My love for game shows has been with me ever since I was a young child. Of course, when you’re young, you tend not to have favorites – I just enjoyed game shows on a general level. Only when I entered my adolescent years did I begin to separate the wheat on TV from the chaff. And even though I professed a fondness for Pyramid, Scrabble, and reruns of Press Your Luck on USA, there’s only been one show that’s managed to hold my attention for several years at a stretch. That show was the original incarnation of American Gladiators.
I had discovered the show very early on in its run, as it somehow aired its nightly Saturday episode directly after the world premiere of Chip & Dale Rescue Rangers. (That’s another story for another time). From the word go, I was hooked. From that night forward, there was no hour I looked forward to more than 10:00 PM on a Saturday night.
When word got out that the show was being revived by NBC, I had my usual tempered enthusiasm. Considering the attempt made a few years back to bring Gladiators into the 21st century – Battle Dome, a show that’s best left in the dust pile of history – I had a hard time imagining that they’d get it right this time around. Upon watching the first four episodes over the past few weeks, my fears have been confirmed to a large degree. Fortunately, it’s very hard to screw up American Gladiators, and despite their best efforts to do so, the show is still quite watchable.
The premise is exactly the same as the original: 12 men and 12 women compete in six preliminary heats, in an attempt to score points via a series of grueling events, all of them against the show’s resident Gladiators. Points equate to time, and a lead going into the show’s final event, the Eliminator, translates into a headstart. Cross the Eliminator finish first, and you win the heat.
Of course, there is one fairly sizable twist. The winner of each heat is ranked based on their Eliminator time (and yes, if they were the second player out of the blocks, that time gap counts against them); only the four fastest players advance to the semifinals.
Personally, I view this as quite unfair for a host of reasons. For one thing, if you’ve seen the Eliminator, it’s probably the single most exhausting obstacle course ever created. Every part of the course is designed to completely wipe you out. Players don’t so much cross the finish as they do collapse into it. If we’re going to base this thing on speed, then give these guys a chance to put together a fast run. Also, it completely obliterates the entire meaning of the opening events. Granted, a lead gives you a head-start, but the course is so long and draining, having a 4-second headstart doesn’t amount to anything – especially since if you flub in just one spot, that lead is gone.
As for the events themselves, we’re starting to see how much the need for prime-time advertising space has eaten into a show’s news hole. Back in the day, you could see six separate events, plus the Eliminator. In some seasons, they even managed to cram seven preliminary events into the proceedings. Now? There’s just four. As a result, they need to do some major shuffling around of events in order to demonstrate some variety. Many have complained that if they just stopped gabbing with the contenders and Glads, they could squeeze in one more event in each episode. But they forget that that sort of stuff was present in the original show too, and they got along just fine back then. This is simply a sign of the times.
As for the events themselves, I should probably just go one by one about how they’ve changed since the original run:
Powerball: The crash walls have probably contributed to the horrific injuries suffered by a coupleo f contenders thus far, but that’s not my main problem. It’s that the scoring pods are way, way too wide in the opening. A player should not be able to score by way of a fadeaway jumper, and that’s happened on at least one occasion.
Joust: Hard to mess this one up. The whole falling into the water deal is a cosmetic touch I can take or leave. (Honestly, what’s wrong with just falling into some crash mats?)
Hang Tough: One of two events that have obviously been compressed into a smaller area. That grid of rings should be twice as long as it is. As a result, players don’t really have much opportunity to evade the Gladiator; it’s mainly just swing down the middle and hope that the Glad is off sync.
Assault: Again, they just don’t have enough space to do this now. And the whole bit with finding the arrow in the sandbox, then unleashing the smoke screen is just plain silly. I’m not big on the rule about manually loading the weapons, but I guess with the smaller space this gives the Gladiator more opportunities to shoot at the contender.
