Thursday night marks the season finale of the History Channel television program Top Shot. “What is Top Shot?,” you ask, if you are like most people in America. Well, it’s a competitive marksmanship reality show where contestants shoot guns at (occasionally exploding) targets to determine who is the toppest shot in all the land. Hosted by formerSurvivor contestant Colby Donaldson and his excellent teeth, the show tests contestants’ skill with a variety of historically significant weapons, from machine guns to longbows to the atlatl, a primitive spear-throwing device used by Paleolithic hunters. I’m a huge, huge fan of Top Shot. And if you want to better understand modern gun culture, you should be too.
The show is wonderfully simple. Every episode begins with a preliminary challenge, in which contestants might use a long-range rifle to hit a target that’s been set a mile away, for example, or send a bullet through the hole in the center of a CD without breaking the disc. The poorest performers are eligible for elimination.
The elimination challenges are often more theatrical than the preliminaries; this year they have involved cannons, grenade launchers, and zip lines—just like the Battle of Bunker Hill! Speaking of history, Donaldson always rattles off a few historical facts about the weapons being used, but the details, while interesting, are always perfunctory. This show isn’t about history, it’s about watching dudes chop down a telephone pole with bullets fired from a Gatling gun or shoot the head off a cotton swab from 25 feet away.
And the best part is that you can tell, instantly, whether the shooters have succeeded at their appointed task. Whereas so many reality shows rely on panels of sassy experts to evaluate the contestants, Top Shot eliminations are based entirely on skill that is empirically tested. The person who hits the most targets or comes closest to the bullseye wins; the person who shoots the worst goes home. Anyone who has ever watchedProject Runway or Top Chef and wished that those shows would put more of a focus on the clothes or the cooking would really appreciate Top Shot’s commitment to the skillful discharge of firearms.
If, by contrast, you watch reality television for the screaming matches and crazy eyes, then you will hate Top Shot, because there’s none of that here. There’s no forced drama, no catchphrases. (Well, one guy does like to say “Hey-diddle-diddle, right down the middle” a lot, in reference to the accuracy of his shots.) The contestants all live together in a house, but all they ever seem to do there is cook dinner together and gather to salute those contestants who were eliminated. “I’ve never seen sportsmanship like this,” Donaldson said to the remaining contestants last episode, and it’s true: the camaraderie and respect between the Top Shot shooters seems to be more genuine than on any other reality show I’ve ever seen.
For people like me, who neither own a gun nor know very many people who do, the show helps counteract some of the most extreme, uninformed stereotypes that many liberals and urbanites have about “gun guys.” The show clearly demonstrates something that often gets lost in the heat of the gun control debate: that gun owners aren’t all crazy survivalists or slavering right-wing fanatics. A lot of them are just reasonable, responsible sportsmen who enjoy shooting guns because shooting guns can be a lot of fun.
Top Shot airs late, doesn’t get much promotion, and has been preempted more than once for no apparent reason, which makes me worry that this might be its final season. Indeed, I get the sense that the History Channel almost didn’t air this current season, presumably because, after the Sandy Hook shootings, the network worried that the time wasn’t right for a show about guns. But the exact opposite is true. In this time of polarized discourse around guns and gun control, the country needs a show like Top Shotmore than ever. Here’s hoping tonight isn’t the end of its run.
Justin Peters writes a crime blog for Slate.