Review: 'Make or Break' Season 2
Review: 'Make or Break' Season 2
Season 2 of Make or Break, the Apple TV series made by Box to Box films and produced by WSL CEO Erik Logan has had all eight episodes up now for over a month.
Did you watch it?
I just got through, and to be honest, it was a bit of a slog.
As well as being the clearest window yet into Elo's vision for the Sport, Make or Break gives us continuing clues into the evolution of pro surfing and the quixotic quest to attract a mainstream, non-native audience in the way Formula 1 and UFC have been able to do.
Season 1 debuted with much fanfare and the lauded Box to Box crew did an epic job. The production quality jumped off the screen. Everything was top notch: filming, editing, sound design. Also, massively in its favour was the novelty factor. In 2021, the sport was returning after the COVID years and the new tour schedule, including Finals Day at Trestles, was all brand new. As was the outside perspective given inside access to the sport. It was also made quite clear to us surfing fans and viewers, that this was operating on another level as a marketing arm/propaganda vehicle for the WSL. They'd seen the way Drive to Survive had driven new fans to Formula 1 and they wanted a piece of that action.
Fair enough, it didn't detract from the entertainment value of the series.
However, the second season doesn't pop in the same way. The formula seems more tired and hackneyed, the vanilla blend designed to promote the WSL a little more bland and blatant, and the whole enterprise comes out of the oven as a souffle that didn't quite rise to the occasion.
Some of that is just the nature of sport, especially pro surfing. The foundation stone of sport is anticipation. Fundamentally, we tune in to watch live action to see what will happen. Once that desire has been satisfied we move on to what is next.
What's now and what's next is what matters. We are not predisposed to relitigate the near past.
We spoke about Portugal for 24 hours and then, once we'd thrown our two cents in, we moved on. Same as Sunset, same as Pipe, same as almost every sporting event you can conceive of. It's an incredibly rare event that is still being talked about two weeks later, let alone a year down the track.
But that is what Make or Break asks of our viewing attention.
It's not a historical deep dive, but a re-cap of what has happened in the near past, where fans already know how the story ends. It's incredibly hard to build drama and tension when the audience already knows how the story will play out.
The timing of the release compounds this problem. The first four episodes dropped during the Hawaiian season, when we were up to our necks in current storylines. Going backwards a year just seemed a weird distraction while we were driving forwards at full speed while trying to watch the rear view mirror.
It's a huge job editing an entire year but if they'd managed to release Series 2 during some of the dead air between the end of the tour in September and the start of the next one in January it would have been very different; a perfect segueway into the new season instead of a curious distraction.
OK, that's a fan complaint. But the series isn't made for surf fans, it's made for Joe Public - the mythical non-surfing audience who can be captured and convinced of the magic of pro surfing. How did they react? Reviews were mostly positive. A female reviewer for Vogue magazine enjoyed the perfect escapism from a New York winter and spoke gushingly about “matinee idol” Jack Robinson and the Brazilian men who excited her imagination with their “brooding, intense, fiery, mercurial” energy.
So Sex and the City babes are tuning in for sunshine, bluewater, and shirtless beefcake. I never discount the 'sex sells' aspect of sport, especially after a Melburnian female cousin explained she enjoyed watching the AFL primarily for the titillation of watching fit blokes run around in tight shorts.
Will they stick with it though? Endure bleary-eyed sessions through hours of dreary closeouts under grey skies? The fact that we aren't seeing the Make or Break camera crews this season suggests not.
Season 2 was announced at an incredibly opportune time, right after 49-year old Kelly Slater had just won the Pipe Masters. There's been no such opportune announcement this year.
The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC's reality doco-series has just wrapped filming on the 17th series. Drive to Survive is up to Series 5 (with season 6 in the works). Make or Break looks set to quietly fade away after its sophomore sojourn. Pro surfing's white whale - the non-endemic audience - remains gloriously unharpooned.
Despite having seen it all live, the highlight episode is clearly the first one, detailing Kelly's Pipe victory last year a week shy of his 50th Birthday. Box to Box described the episode as the finest show they have ever produced. You can see why. The action is compelling. While there is no great insight into Kelly we haven't seen in the plethora of content released by the WSL over the last few years, including the infamous Sound Waves episode at the Surf Ranch with his healer and last year's Lost Tapes series, Kelly remains a deeply compelling figure. Obviously struggling with some version of a Peter Pan complex and a competitive drive which just can't be quenched no matter how much success he achieves, he keeps rolling the dice no matter the psychological cost. The buzzer beater against Barron Mamiya remains one of the great moments in sport and his charging Backdoor in the Finals is just mind-blowing. I could have watched the entire eight episodes dedicated to this one contest.
