Total Drama Island - Part 1: The Review
Updated: Nov 13, 2019
Let's face it: we were all drawn into at least one reality show so far in our lives. It could be Survivor, Naked and Afraid, The Amazing Race, American Ninja Warrior, you read it. But ever since Survivor popularized the genre in 2000, for every legitimate reality show that came around the corner, there have been at least one show that toyed around with the genre. There were satires of reality shows, like Drawn Together, or reality shows made for kids and/or preteens, like Endurance or, if you want to dig in even deeper, Moolah Beach from Fox Kids.
But then, every once in a while, you might run into at least one show where you feel like it is made for younger demographics, it is a satire of reality programming, but for some reason it comes with a surprisingly sophisticated flavor that almost puts it up to par with the actual reality shows.
It was ten years ago when, by mere chance, I ran into one of those shows, and it was a Canadian cartoon series called Total Drama Island.
Okay, actually, when I say ten years ago, I meant when it first premiered on Cartoon Network; it made its Canadian premiere the year before on Teletoon.
Getting back on track, this show definitely took its chances with its creative satires of the reality show genre, poking fun at the scales of the competition, the riskiness of the challenges, and even the insignificance of a select few of the challenges at hand. Being that this is an animated show, with the satire came an appropriately moderate amount of cartoony zaniness that upscaled the humorous aspects of the show. The cartoony satire is good and fun, but let's talk about what REALLY made the show for me: the characters.
Some of you might be wondering, "Why is that? Aren't they supposed to be adding to the satirical themes of the show?" They do, but they also do far more than that. The first time you meet the characters, you would definitely identify who is who from their stereotypical aspects, established by their outer appearances and mannerisms. You have Chris McLean, the host, Chef Hatchett, the loudmouthed second-in-command, and then you have the contestants, all of whom were 16 years old:
Gwen, the Gothic loner girl,
Heather, the Queen Bee,
Owen, the big guy,
Duncan, the juvenile delinquent,
Harold, the geek,
Courtney, the uptight CIT (counselor-in-training),
Lindsay, the dumb blonde model,
Beth, the wannabe,
LeShawna, the hip girl,
Eva, the athletic girl,
Justin, the hot guy,
Trent, the cool guy,
Katie & Sadie, the BFFFLs (or, Best Female Friends for Life),
Izzy, the crazy wild child,
Bridgette, the surfer girl,
Geoff, the party dude,
Noah, the know-it-all,
Cody, the scrawny nerd,
DJ, the muscular softie,
Tyler, the jock, and
Ezekiel, the homeschooled prairie guy.
There are three reasons why I think they stand out. One is, half of all these characters were established by their characteristics and, in some cases, they lived up to them, but without being overtly mocked or mocking themselves for it. It helped that the show was grounded enough in spite of its own satire to arrange that. The other half was given the time necessary to express other unexplored aspects of their own personalities, making them feel more like actual people that we can relate to instead of caricatures of other people. Part of it comes from the usage of the confessional booth, an outhouse where the characters record their innermost thoughts and feelings with a camera. Other part of it stems from reason #2: the chemistry the characters share between each other.
And I don’t mean just between teams, I mean in between individuals. Because each character, in spite of their stereotypical titles, established a personality of his or her own, this triggered a multitude of possibilities that came from one stereotype colliding with another. In some cases they make good friends. In others, they make the fiercest enemies. But in all cases, and in one way or another, they all represent a certain societal aspect that one may relate to from, or even remember from, high school. You have the high-and-mighty who picks on the alleged freak shows (Heather and Gwen), the bully who pranks the otherwise modest (Duncan and Harold), and inevitably, pairs whose members harbored crushes on each other but have shown hesitance to express it until the last minute. And, in the case of Total Drama Island, there are plenty to choose from.
This leads to the third reason why the characters stand out: they had some influence from a few high school classics. Don’t give me wrong, it’s obvious that the characters got plenty of inspiration from the archetypes that come with reality shows, right down to alliances being formed, but parts of them were also carried over from particular high school archetypes that we recognize from those particular films. Harold, for example, may have at first felt like your everyday geek who knows everything, but once he has shown his characteristics and even used his catchphrases (Gosh! Lucky! Idiot!), you could tell he was inspired by Napoleon Dynamite. Heck, even LeShawna, the girl he liked in the show, was inspired by Napoleon Dynamite, too. She shared some similarities to a similar character named LaFonda, the girl whom Napoleon‘s cousin Kip fell in love with and eventually married.
