As I've noted before, when the former TNN/The National Network/The Nashville Network rebranded as Spike TV in 2003, I sensed change in the air. After so many years and so many "Maude" reboots, somebody had finally created a channel soft-skulled dudes who enjoy punching things and watching things get punched could call their own. O happy day.
There'd been a tragic shortfall of guy-type programming on TV before this. Why, one could traverse the cable dial for hours without locating a contest involving hurled/punted projectiles, a squinty interrogator breaking down a shifty perp, or a nip slip. Every network, it seemed, was tailoring its offerings to the coveted demo of 72-year-old women with tungsten-forged clamps on their purses.
Spike was supposed to shake up the cable landscape like the kaiser roll shook up the traditional sandwich, offering couch-bound dummkopfs a safe haven. Frustratingly, it never took off. Outside of "The Joe Schmo Show," the network has long played as if programmed by fraternity refugees.
It deserves props for anticipating the mixed martial arts craze courtesy of live bouts and "The Ultimate Fighter," which ranks among the top three reality-ish competitions in recent TV history (the other two, for my lowbrow viewing dollar, are "Joe Millionaire" and "Rock of Love." Beyond that, Spike has been content to trot out "CSI" and "Star Trek" reruns, punctuating them with ad-packed movie desecrations that transform the 121-minute-long "Star Wars" into a four-hour ordeal.
Judging by the just-debuted "Deadliest Warrior," Spike wants to grow up. Sure, the concept and execution might not teem with maturity: In a loft-like test lab, a "biomechanical engineer and karate black belt," an "E.R. doctor and UFC medic" and other torso-carnage savants set about determining which of two historical ass-kickers would come out on top in a mano a mano slobberknocker. Still, it shows that Spike finally has the confidence to advance beyond the manufactured, boisterous guy talk that lards its other original offerings.
That isn't to say that "Deadliest Warrior" appeals too conspicuously to the Discovery Channel crowd. It traffics in chest-thumpingly dramatic descriptions: The trident is "three barbed prongs of razor-sharp death." It boasts veritable oceans of fake blood, much of it sent into motion via the pulverization of skull models with tomahawks and cestuses (should the plural be "cesti"? Your guess is as good as mine). Its death-delivery reenactments may well have been pinched from a Saturday afternoon syndie drama.
At the same time, "Deadliest Warrior" goes out of its way to include quantifiable science in its analytical mix, even using quite-possibly-not-made-up devices like accelerometers to measure the lethality of a Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell punch. The tone is far from jokey; everybody involved seems legitimately invested in attempting to prove whether an Apache can best a Gladiator in combat (spoiler: he can). "Deadliest Warrior" works because its investigations are rooted in curiosity, not cheap kitsch.
Each episode's crowning glory arrives in its final moments, when the show reenacts a battle between the two designated warriors. Replete with war whoops, the through-the-ages clash comes off as sublime faux theater, like something out of an old western. It'd be easy to play these fights for giggles, since the participants existed in different eras. By staging them seriously, "Deadliest Warrior" creates great theater that doesn't feel tawdry or exploitative.
Me, I can't wait to see the rest of the initial batch of "Deadliest Warrior" awesome-offs, especially "Yakuza vs. Mafia" and "William Wallace vs. Shaka Zulu" -- though I confess to some disappointment that "Shark Boy vs. Adoption-starved Madonna" didn't make the cut. Programs like this, which chuck brains, bar arguments and machismo into a giant saucepan and saute them to a gentle crisp, are exactly what Spike should be airing during prime time if it wants to be taken seriously by anyone besides casual channel-flippers.
The highest praise one might lavish upon "Deadliest Warrior" is that it'd be as fine a fit on the similarly video-game-obsessed G4 as it would on The History Channel. Spike's come a long way, baby.