Things descend from that high point. We get an episode about Tatiana Weston-Webb feeling sad because she lost the final to Carissa Moore the year before. The Wright family gets a glib and superficial look at Bells with way more questions than answers, highlighting a weakness of the concept. We know Owen got cut. Where is he now? what is he going through now?*
The same criticism extends to the next episode about the cut. Much was made of Morgan Cibilic in Season 1 and in Season 2 we see him as a fully-fledged surf star.
What's interesting though, is not seeing Morgs get cut, it's what happens next.
Morgs has dropped off the face of the Earth, not a mention for months in any surf media. Can a pro surfer maintain a livelihood by disappearing? These would have been truly fascinating concepts for the Box to Box team to explore. What happens after the cut..?
The timeline through the second four episodes gets confusing as we lose the dramatic impetus of the mid-year cut. Instead of following the chronological events we skip back and forth in order to follow individual characters. Colapinto and Igarashi primarily, with a heavy dash of Jack Robinson. It's cool to be reminded of the sheer quantity of crazy buzzer beaters Jack had last year and the many 50/50 calls that went his way, which he has completely vindicated by this year's performance.
Of course, these 50/50 calls went against his opponents, mostly the Brazilian Storm big dogs. That storyline is tentatively explored, in terms of Brazilian fan rage. Colapinto in one of the more controversial calls for the season claims a close call went against him because the “judges were borderline scared because they didn't want to start a riot”. The online abuse directed at Colapinto after his win over Toledo at Punta Roca is touched on as he heads to Brazil but no great drama comes of it. It ain't exactly the Bronzed Aussies hiding under the bed in the Kuilima with tennis racquets waiting for the Black Shorts to arrive.
An episode is devoted to the rivalry between Kanoa and Griffin, but it falls very flat. The strongest card Griff plays is that Kanoa's celebration's are weird (true), while a blinged up Kanoa accuses Griff of being a rich kid riding around in a golf cart. It's thin gruel when compared to historical sporting rivalries. Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier fought three of the most famous and intense heavyweight battles of all time and even after twenty years when Ali had Parkinson's Disease and was able to light the Olympic Torch in Atlanta, Frazier quipped “they should have pushed him in”. Andy Irons made his feelings clear on Kelly Slater in Jack McCoy's 2002 Blue Horizon stating he wanted to “crush Kelly's pretty little picture. It's my time now.”
A couple of middle-class Californian boys having a little dig at each other doesn't quite inspire the same awe. To be fair, they probably had no choice with Gabe and JJF out.
The second series is also defined by absences. John John Florence gets the briefest of cameos, but otherwise he is a ghost, barely sighted and never mentioned. Any internet random watching Make or Break would have no idea about JJF's status in the sport. Dual world champ with a career constantly defined by injury but still widely considered the best surfer in the world. That seems a major miss.
Tahiti flits in and out of the last four episodes and there's some big talk about sending it - particularly from Steph Gilmore. But Gilmore didn't send it, nor did fellow current world champion Filipe Toledo.
In solid 8ft Teahupoo against a 50-year old Kelly Slater and 44-year old wildcard Nathan Hedge, Toledo caught one wave for a heat total of 1.87. In any other sport this would have been huge news, and even allowing for Toledo's sensitivities could have been explored. Being able to conquer (or not) fear in heavy surf is something every champion surfer, even recreational surfers, has to grapple with. Some succeed, most don’t. To just completely ignore it like it didn't happen seems bizarre.
In the last episode covering Finals Day, the producers/editors lose control of the material. In fact, it feels like the editors just walked out and let Elo push the buttons. The show devolves to epic schmaltz, liberally smothered in Oprah Winfrey-style cheese. Slow mos and orchestral crescendos abound - it's more like the second coming of Christ than a sporting doco. Unfortunately, as anyone who witnessed it knows, the day doesn't justify that treatment and so we are left slightly nauseated instead of uplifted.
The Finals Day concept itself has been the subject of immense controversy - including criticism from both Gabriel Medina and even Steph Gilmore herself minutes after taking out her eighth title. A nuanced examination of this subject would have elevated the episode above naked cheerleading and given it, I dunno, a smidgin of dignity. Ultimately, it was this shameless cheerleading and the unquestioning endorsement of the Elo vision which reduced Season 2 to nothing more than disposable eye candy.
With the quality of the production team at hand, it felt like the sport deserved something more. Ultimately, Make of Break will go down as one more doomed attempt to harpoon the white whale of the non-surfing surfing fan.
// STEVE SHEARER
* He retired.