Spike Jonze and the frenetic creatives at VBS.TV brings us a series devoted to the competitive side of a historically chillaxed sport. School of Surf: Red Bull Rider’s Cup is a 15-part series that takes us into the new format of team surfing.
The first episode briefly encapsulates the career of former-pro-turned-big-wave-rider Brad Gerlach, aka ‘Gerr’, before he introduces his creation – the ‘team surfing’ format. Like the Ryder Cup in golf, the team format was developed as a way to turn the individual, cut throat aspects of surf competition – which seems to have induced Gerlach’s burn out, though he never explicitly says it – into more of a love fest. Each high school team goes out into the water, collaborating for the best combined score.
School of Surf series takes us slowly through the various rounds, beginning with 32 high schools and ending with the National Championship match between Orange County’s San Clemente and San Diego County Carlsbad High (Spoiler alert: Unless you live in one of these SoCal beach towns, you won’t particularly care who wins).
Gerlach describes the competitions as three innings of a baseball game (the first, middle and last) and as a “fan-friendly team sport.” Perhaps it’s fan friendly, but that doesn’t mean it’s what fans want to see.
If you look at tennis – as much of an individual sport as surfing – you’d see that while the Davis Cup does incite passion and nationalism amongst its fans, so too does the year-round individual tour. Same deal with golf and the Ryder Cup I referenced above. Formats that worship the individual, though perhaps harder on an athlete’s psyche, are far more popular amongst the populace. The same could be said for professional surfing.
Still, the dynamic that Gerlach has established – which fosters feeding off the energy of teammates, surfing with your buddies, and so on – at least discourages the aggression, or ‘aggro,’ that surfing routinely engenders. One can only hope that this mellower vibe will eventually translate to surfing in the real world, where localism and pecking orders thrive, though this seems unlikely.
The insularity of surfing and its culture isn’t a concern to School of Surf‘s producers, and one imagines its audience is made up exclusively of beach bums and those with boards. While it does provide a taste of the latest in surfer culture and lingo, the portraits of the participants are limited and cursory and the perpetually sound-tracked wave-riding sequences don’t compel us to invest much in them.
It even makes us pine, if only slightly, for the reality TV show, Board House: North Shore, which ran on the WB back in 2003. Sensational though it was, it took the viewer behind the scenes in a way that School of Surf doesn’t seem to deem essential.
The series hits its highlight in episode 7, with the relatively in depth profile of Rachel of Carpinteria. She’s shown to have a bit of depth, a pleasing character, and claims to have ambitions beyond surfing (though those seems to be immediately thwarted by showing the list of goals pinned up in her room, including ‘turning pro’).
Gerlach makes the thoughtful observation that because surfing is an aesthetic sport, “I think women, especially at the high school level, have the capability of being better than the guys.” He continues, “we’re seeing the younger girls, who have been surfing since they were 7, be so impressive, and that’s coming more and more and more…”
Here, the producers are onto something. They just tapped into a more universal element, but by the time the series concludes, we’re left seeking out footage of Endless Summer, the best way to find some real stoke.