"Owner's Manual," a new reality series debuting Thursday on AMC, takes a familiar dichotomy of human nature — the way some people will read instructions when assembling some bit of flat-packed furniture or installing a new piece of home electronics, versus the way some people don't — and bumps it up in scale and riskiness, as two men operate powerful and potentially dangerous vehicles (trains, planes, race cars, a sailing ship) with which they were previously unfamiliar.
Marcus Hunt (HGTV's "Hammer Heads") and Ed Sanders ("Extreme Makeover: Home Edition") are the stars; they enter, bantering. We are meant to feel from the beginning that they are rehearsing an argument already ancient. Hunt is the one who likes to study up beforehand; Sanders likes to just go for it. It is the old play of the right brain and the left brain, the grasshopper and the ants, tortoise and hare, breath mint and candy mint, instruction versus intuition, following the rules versus feeling the moment.
"I think everything can be achieved if you just push buttons and pull levers," says Sanders. But in practice he doesn't live by the Think Method alone; he asks questions both of the experts they meet (who answer him in words, as do books) and of his opponent Hunt, whom he calls "my traveling encyclopedia."
The paradoxical aim of much reality television is to resemble scripted entertainment, with the exciting twist that it's actually happening, presumably. When Sanders chases a runaway caboose on its way toward the end of the line, it is a thing we have seen in the movies. Common sense tells us that its proprietors (note to self: visit the Orange Empire Railway Museum), are not going to let these men actually hurt their train.
And while the hosts-subjects have set themselves some extraordinary tasks — they really do (momentarily) fly stunt planes and operate locomotives without much preparation — an aura of staginess, of manufactured drama and strenuous comedy, surrounds the show and works into its every cranny and nook. As a result, one never feels that the pair are in even as much danger as they're actually in.
Yet it is not without charm; indeed, its appeal is in its pretense. As a team, Hunt and Sanders have something of the flavor of small boys playing at being big ones. It doesn't matter that it looks made up: That's what makes it cute.
The moral, and it is an old one, is that it takes both sorts of thinking to get the job done; Hunt and Sanders snipe, then cooperate. ("For once in my life I am going to follow your advice and give it a shot," manual-reading Hunt tells carefree Sanders after a failed aerial maneuver.) That is the story of the right and left brain, the grasshopper and the ants (the Disney version), the candy mint that is also a breath mint.
When: 10 and 10:30 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times