Thank you, writers’ strike. I mean that from the bottom of my heart. Despite being soul-rendingly deprived of The Office and (I can’t lie) Gossip Girl, the lack of fictional television has returned us to what is important in life: the epic, yet somewhat ludicrous, battle between the American everyman and a “mystical breed of warrior.” Welcome back, American Gladiators.
For anyone who hasn’t been glued to the TV every Monday at 8 p.m., the revival hasn’t deviated much from the original. The show still features a stunning array of excessive, imposing physiques with names that simultaneously invoke Dungeons and Dragons and the Hellenic pantheon. The contestants still share their life stories—which range from the inspiring to the pathetic—and offer the audience sublime nuggets of self-empowerment through bloodied visages after each event.
Anyone who grew up watching the ’90s incarnation of the show can attest to the following: You wanted to both be one of the Gladiators and compete against them. (Except for maybe Nitro, who had pure, unadulterated badassery running through each and every strand of his glorious, Samson-like hair.)
And because we were young, it was easy to dismiss the lame factor, which now becomes glaringly obvious. Any way you look at it, most aspects of this show are utterly ridiculous, from the hyperdesigned, skin-tight outfits that showcase every muscle known or previously unknown to man to the inscrutable, undying optimism of the competitors.
The new version’s attempt at personalizing each gladiator is admirable, but it’s impossible to regard Wolf’s animalistic howling, Toa’s apparent inability to communicate in the English language, Titan’s constant trash-talking, and Hellga’s Nordic-flavored braids with anything other than a healthy dose of incredulity.
On the other hand, I don’t know if the show realizes how smart it is, or how aptly it taps into the psychological needs of America. Not only does the show successfully evoke the viewers’ schoolyard fantasies of defeating monstrous, spandex-clad archvillains, but that fantasy is subverted by pitting the would-be superheroes against one another in the Eliminator. Each episode culminates in a return of the competitive drama to a wholly human realm.
And as much as the thought of facing Hellga at the end of the Gauntlet or getting my kneecap shoved into my cranium during Powerball scares me, the wet-rope climb, the handbike, and the Travelator terrify me even more. In the Eliminator, it’s man versus man and man versus himself—and who can’t relate to that?
Perhaps the ultimate challenge presented by American Gladiators isn’t whether or not we can Hang Tough with Fury or Joust with Crush, but whether we, the viewers, care enough to even try. Speaking as someone who can’t run a mile under 11 minutes and hasn’t attempted a distance longer than that since middle school, I harbor no dreams of one day appearing on the show and bashing, dodging, climbing, and sprinting through the Eliminator. I can, however, show up to my jogging class three times a week and try to be something more than a lazy college student.
Maybe that’s why I still watch American Gladiators each week, cringe at the big hits, laugh at the corny feel-good lines, and sympathize on a basic level when a contestant, for instance, bashes her forehead on a flaming metal bar and struggles to finish the Eliminator with blood streaming down her face. She was hardcore, but so is anyone who pushes himself on a physical level, whether it’s a varsity athlete who sacrifices a month of her summer vacation to get back into shape or the kid in unflattering sweats plugging along on a treadmill in Ratner.
One contestant caught my attention on last week’s episode when he was asked what his strategy was to win a particular challenge: “I’m just going to try not to embarrass myself in front of America.” Competing in front of a national audience, his stakes might have been higher than most people’s when they head to the gym, but the underlying impulse, I think, is the same: Aren’t we all just trying to Hang Tough?