March 20th, 2012



Yesterday I mentioned that part of my wake-up call from the universe involved something on the History channel's jousting show. I'd seen the show in the listings, but decided to check it out OnDemand after Karen Miller/KE Mills mentioned it in her blog as great research material for authors writing historical fantasy -- not so much the equipment and techniques, but the way the men react to those situations.

So, I watched it and kind of got hooked -- enough that I marathoned the available episodes. The show is called Full Metal Jousting, and the premise is that they're trying to bring back jousting as a modern extreme sport. They've got armor that seems to be a cross between traditional armor and football pads (armor shape, made from modern materials), complete with the competitors' names on the back, and they've come up with scoring rules. They've recruited a bunch of men from various semi-related backgrounds, including Medieval Times/Renaissance festival theatrical jousters, rodeo cowboys and other equestrians to be trained and compete. Part of the aim of the show is for them to compete for the title, but they also seem to be trying to build a core of competitors to launch this as a sport.

One problem I have with it if they're trying to get it taken seriously as a sport is that the show is very much a reality show, using all the reality show cliches. For one thing, the name on the back of the armor is a nice touch, but in reality show style, they're always referred to by their first names and even introduced that way in the opening credits, so the last name on the armor doesn't help us figure out who it is. They do the thing where all the competitors live together in a kind of dorm over the stables, which does make sense for the logistics of a show like this, but I could do without the manufactured drama and macho posturing in the scenes of the guys in their off hours. And for a sport, there's way too much time spent in the talking heads segments in which the competitors talk about their feelings and how much they resent each other. There's already a perfectly good model for televising sports. People watch football and basketball without all the team members having to live together so we can see how they interact.

But the good thing about watching it OnDemand is I can fast forward through all the extraneous reality show stuff and watch the training, which I find the most compelling part, and the jousting itself. It's interesting seeing some of the exercises they come up with to train these guys, some of them based on actual medieval training methods (that I've seen done at the Renaissance faire I've been to that had real, as opposed to staged, jousting) and some based on more modern ideas or ideas drawn from other events. If you've watched this show and know anything about me at all or have even just read my books, you can probably tell which guy I find most interesting. One of the competitors is a real anomaly. He's a show jumper, and would be a great candidate for the Sesame Street "one of these things is not like the other" song. He seems to be an average-sized guy, though with a fairly slender build, but next to most of these guys (many of whom likely have an intense personal relationship with steroids) he looks tiny (the Television Without Pity forum has dubbed him "WSJ" for "wee show jumper"). Many of these guys are ex-military, and they're huge, with bulging muscles covered in tattoos and with long hair and facial hair. A few of them might clean up okay, but the show jumper is very clean-cut -- you could take him home to Mom without having to clean him up first. Put him in hunting attire and he could play a member of a fox hunting party in the next season of Downton Abbey without having to change anything about his appearance. He doesn't seem to have blue eyes, but otherwise is very much my type, with wavy dark hair and fair skin, and he seems to be the quiet one who stays out of the drama and even has a talent for evading the camera.

And then they started the training and that pushed even more of my buttons. The first guy from his team chosen to joust was a huge, tattooed, Mohawked ex-Marine. The other guys seemed to be really skeptical of the little show jumper. And then they were training the Marine for his joust by making him tilt against the rest of the team -- and on the very first pass the little show jumper knocked the huge Marine clean off his horse. And I immediately went "Ooooh, the unassuming badass/unlikely hero!" So, yeah, I was hooked. Because it seems to come down to the fact that the show jumper can really ride -- all those novels that describe someone as riding like a Centaur seem to be describing the way he rides, where he's one with the horse. That means he's got a really secure seat and it allows him to have a lot of precision because he can hold the lance steady against the movement of the horse and hit exactly what he wants to hit -- when he was sidelined by a concussion and not allowed contact or armor, he was neatly picking up two-inch rings with the lance at full tilt.

I also like the nice-boy rodeo cowboy/steer wrestler. Based on his accent, I'd say he's from Texas or Oklahoma, and while he's not my type at all, I know that type. That's the type that will pull his pickup truck over and stop to help you if you have car trouble on a back road outside a small town. He also prays before his bouts (though I felt that the camera zooming in on him while he did so was very intrusive). He's also a good rider who communicates with his horse and treats his horse like a teammate instead of as merely a piece of sporting equipment. Oh, and the horses are gorgeous.

One other problem with them doing this as a reality show instead of as a sport is that it looks like the whole thing was filmed last fall, and now it's been edited together into a show. I don't think the actual jousting stuff is staged, but I suspect that the bits of training and the interviews they show were selected to build a story line that would keep the audience engaged through to the end, and if you know anything about narrative structure, that means you have a pretty good idea of who the likely final competitors are. There are the guys who get a lot of screen time and then there are the guys who only appear in the opening credits. Who do you think will be the final competitors? The "stars" may not win, but they're likely to make it far enough for people to care if they get knocked out of competition, and they aren't going to waste time on the guys who just get eliminated.

Now I kind of want to go to a joust, but our local Renaissance faire barely does it anymore. It's very staged, and they spend half the time off their horses playing out bad pro wrestling scenarios (with the horses nearby looking very bored). Maybe I'll have to go down to outside Houston in the fall, where they sometimes do a real jousting tournament. It's an incredibly thrilling thing to watch in person.