Entertainment

What Is 'Santas in the Barn' and Why Can't I Stop Watching It?

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Like many Christmas-observing humans, I have a complicated relationship with Santa Claus, thanks to a childhood of thinly veiled parental lies, mildly alarming mall encounters, and the sight of Tim Allen caressing his belly in a doctor’s office. Santa is friendly, but unsettling. He brings you presents, but he also breaks into your house. He loves cookies, but he hangs out with these goons. Santa is a little creepy.

But you know what’s always creepy? Barns. Barns are scary. This is simply a fact: bad things happen in barns. Hence, putting Santas in a barn sounds like a bad idea. Yet, truTV's forebodingly titled Santas in the Barn premieres tonight. The competitive reality show, which pits 10 contestants against each other to determine the oddly nation-specific “Best Santa in America,” kicks off the holiday season with some possibly unanswerable questions. Mainly, why are the Santas in the barn? Who put them there? And will they escape?

In an effort to get to the bottom of this, I watched the first two episodes and came away with a few startling conclusions, chief among them that Santas in the Barn follows all the standard reality rhythms like a tastefully sung Christmas carol. Except for one thing...

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The barn!

I’ll admit, when I saw that sweeping helicopter shot of the barn, I breathed a sigh of relief. First of all, that doesn’t really look like a barn -- it’s more of a large house with aspirations towards barn-ness. It looks like the type of house that a gifted military man would retire to in an action movie before being recruited by his old general for one last kill. It doesn’t look like a Leatherface barn. It looks more like the type of place a tech billionaire would build and invite angel investors to for a weekend of eco-friendly lawn darts. You’ve heard of cabin porn -- this is barn porn.

Look at those bunk beds...

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Look at the carpet! The tree! The high ceilings! 

But before the Santas can go wild on those bunk beds, they have to hear the rules. The show’s gregarious (and very funny) host Jon Gabrus (Guy Code) breaks it down: for the next few weeks, the Santas will live in the barn, work in their own Santa’s workshop, be tested on “the core fundamentals of what it takes to be the best Santa Claus,” and, eventually, one of them will take home $100,000, along with a donation to a charity of their choice and the distinction of “America’s Best Santa Claus.” That's a lot of exposition for a show called Santas in the Barn, but Gabrus makes it go down easy.

It's probably at this point that, if you’re a careful viewer of the show like me, you’ll notice one of the contestants is not a Santa. He's an elf.

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Those cheeks are so rosy he looks like he popped out of Mad Max: Fury X-Mas.

This is Tommy, and he looks like he is ready to ride Santa’s sleigh to Valhalla and back. “My cheeks are always rosy,” he says, probably inadvertently angering some Santa purists who will whine that allowing an elf in undermines the integrity of this reality show set in a barn. Don't listen to the haters, Tommy.

Since this is a reality show, heroes and villains quickly emerge. Four of the older Santas -- Alaskan truck driver Paul, self-proclaimed “Real Black Santa” Dee, San Diego surfer Loren, and Dallas-based pirate Karl -- quickly emerge as the sentimental favorites. Meanwhile, John, an over-serious Little League coach, marks himself as the villain early on by yelling too much, trying to form alliances, and making faces like this...

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John does not look comfortable in that Santa coat. And that's OK, because I'm still not comfortable with this show. I'm still nervous. Why aren't we seeing more of the barn? What are they hiding? The show is not called Santas Idle Outside the Barn. They have to go IN the barn. They just have to! Otherwise, like the concept of Santa and the Iraq War, the show will be built on a lie. 

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Ahh, now that's what I'm talking about

We’re in the barn now, and it’s not as terrifying as I thought it would be. It’s actually pretty dope.

Look at Santa Karl getting ready to just pass the fuck out amidst all this yuletide cheer. This is like the "Sky’s the Limit" video for Real Simple subscribers.

Look at these bros hanging out...

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Even though I’m scared of barns, I’d share a glass of eggnog with these guys in this barn-like structure.

Though no one on the show ever explicitly acknowledges that it’s weird the show is called Santas in the Barn, these quiet moments reveal an undeniable truth: even barns are fun when you’re surrounded by friends.

Sadly, the fun only lasts for a bit. Soon, the Santas are rushed off to a contest and attend to more reality-show chores, like receiving talismans that will help them in the elimination rounds. These parts of the show are not as engaging as the bizarre bits of personal trivia that emerge in the more low-key bull sessions and talking-head interviews. Like, did you know Santa Loren once rode a jetpack?

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Loren should get his own show where he rides a jetpack. The man is a star. It could be on FXX. Let’s make this happen!

Unfortunately, the narrative mechanics of the show demand that we sit through tedious scenes of villain Santa John attempting to make an alliance against some of the older Santas, while most of the other younger Santas are like, “Chill, John, enjoy this dank barn paid for by all that Impractical Jokers guap!”

OK, they don’t actually say that. But at one point, Brandon, a low-key Santa whose press bio notes he’s an “amazing hugger,” tells John to stop strategizing against the old-timers and exploiting the generational divide. “You know what?” says Brandon. “They’re not sitting in the kitchen trying to cook turkeys like we are, dude.”

Then, in a brilliant bit of editing, we cut to this:

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These old-timers are scheming

“Let me speak up here,” says Santa Karl, “I’m protecting my old-school homies.” The four then agree to form their own alliance. (Now, I'm not gonna reveal who gets eliminated, but let me just say this: Loren has more than a jetpack up his sleeve.) 

How do you think these dons stayed at the top of the game for so long? Remember that part in “Shook Ones Part II” when Prodigy says, “For all those who wanna profile and pose/Rock you in your face/Stab your brain with your nose bone”? That’s what this scene feels like. For a moment, my soul left my body.

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Don't let them intimidate you, Karl

I may never figure out why this show is set in a barn, but ultimately I don't care, because Santas in the Barn offers something increasingly rare in reality TV: wisdom. For example, I learned barns aren’t always scary, Santas don’t have to be creepy, and the elderly can use jetpacks. And, always -- and I mean always -- protect your old-school homies.

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment and he has mixed feelings about Santa. He's on Twitter: @danielvjackson.