When “Holey Moley” arrived as the perfect summer popcorn TV show last June, it was born from a perfect formula. Take mini golf, one of the country’s most easily agreed upon pastimes, and add the strange physical endurance tests of “Wipeout.” All the tension of a tournament-winning putt, combined with Americans’ innate fascination with watching reality show contestants sacrifice themselves for arbitrary gains.
So far, the second season has kept pretty much everything from that first round intact. Between the crowning added touches and a vastly different cultural landscape than the one that the show first premiered in, this new batch of episodes has underlined all the reasons why “Holey Moley” is a perfectly pitched TV tonic. And it’s here at just the right time.
Most of that ease of watching comes from the fact that, aside from the quarter-million dollar prize awaiting one mini-golf champion at the end of the season, these people are essentially competing for who can have the most fun goofing off for a national TV audience. There’s no manufactured animosity and no confessional booth promises to backstab their competitors. So far in Season 2, it’s almost more jarring to see when the two players putting against each other aren’t actively invested in the other’s success. It’s so refreshing!
Part of that comes from the idea that, even though it would be much easier to do in the show’s head-to-head format, the series veers away from the easy hero/villain framing. Sure, it leans into the easy, one-characteristic differentiation between competitors, but the overall goal avoids building up some people at the expense of others. There’s an attempt to find one thing about each person — that they can embrace and make their own — that at least some viewers might find endearing.
Hosts Joe Tessitore and Rob Riggle make for an effective two-man team. For the most part, their back-and-forth works when their jokey commentary is telegraphed. (The low-hanging fruit is mostly in the dad joke range — the handful of jokes that are too easy for a reason are the only times the show feels like it’s misstepping.) Obviously, not all of their banter happens in real time. But, for a show executive produced by a basketball player, both of them more than hold their own with an improv pick-and-roll. And when the cameras catch them in a genuine spontaneous moment, when even the reliably straight-faced Tessitore can’t help but crack a smile, that just adds to the “Holey Moley” treasure trove.
Not content to simply coast on that chemistry, “Holey Moley” Season 2 has also found room for some deceptively weird subplots. The Jon Lovitz gambit in the premiere is inexplicable, and the multi-episode diving gag is the ideal kind of dumb. The ongoing tales of NBA superstar Stephen Curry’s exploits as both globe-hopping golf pro and friend to mythological creatures of all sizes are as absurd as Curry’s deadpan delivery is exquisite. (“Stephen, we can’t pay for you to travel the world searching for dragons.”) Toss in Riggle introducing each new hole in front of a retro tableau beamed in from a mid-1960s Walt Disney informational short, and you have a casserole of self-awareness and good-natured silliness that can win over even the most golf-averse viewer.
The obstacles are still the absurdist backbone of the series. The port-a-potty speed run challenges contestants to follow their putts across a narrow strip of green before the actors inside the stalls open up the door with enough force to send them into the drink below. It’s built like some secret Super Mario level that’s more of a designer’s lark than something meant to be cleared.
This is not “Ultimate Ninja Warrior,” where someone with the right combination of skill, training, and conditions can conceivably scale the unscalable. Some parts of the “Holey Moley” course are just rigged to send contorted bodies flying into a giant vat of water. It’s so much more satisfying knowing that when these players’ heads pop back above the surface, they’ve got a smile on their face. There’s a certain kind of camaraderie and unity that comes with failing together.
When it suits the overall flow of the show, “Holey Moley” isn’t precious about peeling back the curtain, either. There are Riggle jokes about recycled sets. The struggles of the announcers to fight the winds blowing through the outdoor set and across their desk make the final cut. The moment that highlights a production assistant curling up in the fetal position to avoid being in a crowd shot is the kind of “how the sausage gets made” detail that most shows would never have the bandwidth or tonal leeway to include.
Aside from the crowds and the post-match embraces, “Holey Moley” is also free from a lot of the guilt felt for enjoying shows produced before March. It’s one contestant at a time, all by themselves, in a turn-by-turn show of talent. “Holey Moley” thrives on anxiety, only here it comes from seeing determined doofuses try to skirt over a slippery plastic pole, not from seeing scores of people with no regard for personal space.
For as much as that “Wipeout” DNA still provides most of the clips that make it into episode promos, this year’s show is also displaying a fiendish “Price is Right” streak. One of the holes is right out of the Plinko playbook, essentially using sheer luck to put everyone on the same footing. It’s as if the show is reminding everyone that you can use your powers of deduction and strategy all you want, but there will always be the person who just stumbles on greatness by complete accident. In a time when artificial divisions and infighting seem even more counterproductive than always, it’s nice to sit back and watch people do their best and have the time of their lives doing it.
“Holey Moley” airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.