'Rebel' competition just might fly
By Robert Bianco, USA TODAY
Only reality TV could turn a one-of-a-kind person into one of the crowd.
Surely there can be no doubt that Richard Branson, the adventure-seeking founder of the Virgin business empire, is a true original. If only we could say something close to the same for his Rebel Billionaire, a somewhat shaky marriage of The Amazing Race and The Apprentice, with a touch of Mark Cuban's The Benefactor thrown in.
As on The Apprentice, you have a set of contestants competing to work for a high-profile billionaire businessman, though in this case, Branson says, the winner won't just get a make-work job. He or she will become president of Virgin Worldwide — a development that we'll believe when we see it.
The twist is that the challenges take place all over the world, from London to Hong Kong, from cities to jungles, from sea to sky. Throw in the stunts, says Branson, and you get "an adventure like no other." Unless you've already seen The Amazing Race, in which case you get an adventure just like that.
Still, while Rebel may not be original, it could still turn out to be entertaining, depending on which players stick around and how their personalities blend. When the process works, you get an entertaining mix, like the current crop on America's Next Top Model. When it doesn't, you get a snooozefest like Survivor: Vanuatu.
On the plus side, the show does have two major factors in its favor: its global challenges and its globe-trotting host. Branson comes across as an appealingly upbeat boss, savvy enough to realize that eccentric billionaires are best used in small doses, a lesson he may have learned from the failure of The Benefactor. He even borrows a Benefactor trick, basing some early eliminations on secretly observed bad behavior. But this time the contestants get bounced for abusing the help, not for mocking the host.
Those who survive the first test get to tackle a Fear Factor-ish stunt that finds them walking a plank between two hot-air balloons. The people who fail that test have to then climb to the top of a balloon, which would seem to be a test for knowing when to say, "No way, you Brit git."
My guess is nobody ever made John D. Rockefeller or J.P. Morgan climb hot-air balloons, and they turned out to be pretty good businessmen. But since Branson has a billion and I don't, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on this stunt.
I'm not quite sure what to make of the coming attraction that seems to show a woman baring her breasts to a cheering crowd. There are jobs where that skill comes in handy, but president of a major corporation wouldn't seem to be one.
It makes you wonder what sort of business Rebel is running.