The proliferation of streaming services has given many options to take the ‘best show’ title now that Game of Thrones has concluded. Some are partial to HBO’s Succession; others may sway you towards Amazon’s boorish superhero take “The Boys”; but the real king at this point in time is Dana White’s Contender Series. All the elements of a must-watch show are here: drama, controversy, theater and sport.
Although a great show in its own right, The Boys suffers from a repackaging of a somewhat used story idea, also seen in recent shows like Netflix’s Punisher or the recent movie Brightburn. Similarly, Succession suffers from being the sameish concept as Game of Thrones and House of Cards, but in a different setting. While you can compare DWCS to its predecessor, The Ultimate Fighter, it differs vastly in what each show accomplishes and how it tells its story. The Ultimate Fighter brought 16 fighters into a manufactured story built to fabricate as much drama as possible within a reality show. DWCS does not need to manufacture drama; instead, it simply puts both opposing stories on full display and the viewer can choose which story will have the best outcome.
DWCS uses sport to tell its narrative, it offers a better life to characters (fighters) from all different walks of life. Their back story is told in the moments before they step into the Octagon (setting) to fight for the prize of a contract into the professional league (Ultimate Fighting Championship) that will undoubtedly change their lives for the better. The president of the league sits cageside and, by all accounts, is looking for superstars. In the last few weeks, the series has highlighted a Venezuelan fighter using this opportunity to get out of that embattled and impoverished country; a women’s fighter who lost her brother to a rare form of cancer and took up his dream to become a UFC fighter; and a fighter trying to become the first Native American on the UFC roster (this claim is disputed).
All these stories are great, but the real conflict of the show is the “exit interview” with Dana White. The interview is presented on a split screen. One side shows Dana White speaking about what he liked or didn’t like from the show’s winners. On the other side we see five director’s chairs with the five winners sitting nervously, sometimes crying, waiting for the boss to discuss their performance, for better or worse, in front of the audience.
How can this get better? Add controversy. And there is controversy in spades on DWCS. A win will not guarantee a fighter a UFC contract. The fighter must end the fight in impressive fashion either by knockout, submission or a dominant, one-sided beating. Anything short of that and Dana White will not offer the contract, leaving winners feeling like losers. This was evident in week 1 (June 18) when former UFC fighter Brendan Loughnane won his bout in dominating fashion but did not try to win in spectacular fashion. White did not offer the contract and instead lambasted the fighter for playing it safe and not throwing caution to the wind. Laughnane ended up signing with UFC competitor Professional Fighters League.
DWCS delivers drama in heaping spoonfuls and leaves itself sitting tidily atop the best show mountain, waiting to be noticed. The real question isn’t if it’s the best show right now, the real question is, is anyone watching?
You can catch Dana White’s Contender Series season finale Tuesday on ESPN+.