The Underdog: Josh Must Win review - Nick Grimshaw hosts new reality TV show that could revitalise tired genre

The Oldham star has a little help from Amber Gill, Vicky Pattison and Pete Wicks.
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Can E4’s new reality TV-subverting show really revitalise the genre? Appropriately for the channel which started the whole reality television revolution, it looks like Channel 4 and its offshoots are determined to stick a knife into the genre's bloated corpse.

The Underdog: Josh Must Win (E4, Mon-Weds, 9pm) is designed to subvert the whole Botox-browed thing, partly by constructing a note-perfect reproduction. The idea is that nine contestants are shoved into a house together to part in a reality show called The Favourite. They all believe that they are competing against each other to be named 'The Favourite' – obviously – and go home with a £10,000 first prize.

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Eight of them are reality show-type people that are familiar now from umpteen Love Islands, TOWIEs, and Geordie Shores. There are TikTokers and influences, personal trainers and beauty queens, skincare experts and fitness models. There are tattoos, and neatly-trimmed beards, There are highlights and extensions. There are unnaturally smooth foreheads and artificially plumped lips. And they are – eight of them, anyway – so incredibly, astoundingly, loudly confident. With squeals and hugs and high fives all round.

From left, Pete Wicks, Amber Rose Gill, Vicky Pattison and Nick Grimshaw are the reality TV show experts manipulating proceedings in The Underdog: Josh Must Win (Picture: Matt Monfredi/Channel 4)From left, Pete Wicks, Amber Rose Gill, Vicky Pattison and Nick Grimshaw are the reality TV show experts manipulating proceedings in The Underdog: Josh Must Win (Picture: Matt Monfredi/Channel 4)
From left, Pete Wicks, Amber Rose Gill, Vicky Pattison and Nick Grimshaw are the reality TV show experts manipulating proceedings in The Underdog: Josh Must Win (Picture: Matt Monfredi/Channel 4)

And then there is the ninth contestant. Josh. A small, unassuming 23-year-old with tightly-curled hair, eyes blinking owlishly behind widescreen specs, and not a tattoo in sight.

Here's where the subversion begins. Hidden away, in a room next door to our identikit reality show mansion are four celebs whose only role is to make Josh win – and none of the contestants know, not even Josh. Reality show stars Amber Gill, Vicky Pattison and Pete Wicks, together with superfan – and 'host' of The Favourite' – Nick Grimshaw are given carte blanche manipulate games, goings-on and evictions to make Josh win.

The only caveat is that the other eight contestants don't cotton on, although given they initially seem remarkably self-absorbed, that looks like a given. The idea is that – more than 20 years after Channel 4 aired the original series of Big Brother – reality show archetypes have become ingrained in our psyches, each iteration becoming louder, more extreme and more artificial.

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As Pattison says when she sees the contestants first entering the house, these reality wannabes “have evolved, like sharks swimming backwards”. It's amusing to see their reactions to Josh, who still lives at home with his parents and four chocolate labradors – they seem utterly non-plussed by him, as if he's the alien lifeform among the normal people, when in 'actual' reality they would be the interlopers.

And the looks on their faces when Josh actually begins to win – the panel can rig the eviction vote until, Josh reaches the final two contestants – are priceless as they struggle to understand how this quiet, un-pushy creature could possibly be anybody's favourite.

The underdog himself - Josh - features in the new genre-subverting reality TV show The Underdog: Josh Must Win (Picture: Matt Monfredi/Channel 4)The underdog himself - Josh - features in the new genre-subverting reality TV show The Underdog: Josh Must Win (Picture: Matt Monfredi/Channel 4)
The underdog himself - Josh - features in the new genre-subverting reality TV show The Underdog: Josh Must Win (Picture: Matt Monfredi/Channel 4)

Myles, square of jaw, empty of head, seems particularly put out, and it gets worse for him as his game-playing – which would ordinarily succeed – gets him into hot water with the other contestants.

Quite how much it subverts reality show convention, however, is debatable. While it is undeniably refreshing so see a 'normie' triumphing in the highly artificial world of reality TV, this is still a show where its the producers who are really pulling the strings, not the four judges next door. They add a 'power couple' into the mix, they send Wicks and Pattison into the house on sort of undercover missions and they set the parameters of the game.

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What it does show is how much reality show tropes have infiltrated society. Josh would not have looked out of place in the 'cast' of the first Big Brother – a normal, everyday schlub, who you wouldn't look twice at in the street. More than 20 years on, however, and he is the outlier in the house, not just in appearance, but in personality – everyone else has turned themselves up to 11.

This is a show that plays with both the contestants and the form, and offers some signs that maybe the reality genre isn't dead yet – it just needs to turn the volume down a little.