Inside TV’s New Wave of Weird and Wacky Unscripted With ‘Dishmantled,’ ‘Don’t,’ ‘Holey Moley’

Rebecca R. Ammons

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At the beginning of each episode of Quibi’s wild “Dishmantledfood competition series, host Tituss Burgess punches a big red button to activate a cannon that splatters a pair of chefs from head-to-toe with a mysterious dish.

The chefs then have to re-create the meal that was blasted at them based on taste and touch, before presenting their effort to Burgess and a panel of guest judges. The series is a six-minute smash in the face of food, color and craziness.

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Just as the dishes of pesto pasta and shepherd’s pie are de-constructed for the chefs to figure out, traditional unscripted programming has been taken apart and put back together in increasingly creative, but also off-kilter, ways.

And it’s not just competition programs such as “Dishmantled” getting this larger-than-life treatment in a quest to draw in viewers whose attention is constantly pulled in a million new directions (ironically, including Quibi itself). Game shows, including ABC’s new series from Ryan Reynolds, “Don’t,” also come with a twist designed to provide pure escapist entertainment in a tumultuous time.

“Back in 2008, when I was at Endemol, we made ‘Fear Factor,’ which was right for its time,” says David Goldberg, executive producer of “Don’t” and CEO of Banijay Studios North America. “It was evocative and controversial, and people loved to hate it, and that’s where reality was. Then we got to a certain point in time where people lost their taste for it and things weren’t going so well — the financial crisis, we were fighting lots of wars — and so we came out with ‘Wipeout.’ That was the comedic, feel-good answer to ‘Fear Factor.’ We didn’t create ‘Don’t’ for that reason, but I think it comes at a time where people will find comfort in a show like this. We certainly won’t solve or cure anything, but hopefully it provides a momentary respite from what everybody’s struggling with and confronting now.”

In “Don’t,” host Adam Scott gives contestants seemingly simple commands, including don’t blink, don’t drink and don’t get tired. Sometimes those orders are literal — such as a contestant eating hot foods while walking on a treadmill being told not to drink, because if he does he’ll lose money. Other times they are more tongue in cheek, as was the case with “don’t get tired,” which really meant “Don’t answer a question wrong or you’ll get hit by a giant tire we will hurl at you.”

“In this crowded unscripted landscape, it’s critical that you try to do something that’s a little different than what everybody else is doing,” Goldberg says. “It’s a ridiculous idea, you’ve got the involvement of Ryan and Adam, and it’s truly about the comedy, rather than the competition. It is a real show with stakes and people are winning ridiculous amounts of money for doing stupid things, but ultimately it’s about having fun.”

Fellow ABC unscripted show “Holey Moley,” based around the much-maligned “sport” of mini-golf adds a physical element through massive obstacles that hinder contestants’ progress on the course. It’s a literal larger-than-life take on a competition that creator Chris Culvenor describes as: “if Willy Wonka created a mini miniature golf course.” That, coupled with the humorous commentary of co-host and commentator Rob Riggle, makes it just as wacky as “Don’t.”

But both shows require the contestants to take their tasks seriously in order for the audience to laugh with it, not at it.

“Right from the moment that we pitched this to ABC, we pitched it as being serious competition in a silly world,” Culvenor says. Everyone “needed to feel like it was a real sport, and needed to really have a passion to win.”

Similarly, “Dishmantled” executive producer Linda Lea says the key to the show nailing its comedic side is to set up a true competition between the chefs to re-create the dish running down their goggles and hazmat suits.

“Re-creating the dish part is the smart part of it, and then the crazy part of it is the explosion — firing food out of a cannon at chefs,” Lea says. “You have to have both if you want people to play the game.”

Lea admits she and her team originally pitched the series to a cable network (she won’t name names) that flat out told her “this is terrible.” But at Quibi, Lea says she found the “open-mindedness and fresh approach” that was needed to bring the show to life, even if the pitch meeting with the platform’s founder, Jeffrey Katzenberg, went a little off the rails at one point.
“Quibi wasn’t looking for anything mainstream. The first thing they said in the meeting was, ‘We know you’re a really good producer in food, we want to produce food shows, what’s your passion project?’ I started talking about James Beard and Julia Child and Jeffrey said, ‘No, no, no, our audience isn’t interested in mainstream, what else do you have,’” Lea says. “I said the word ‘Dishmantled’ and I could tell they were immediately on board, but then suddenly an alarm went off and there was a major evacuation of the whole Quibi offices. I pitched it in the elevator, it was a true elevator pitch, I think I finished the pitch in the parking lot in Hollywood.”

Not only did Quibi end up ordering “Dishmantled” to series, but Lea’s show also recently became one of the first of its series to be renewed for a second season.

Like “Don’t,” Lea says “Dishmantled” comes along at a “fortuitous time where we all want to have fun,” where networks and streaming platforms are game for a wackier game show.

“We’ve been watching some very elite food programming that’s beautiful and has gorgeous slow-mo cameras, I will always be attracted to that, but we wanted to just go and do something absolutely ridiculous,” Lea says. “I think it proves that comedy and food programming are going to keep motoring on and more new stuff is going to happen.”

Daniel Holloway contributed to this report.

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