"This year it's going to be a war... Villa Wars!" Mark Richardson throws his hands in the air, a crazed polar fleece king atop his fragile scaffolding castle. Important wars aside, this Sandringham battle zone is something we'll be seeing a lot more of in the coming weeks of The Block NZ. Armed with aggressive "sledgies" (Kat's cool made-up slang for sledgehammers), the teams will compete to renovate and resell four absolutely bunged-up villas in Auckland's sought after central west.
We're in the fourth season now, so what will they do differently? What exciting bespoke features will keep us nosy punters coming back each week? First of all, the houses seem worse than usual - four villas crammed together, harbouring fire damage, missing walls and thick mould. There's detritus everywhere, all signs point to the houses arriving on a Wizard of Oz style tornado. I just can't wait to see who finds the stripy socks of a squashed wicked witch under the floorboards.
Let's start with the teams, who we meet when they are accosted on their front steps by Mark Richardson at the crack of dawn. Many do what any rational person would if Richardson showed up at your door grinning, unannounced, at some ungodly hour: cry confusedly. Luckily, each team seems to harbour a distinct quality which will help define them and hopefully help us remember all their names in the many weeks to come.
Brooke and Mitch are loved-up 25-year-olds from Christchurch. Mitch is an industrious Kiwi legend, who made Brooke a New Zealand map out of toilet parts for her birthday. "I ain't paying $140 for that when you can make one for $20," he beams. I expect this thrifty streak will go very far, or at least take the toilet to many more places that just the bathroom.
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Jamie and Hayden are next up, an engaged couple who brand themselves as being incredibly competitive and a bit terrifying. Hayden is an ex-cop turned law student, and Jamie a sporting champion who plays netball and has broken a fair few swimming records. "We don't stop playing until Jamie wins," Hayden says stoically. His eye for urban design, and manifesto to paint every room jet black in tribute to NWA, mean this is a team to watch for sure.
If they are the competition, Cat and Jeremy are the comedy team. "We're pretty much the same person, except boy and girl," Cat says, as we see the pair go to a driving range and struggle to hit any balls. I'm looking forward to watching these two do comedy pratfalls on every exposed beam in the house. Jeremy has a background in industrial design, Cat has experience in early child care. This could come in handy when Wolfkamp inevitably throws a tantrum about shoddy window seals.
We must always have a pair of underdogs. Sarah and Minanne are the first sister team, who will seldom be defined by anything else other than their size. "Last, and definitely least, at only 90 kilos..." Mark sneers in the voiceover. One of them holds a masters in industrial design, but whether or not that will help them to shake their bizarre "Tiny Two-Pack" label remains to be seen. I pray for Sarah and Minanne.
It was a welcome change to see the house selection process pared back beyond the whacky Wipeout-style challenges (that are surely still to come). Usually when selecting their houses, The Block contestants have to perform in a gimmicky race, involving variants of an obstacle course and sculpting Michelangelo's David out of nothing but some wet concrete and a More FM lanyard. Thankfully, they eschewed the ridiculous physical challenge this season for simple mind games and double-bluffing.
"So, what house do you reckon is best?" Mark Richardson asks the bewildered teams after they have scampered through their options. It's what Jeremy would call "a total mind fart". What follows is a Mexican stand-off full of bluffing, switcheroos and lies. They all want the first house but fib about it, panicking the other teams will know the rare secrets of the good house. It's genuinely gripping viewing, packed with more dramatic irony than anything Shakespeare could have ever produced.
"Don't tell me porkie pies" says Richardson, forcing the naughty conniving teams to share their terribly-chosen houses for the first week. He's playing the character of a loony orphanage owner in a musical at this point, a real old-fashioned principal type. At the end of the episode, we left the teams frantically trying to get their first rooms ready for pre-inspection, and bunking down together in their rotten, damp, burnt villa-shaped shells. With some slight manipulative tweaks to the usual format and some rapidly dilapidating houses, Villa Wars evokes the same intrigue for me as a homemade piece of toilet art - which is a fair bit. Let the war begin.