In an early episode of the new HBO Max competition show “The Climb,” a pair of contestants face down a one-on-one climb-off to determine who stays on the show. They’re just two of about a dozen different climbers vying for a chance at some cash, recognition, and a shot at a potential new career. The challenge of the week is bouldering, meaning that without a rope system to tether a climber to the rock itself, the only thing protecting a potential two-story fall is a giant cushion on the ground.
A lesser version of “The Climb” would make a grand show of forcing those two climbers to carry all the necessary pads themselves, an arbitrary punishment designed to shame the people who didn’t quite reach the same physical or metaphorical heights as their peers that week. Instead, when “The Climb” cuts to a wide shot of all the contestants, everyone is carrying a mat. And when the time comes for the climb-off to happen, there are cheers of support all around. The field may be whittled down by one from episode to episode, but this group is closer to a team than you’ll see in most shows like it.
There really is a shortage of pettiness in “The Climb.” The show, produced by Jason Momoa and releasing in weekly chunks over the course of this month, isn’t really designed to shock or outrage. Instead, the series follows that group of climbers as they tackle some of the trickiest rock faces in the world, beginning with a cluster of locations throughout the Spanish landscape.
The competition is the hook, with a $100,000 prize and a comparable climbing company endorsement deal hanging in the balance. But that almost becomes incidental to what works on the show. Co-hosts and stars of the climbing world Chris Sharma and Meagan Martin aren’t manipulating them against each other or prodding them to sabotage each other’s chances. The more the show goes on, the less these climbs become vague psychological tests and more demonstrations of skill. The post-mortem interviews actually analyze decisions and strategies. One standout sequence from the early episodes features the entire group dissecting footage from the first climb, singling out achievements and offering help for conquering the next tasks that lie ahead.
“The Climb” takes all the energy that would usually be put into manufacturing heroes and villains and putting it toward an appreciation of the sport itself. If there’s any main challenger on “The Climb,” it’s these cliff faces themselves, with treacherous overhangs, minuscule natural handholds, and pathways that require a tremendous amount of upper body strength. If those giant vistas didn’t already speak for themselves, Momoa and Sharma’s two-man location scout would do a decent job at setting up the expectations and risks for each new setting.
Along the way, the competitors are able to bring more of themselves into the process. When the group is walking the streets of a Catalonian village and one of them starts sussing out how they might climb a centuries-old prison, it’s the kind of personality that shines through when there’s less time and effort carved out to make the competition bigger than the people participating. Between each show of skill, there’s an emphasis here on down-time hangouts, casual wine dinners and giant group hugs.
As HBO Max feels out an uncertain future — one where the Discovery influence on a potential megastreamer could mean an even bigger emphasis on unscripted shows — “The Climb” feels like a show that’s a lot closer to an asset than a liability. It’s not just chum for the reality waters, however much it sometimes feels like a delayed response to the popularity of something like “Free Solo.” (And though Momoa’s self-described interest in climbing is much older than that doc, this competition still feels like someone seizing the opportunity to turn a somewhat-exotic hobby into content.)
Before it settles into a better groove as the show goes on, there are still moments from the opening episodes that have the traditional stings and indulgent buildups usually reserved for competitions that feel flat without those kinds of shortcuts. The more interesting, candid talk from the climbers sometimes gets drowned out when the show feels the need to remind the audience they’re watching a competition rather than basking in the feat of an expert climbing over the waters off the coast of Mallorca.
Though “The Climb” feels like it would work better as a more traditional documentary series, relying on the inherent tension of summiting (or “sending,” as the climbers here call it), there are enough stretches here that still manage to put the competition trappings off to the side. The audience gets tiny glimpses of contestants’ past triumphs and traumas. Those stories come from different regions of the United States and beyond, many told by people who feel an added pressure to perform and represent groups not always as visible in the sport at large.
Some climbers who take part even bristle at the idea that the competition is making people approach some climbs differently. The first episode spawns a philosophical debate that gets people more heated than any talk of prize money: If you can reach the top, do you have an obligation to do it? The fact that the answer seems to be an overwhelming yes among the people on “The Climb” is just one indication that they would be chasing that high even if the cameras weren’t rolling. For a TV show trying to pick the best parts from the worlds of reality competition and documentary storytelling, that’s pretty much a best-case scenario.
“The Climb” releases new batches of episodes on Thursdays through January 26.