The Wall: Another one that’s hard to mess up, although I’m pleased to see they went back to the head start for the contenders. That whole bit with the Gladiators starting at the same time on the outer face was dumb.
Pyramid: An aesthetically fun event to watch, considering the high likelihood of seeing both contenders and Gladiators go tumbling all the way down the apparatus, but then you realize that it’s well nigh impossible to win this thing. The 5-point rule is a necessary tweak, although the dotted line going around the upper tier looks really tacky.
Gauntlet: I hated this show in the original version, largely because the scoring system was retarded. The new scoring system is the one tweak in the revival that’s a major improvement.
Earthquake: A retread of the Conquer ring (from Breakthrough & Conquer fame). It’s OK, although I don’t think you should be allowed to hang onto the rigging.
Hit & Run: A new event, imported from the British version of the show. It’s enjoyable to watch, although it does look as if the wrecking balls aren’t totally free-swinging.
As you can see, they pretty much mucked up every event, save for Gauntlet.
On the presentational side, they seem to be borrowing the spirit of the international versions of the show. The original run, despite the goofy premise, actually presented itself as a legitimate athletic competition. But the new version brings over a lot of elements from the British show, such as the overexcited referee, the taunting music when a player gets knocked off on Joust or Hang Tough, and the way the hosts serve more as cheerleaders than actual commentators.
Which brings me to Hulk Hogan and Laila Ali, the onscreen talent for the show. When I heard that the former pro wrestler would be involved with the show, I shuddered. Sadly, he’s done nothing to calm my worries. He’s so cliche and over-the-top with his interviews you can’t help but wonder if he thinks he’s preening for the WWE. Laila Ali is considerably better, although she ain’t no Larry Csonka. The Gladiators themselves are just as hyper and self-aggrandizing as you would expect. The women aren’t that bad, but the men are basically cartoon characters. You’ve got Titan, the golden boy (no surprise, as he played the similar Michael O’Dell on Battle Dome); Justice, who thinks he’s hosting a do-it-yourself show (“That’s how you do it!”); Militia, who honestly hasn’t appeared much since he got injured two weeks ago; Toa, the Polynesian warrior who does a Haka before each event; Wolf, who apparently only comunicates by howling; and Mayhem, who’s just really freaking insane.
Of course, this review wouldn’t be complete without pointing out the single most annoying element of the show. If you’ve read my review of Duel, you saw my plea to producers to can it with the throwing the show to a commercial just to build artificial tension. Gladiators takes it to a new low: at least twice a show, the ref will count down to the start of an event, only for the show to outro to a break. What exactly is wrong with playing one event, going to a break, playing another event, going to a break, and so on? Are those natural stops in the action not enough? Why do we have to resort to this “3… 2… 1… We’ll be right back!” nonsense?
One final note, and another glaring problem with the show. As alluded to earlier, a couple of contenders have suffered injuries during an event – namely Powerball – and have been unable to continue. When this happens, they bring in alternate who inherits the player’s score and competes in his stead. That’s par for the course. Here’s the problem, though: if you get hurt in the middle of an event, they won’t stop it. You could bend your knee backwards halfway in, be writhing in the middle of the arena floor for 30 seconds, and they’ll just keep right on playing as if you’re not there. (Only in the case of Powerball, it’s now one contender agaisnt three Gladiators. Hardly a fair fight.) Granted, all the contenders probably sign waivers the size of a phone book in order to compete, but they could be headed for a major lawsuit if someone gets hurt, they keep on going, and then another collision in the player’s vicinity exacerbates the injury further. If someone is rolling on the ground holding their knee, blow the whistle, stop the game, and get him the hell off the floor.
So with all of these major flaws, you’d think I detest the new American Gladiators. However, the format is so bulletproof, that it can have all of these things wrong with it, and I’m still interested in watching it. I guess that’s just a testament to how solid the format is. As disappointed as I am with all of the changes, the fact remains that it’s still American Gladiators, and for that reason it’s still worth watching.