If a Sadistic Ringmaster Ran the Olympics  

You’d get American Ninja Warrior, one of broadcast TV’s fastest-growing hits. What’s the source of its hypnotic appeal?  

Mario Mendoza in American Ninja Warrior.
Mario Mendoza competes in American Ninja Warrior on March 17, 2014.

Photo by Brandon Hickman/NBC

I have spent the last couple of days imagining scenarios in which one might need to scurry across slanted boards that are staggered like a jack-o’-lantern’s teeth. Maybe it’s good practice for trying to cross a stream without getting wet. What about swinging from a piece of fabric to a rope? If your apartment building was on fire, perhaps this could be an exit strategy of last resort, curtains to cable line. How about running across a rapidly tilting surface? Useful for earthquake preparedness. Why would you ever need to climb over a wall that, at its very top, bends toward you? You never know when you will be summarily imprisoned by nefarious architects. As for why you would have to climb a ladder that is, essentially, one rung, requiring you to do a pull up that simultaneously raises the bar you are pulling up on, well, there is only one reason you would ever do that: You are on American Ninja Warrior.

On American Ninja Warrior, a spin-off of the Japanese show Sasuke, toned contestants at war with chest hair compete to complete a series of near impossible obstacle courses that blend parkour, cross fit, steeplechase, extreme sports, the zany imagination of a Japanese game show, and the primary colors and ludicrous intensity of American Gladiators, without the steroidally large physiques. It is one of the hit shows of summer—it recently bested The Bachelorette in the key 18–49 ratings demo—and for understandable reason. It is as hypnotic as watching the waves come in. All that power, always crashing to the ground. American Ninja Warrior has been on the air for seven years—last season was the first to appear on NBC; previously it had aired on G4— and in that time, no one has ever become a full-blown American Ninja Warrior.

But the lats, delts, quads, and inguinal creases that have been forged in the effort! Each season begins with an opening round in which entrants try to make it through an obstacle course of six elements with names like Log Grip, Snake Crossing, Devil Steps, Mini-Silk Spider, Salmon Ladder (the aforementioned ascending pull up; much harder than swimming upstream), and the Warped Wall. The top 30 finishers make it to the next round, in which four obstacles are added to the previous six, forcing the buff, limber, well-prepared contestants, mostly men, to, say, scurry across slanted objects, fly from fabric to rope, sprint over a tilting floor, swing from spinning thing to spinning thing, use a trampoline to jump from hanging object to hanging object, sprint up and over a wall with a curled lip, ascend heavenward via pull-ups, dangle in the air while rolling the very 30 and 50 pound objects they are dangling from, traverse a climbing wall steeply angled toward the ground, and then rise 30 feet in the air by pumping their arms.* I don’t know what kind of shape you are in, but after watching such a display, my biceps need to be iced. And that’s not the end. The top 15 finishers head to the finals, “Mount Midoriyama” in Las Vegas, where as of yet no competitor has successfully completed even the third of four possible stages.

American Ninja Warrior, like all sporting events, teaches you how to watch it. Some of the obstacles are so far from standard kinds of physical exertion it is hard to clock their difficulty. One has no frame of reference for how difficult it is to jump from one object to another via trampoline, until scores of men with less fat in them than a glass of skim milk fail to do so. It is only with prolonged exposure that one really begins to grasp just how challenging it is to run up a wall that bends toward you; one has to watch a man who swung from rotating wheels as though they were children’s monkey bars flail before said wall because he does not have the right timing, touch, speed, or strategy to hop over it. It is the repetition that communicates the difficulty of the tasks at hand. Once that is conveyed, you can do nothing but cheer when someone clears that wall—nothing except, perhaps, wonder how much training you would have to do to clear it yourself.

In the event that you are not sufficiently awed by watching dozens of men and women fall off obstacles that could only be dreamed up by a borderline sadistic ringmaster very familiar with the interactions of muscle groups, there are two play-by-play announcers-cum-hosts to remind you how hard it all is. Matt Iseman and Akbar Gbaja-Biamila are bland color commentators, but who needs color commentary when human beings are trying to keep themselves horizontal with only the soles of the feet and the palms of their hands pressing Plexiglas. The two hosts help play up the human interest angles, introducing the boy scout competing in scouting duds, the devoted dad, the competitor whose mother died, the competitor who almost died, the stunt woman, the stud, the doctor in scrubs, the guy in the Tarzan outfit. To add even more specificity, the contestants’ loved ones stalk the sidelines, sometimes with signs, sometimes with advice, always animatedly cheering: It would be hard to devote oneself to becoming an American Ninja Warrior without the enthusiastic support of the loved ones who will never see said Warrior, because he is spending all his time preparing for the Salmon Ladder.

Unlike almost all reality shows, there are no bad guys on American Ninja Warrior. All of the participants have the exercise nut’s aura of ascetic devotion, the whiff of healthful addiction that lingers over people obsessed with their bodies and its limits. The show loves this about them. As with the Olympics, American Ninja Warrior exists in the pure realm of the serious amateur. There is a prize—now $1 million—but it has been so consistently out of reach, no one even mentions it. In fact, the courses are so hard, finishing them is often besides the point. The only reason to participate is for the thrill of pushing one’s body to do some difficult and needless thing. If a human being can climb up and down a staircase suspended in midair with only his or her arms, why shouldn’t a person learn to do just that? Having failed, aspiring ninja warriors hardly ever hang their heads, cry, or express much disappointment. There is always tomorrow to try to cross that slippery, twisting balance beam.

Correction, July 27, 2015: This article originally misidentified the Salmon Ladder, an obstacle on American Ninja Warrior, as the Salmon Run. The degree of difficulty remains: exorbitant. (Return.)