Calum Henderson writes about (mainly terrible) television.

Mama-Son Learner League: TV's most gripping race at 0.5km/h

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Tom and Lynda Taylor on Mama-Son Learner League.
Tom and Lynda Taylor on Mama-Son Learner League.

Until last year 'competitive forklift driving' sounded like a TV idea Alan Partridge would have pitched to the BBC's Chief Commissioning Editor along with 'inner-city sumo' and 'monkey tennis'. Then World Forklift League showed up on Māori Television and further proved that TV is beyond satirising. It was also complete genius - probably the best new New Zealand TV show of the year - in the way it took the ultra-serious tone and style of televised sports coverage and applied them to its surreal challenges, all filmed on location in scenic Dunedin.

The team behind World Forklift League returned this week with another bit of genius programming in Mama-Son Learner League (Wednesday 8:00pm Māori TV), teaming up mums with their teenage learner driver sons and pitting them against each other in a series of challenges, with bonus points awarded for te reo usage.

Henderson and Tracey Wilson on Mama-Son Learner League.
Henderson and Tracey Wilson on Mama-Son Learner League.

Host Toi Iti channeled the high-octane motorsport presentation of Steven McIvor to introduce the first round, the Reverse Challenge, which sounded like something wrenched straight from the recurring nightmare of many Dunedin teenagers: drivers must navigate a slalom of picket fences and flower pots, right in the middle of the Octagon.

"Don't lose your shit at me," Team Kōwhai's Tom warned his mum Lynda as they waited for the green light. While he pulled out confidently, the other car didn't move - Team Whero's Henderson couldn't figure out the Nissan Sunny's handbrake. When the Cantabrian finally got going he reversed straight into a flower pot, incurring a 5 second penalty. "Kātahi to hōhā," said his mum Tracey - 'this is a nuisance'.

Who would have thought that such tense, gripping car racing could happen at approximately 0.5km/h. While Henderson overcame his slow start admirably, he could never catch Tom, who fair flew around the obstacles. "Slow down," warned Lynda. "Chill out," he replied. He scowled and grumbled all the way to the finish line, where suddenly a big smile spread across his face, and mother and son shared a triumphant high-five.

A scene from Maori TV's new show, Mama-Son Learner League.
A scene from Maori TV's new show, Mama-Son Learner League.

It's in these moments that the real beauty of Mama-Son Learner League lies. Like Māori Television's other reality entertainment shows - Sidewalk Karaoke, Marae Kai Masters - it throws the reality rulebook out the window, ditching manufactured drama and confrontation in favour of good humour and teamwork, qualities which suit Kiwis way better.

Tom and Lynda returned in the second round for the Ice Challenge, where drivers have to navigate a golf cart around a course laid out in cones on an ice rink before sliding an oversized ice hockey puck into the net. There was noticeably less attitude from Tom after Toi Iti admonished him for swearing at his mum at the end of the previous round.

They lost narrowly to Team Kākāriki, Sean and Selena from Balclutha, the league's early frontrunners. A distinct bogan streak runs through the South Otago duo, one which Sean could barely contain in round three, the Mud Challenge. "I wish we could do burnouts," he mumbled while carefully navigating the slippery speedway course. "Can we come back in your car later?"

Sean and Selena Aitken-Boyle on Mama-Son Learner League.
Sean and Selena Aitken-Boyle on Mama-Son Learner League.

Meanwhile in Team Whero things were growing tense as Henderson rarked it up a little too much for Tracey's liking. In a final push for victory he skidded in the mud and overshot the finish line, suffering another time penalty and handing the win to Sean and Selena. "Ka aroha" - 'what a pity'.

Henderson may have slipped to 0-2, but the Mama-Son Learner League season goes for ten weeks - there's still plenty of time for him to come back and win the show's grand prize: "a brand new second-hand car."


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