Do You Like Shows About Gladiators?

The triumphant return of a television relic.

Also in Slate, Justin Peters imagines the Mitchell report on steroid use by the American Gladiators.

“Gauntlet” of American Gladiators

The revamped American Gladiators (NBC, Mondays at 8 p.m. ET) is fast emerging as the breakout hit of the year and, very possibly, the entire TV season. Last Monday night, 11 million viewers tuned in to watch amateur athletes test their strength, their endurance, their agility, and their capacity for being walloped by a squad of well-oiled attackers. That same day, the trade magazines came bearing news of a gladiator glut—a second season in the works; a coast-to-coast live tour; a broadband site memorializing the original show, which some of us declared “hella rad” during the first Bush and first Clinton administrations; and even an animated series. This last piece of news proved somewhat perplexing: Isn’t the whole thrust of American Gladiators that it’s already a cartoon?

To size up the supporting evidence, please direct your attention to the title characters, six men and six women who slip into spandex and then attempt to both whip the studio audience into a frenzy and the contestants into submission. The gladiators behave a bit like vigilant personal trainers and a lot like jolly sadists. The crowd favorites include Hellga (with two Ls, and two pigtails, a glowering Brunhild type), Crush (“who has no problem handling the women competitors, and then going back to breaking men’s hearts”), and Titan (a gloating Aryan with a dipsy-do coif and a Charles Atlas vibe). Whenever you start wondering why Wolf, with his woolly beard and raging mane, is just as thoroughly waxed as his colleagues, he starts howling, which interrupts the train of thought. The role of the Noble Savage has gone to a gentleman called Toa. With his tattoos and his stage costume of a polyester loincloth, he hearkens back to such professional wrestlers as Kamala and Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka.

But let’s not press the wrestling analogy too far. American Gladiators is blessedly without soap-opera story lines and ‘roid-rage histrionics, and it’s real—meaning that it’s not rigged and also that the producers are up to tricks learned from prime-time reality shows. The adolescent musk that so often wafts up from such affairs has been tempered with some eau de Survivor and a splash of perfumed sentiment. The show is genial. It’s family-friendly. Its most recent contestants saw their biographies milked for maximum impact and minimal attention spans. Sharraud, once a troublemaking teen, had redeemed himself and become a public-school teacher (“I was a lost soul, a hopeless child”), while Belinda, a bull rider, hoped to win this season’s $100,000 prize in order to support her mother (“I don’t want my mom living in a trailer anymore”). Andy, an ordained minister, averred that "American Gladiators could definitely be a platform to spread Christianity.” Out in the seats of Gladiator Arena, his supporters wore T-shirts reading “REV IT UP.” Jesus Christ.

I should mention that Andy stepped into the episode as an alternate. His predecessor—Adam, whose bio involved the insta-pathos of a Florida hurricane—injured himself at a stage of the game called Powerball, where two contestants try to toss balls in buckets and three gladiators try to stop them. Adam twisted his knee, and, while we watched the incident in replay four or five times, a respectful silence fell over the arena as if the dude were at risk of paralysis. Titan gave Adam a pep talk: “You’re a warrior, man. You’re a warrior.” After the gals played Powerball—with Belinda losing to a “soccer mom” named Monica and yet not smudging her green eye shadow—Adam, now on crutches, reappeared so that co-host Hulk Hogan could wish him a speedy recovery and also so we could watch him get banged up from one more angle.

Further contests included Joust, a game involving one gladiator and one competitor batting at each other with giant Q-tips; Hit and Run, wherein gladiators swing 100-pound “demolition balls” as competitors wriggle along a footbridge; and Assault, a cannon battle played for 10 points. Sharraud: “Where I’m from, assault gets you three-to-five, and I’m tryin’ to get to 10 tonight.” These led to the climactic Eliminator, an obstacle course in which the contestants scale an 8-foot wall, plunge into a pool, Australian crawl under flaming bars, climb a 30-foot cargo net, take a roll on a giant spool, travel on a hand bike, walk down a balance beam, climb up a pyramid, fly down a zip line, master an inclined moving sidewalk going the wrong way, haul themselves up some steps, and collapse through a wall of cubic mats. There is, in fact, a great deal of mats on this show, and you’ve got to love them, evocative as they are of gym class and playtime. They mitigate American Gladiators’ distinct end-of-empire vibe, the decadence of its 100-mph projectile and excessive pyrotechnics. They help to tell you it’s just a game.