Still, Ultimate Surfer has not sold the sport out in a way that matters. That ship sailed decades ago.
Gidget was the first to tell everybody that surfing is the “ultimate” and we’ve been whipping that poor noun-adjective hybrid ever since—from Surfing: the Ultimate Pleasure, to Mark Foo’s own-death-foretold “ultimate thrill, ultimate price” quote, to the 1995 Quiksilver G-land Pro being headlined as “the ultimate event.”
It’s like when my mom told me, as a kid, to repeat the word “elephant” over and over until the word dissolved in meaning from huge wrinkled animal to gibberish.
Ultimate Surfer, the Kelly Slater-fronted Surf Ranch-based reality TV show that debuted last Monday on ABC, does nothing to restore meaning to “ultimate.”
Where the examples above may have a loose or slippery hold on “ultimate,” Kelly’s show is 100% detached.
It is the ultimate misuse of “ultimate”—unless we’ve kicked the word over to mean “last in a series,” meaning the sport is forever done with reality TV, in which case well-played Champ!
All that being the case, Ultimate Surfer haters are out here swinging too freely on both Slater and the show itself.
Ultimate Surfer, to begin with, has not sold the sport out in a way that matters. That ship sailed decades ago. Duke put his name on cheap floral-print canvas sneakers. Perennial world tour bridesmaid and I Ching-throwing mystic Cheyne Horan enthusiastically flogged Sunkist orange soda.
“My job, basically, is to fulfill the wishes of the company [Rip Curl],” Tom Curren told me in a 1996 interview, “and just do whatever they want me to do, in whatever way they want me to do it. We’re all polluted and perverted to one degree or another by being pro surfers, or working in the surf industry.”
Ultimate Surfer hasn’t done anything to the sport, in other words, that hasn’t been done time and again since we were riding wooden boards and pulling lobster off the reef between sets.
Slater himself, furthermore, has not besmirched his reputation with Ultimate Surfer, as a lot of hotted-up online commentators have said.
That ship has sailed, too.
I’ve been a platinum-level Slater fan since George HW Bush took a hard line against broccoli, and my awe and appreciation for what Kelly Slater does in the water today, as he approaches AARP qualification, is higher than it was 30 years ago. He is the goat to which all other goats aspire.
But as far as Slater’s reputation for things done on this side of the beach—statements made, causes defended (or not), projects developed—we’ve got Jimmy Slade on one end of the timeline and anti-vax-adjacent bullshit on the other, and from where I sit Ultimate Surfer is Kelly more or less shooting par.
‘So never mind the sellout argument, and never mind Kelly. Ultimate Surfer fails for two reasons.
1. No Sunny Garcia. My viewing experience is limited, but I know a reality TV star when I see one, and Sunny was a 175-pound swinging fist of charisma in Boarding House: North Shore (watch the full 2003 debut episode here). Nobody in Ultimate Surfer is even close. No star, no ratings.
2. Location, location, location. Surf Ranch is to the ocean what Ultimate Surfer commentator Joe Turpel is to Sunny Garcia. The ocean, at the end of the day, is the only thing the sport has going for it. Even MTV’s Surf Girls knew this—although the show hedged its bets with glistening-wet flesh and a thousand Roxy bikinis.
But if the ocean is our one thing, it is nonetheless a very good thing, the best, yes, the ultimate thing.
And on Kelly’s show, the ocean didn’t make the cut.
Ultimate Surfer . . . you’re fired!
(You like this? Matt Warshaw delivers a surf history essay every Sunday, PST. All of ’em a pleasure to read. Maybe time to subscribe to Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing, yeah? Three bucks a month.)