I don’t know if other people caught this, but I caught a few sly references to John Hughes. In the first episode, as the contestants were making their way to Camp Wawanakwa on the Dock of Shame – we’ll get to that soon – one of them asks, “is this where we’re staying?” Duncan, who got there before him, replied, “No, it’s your mother’s house, and we’re throwing a party.” That is a reference to a similar phrase, spoken by ANOTHER character named Duncan, in Some Kind of Wonderful. The other John Hughes reference (that I know of) occurred in Episode 8 (Up the Creek), when Cody tried hitting on Gwen, oblivious to the fact that Gwen had a crush on Trent. When Cody did finally realize this, he did what he could in his power to hook them both up, especially since Trent was his friend. Any John Hughes aficionado who sees this this might recognize it from Sixteen Candles, and appropriately so.
So, as you can tell by now, the characters are to die for, and the number one reason why I’m so devoted to this show.
Getting back to the reality show themes, here’s how the game worked in the show. All the contestants stayed on a campground called Camp Wawanakwa, located on an island in Muskoka, Northern Ontario, and they all had to compete in a barrage of challenges. If a team lost a challenge, they would attend the campfire ceremony, where all the contestants who stayed in the game got one marshmallow, and the camper who did not receive a marshmallow was the one voted off. And once s/he is voted off, s/he leaves the campground, walks on the Dock of Shame, and hops onto the Boat of Losers to head home. All the contestants had to go through these tribulations until one contestant was left standing, in which case, he or she would win C$100,000.
I found the challenges to be about as diverse as the contestants themselves. They went through challenges that would be appropriate to a summer camp, including riding canoes to another island and back, at least two hunting challenges, camping out in the wild, and even two survival challenges...in a row! They also went through challenges that could’ve easily fit in the high school environment, such as a dodgeball match, a talent show, a hide and seek match, a cooking competition, and even a horror movie night that slowly started to come to life. Almost the rest of the challenges they went through where appropriate for a reality show, ranging from completing tasks based on trust, to a triathlon challenge, standard games made EXTREME, an obstacle course match (this one was arranged by Chef Hatchett, who claimed to have had a military background) and a fear-conquering match. The last one played around with the contestants expressing their inner selves, partaking in the themes of diversity and depth among the characters that the show benefited from.
Now, I am aware that there are more seasons of the show, and I did see most of them. So, here are some brief mini-reviews for each one that I saw:
Total Drama Action (Season 2)
This carried over some of the sophistication from the first season, and it had some interesting storylines, including Chef Hatchett forming an alliance with DJ so he’ll win the million dollar prize for Chef, Courtney returning in the middle of the competition with a lawsuit she filed after been previously ineligible, and LeShawna being put in hot water when her usage of fake emotions secured her one of the prizes all to herself. However, the setting, which was an abandoned movie studio, and the challenges that came with it, seemed strange and a little out of place, especially for a reality show satire.
Total Drama World Tour (Season 3)
This season was a little better than the last one because it returned to poking fun at the cliques of the existing reality shows. In this case, it was the Amazing Race, since the contestants had to travel around the world. It even benefited from having two all new contestants competing alongside the mostly original cast of contestants. However, it pulled off an unusual twist where the contestants were forced to sing a musical number in each challenge. What’s interesting to think about is that this aired around the same time as Phineas and Ferb when it was still in its prime. So that fact that this season, and only this one, was able to incorporate singing into the mix can’t be a coincidence. Personally, it could’ve worked just a skosh better without the singing.
Total Drama Revenge of the Island (Season 4)
Returning to Camp Wawanakwa with an entirely new batch of contestants. This premise alone has shown some merit. Unfortunately, the potential was hampered by two things: one, the island was converted into a biohazardous dumping ground (though it was clearly a radioactive dumping ground instead) resulting in the native animals and even one of the contestants (I won’t tell you who) being mutated into unnatural forms, making the season too dark and too surreal for the show’s satires to thrive consistently. And two, the characters were not as memorable as the original contestants because they were too defined by their stereotypical titles and not given enough time to breathe or to express their personalities better.
Total Drama All-Stars (Season 5)
This was where I stopped watching the show. The potential to mix and match the original and new contestants and provide some throwback elements with proper twists was ultimately ruined by inadequate storytelling, character collisions more nonsensical than before, unrealistic situations, and some mean-spirited twists pulled on the characters. In fact, this season was reportedly so bad, that the fans of the show, and even the show-runners themselves, refused to acknowledge its existence ever since. So, there.
But the history of Total Drama Island’s presentation in the United States? Believe it or not, that wasn’t any better. It’s a long story, so stay tuned for Part 2, which will be coming soon!
Update (Sept. 12, 2018)
I just recently flashed on the fourth reason that the teenage contestants worked so well in the show: according to showrunners Tom McGillis and Jennifer Pertsch, during the production phases, they interviewed teenage participants of the story meetings and asked them what they liked or didn’t like about the reality shows. That seemed like a very wise strategy on their part: that just added to the authenticity of the experience that would have come with watching the show.
“Total Drama Island Ribs Reality TV.” Edited by Playback Staff, Playback, Playback, 15 May 2006, playbackonline.ca/2006/05/15/dramaisland-20060515/.