Josh has simply been quiet, rather than talking about himself incessantly.

But, as Pattison knows, most reality TV contestants are big and loud because they understand what is expected of them. They have grown up with the idea of themselves as marketable products. “I’ve got the looks, the body and the brains,” says Myles, who would be equally at home on Love Island and The Apprentice. Does he really mean it? It doesn’t matter. Ultimately, it’s all artifice and performance. The Underdog attempts to show what it means to be “popular” within a spectacle like this, but it is also canny enough not to lose sight of the spectacle itself.

• The Underdog: Josh Must Win is on E4 and available online

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