Dobrow Respects All but Fears None, and That's the Problem

Media Reviews for Media People: NBC's 'American Gladiators'

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During my summers at a camp located in the sticks of Pennsylvania, I was giddy whenever I spotted pillo polo on the schedule. I may not have scored many goals -- that would've been tough, given that we didn't bother to set up goals or keep score -- but I brained many a bunkmate with the cushioned mallet. The mano a mano combat didn't end until somebody couldn't get up or a horrified camp elder happened upon the carnage. I remember these games fondly -- or at least I would if I hadn't been concussed within a few brain cells of mild retardation.
NBC's 'American Gladiators'
NBC's 'American Gladiators' Credit: Peter Hopper Stone/NBC

It seems almost impossible, then, that I would thoroughly dislike NBC's gussied-up, wussed-down revamp of "American Gladiators." After all, the show's famed "Joust" competition employs pillo-polo-like weaponry, while its other events revel in the mindless mayhem that remains so dear to understimulated teenage boys. The gladiators throw each other in the water. They tackle, snort and prod. They shoot stuff. This was my early adolescence.

Sadly for lapsed teens and junk-sport aficionados alike, NBC has chosen to weigh down "American Gladiators" with manufactured emotion. As opposed to the campy, syndicated version of the show that aired in the 1990s, in which Nitro, Lace and the rest presented themselves as human cartoons, NBC's reinvention gives its warriors and contestants feelings.

We get introduced to each participant via a video package that wouldn't be out of place on "The Bachelor," most edited within an inch of their lives (one Ukrainian contestant describes the Chernobyl meltdown as a "radiological explosion" before declaring "I'm happy to be an American"). The fighters attempt to play the part: They yammer about "the size of the fight in the dog" and how they "respect all but fear none," while gladiator Wolf may well be the Daniel Day-Lewis of premeditated yowls. But the quick-cut audience shots of their children, holding up glittery "I [Heart] You Mommy" signs that were quite clearly produced by adults, drain the competition of energy and menace.

Dammit, nobody's watching "American Gladiators" to be inspired by the obstacles faced by deaf people or single moms (separately, I can't help but wonder whether the hundreds of single moms who pop up on reality shows, talking about the sacrifices they make for their children, would better serve those children by staying home with them). People tune into "American Gladiators" to see monsters in spandex kick ass. Gladiator Hellga may be terrifying -- she has a deeper voice than Leonard Cohen and wider hips than Lawrence Taylor -- but she's a hell of a lot more interesting than the everyman dolts with whom we're saddled.

"American Gladiators" version 2.0 screws up in numerous other ways, especially in its inability or unwillingness to assign roles. Say what you want about World Wrestling Entertainment, but "WWE Raw" understands the necessity of delineating between the bad guys and the good guys. Rarely on "American Gladiators" does the viewer have any idea who to root for; it's one well-sculpted behemoth against the next. Sometimes they act like meanies and talk smack, other times they throw a comforting arm around the loser's shoulder. Before too long, I stopped paying attention and engaged my companion in lively back-and-forth about worst potential gladiator names ("Blister," "Archipelago," "Tangerine" and "Larry" headed the list).

I'll say this about the new "American Gladiators": the show hasn't skimped on the production budget. It serves up laser supergraphics and swirling lights that pop in HD, with slo-mo replays set to the same orchestral strains NBC uses in its gauzy Olympic coverage. Sure, the chronically vertiginous may be shaken by the zoom-happy camera work and co-host Hulk Hogan's cancerous orange glow, but those are issues for their physicians. As for the set itself, it is a marvel of bombastic jingoism, with huge American flags lining the walls. Take that, Noam Chomsky! "American Gladiators" is not subtle in its sentiments.

Judging by the products advertised during Monday's episode, the media community has pegged "American Gladiators" as a show for chicks. I expected the usual slate of oppressively stupid Slim Jim, Coors Light and Axe Body Spray spots, yet the first commercial break led off with Aveeno anti-wrinkle balm and a gal-targeted Chevy ad focusing on the car's OnStar system. Old Navy, Country Crock and Dr. Scholl's For Her followed in the first hour, with only the Kevin Garnett Gatorade ad and a plug for the new Adam Sandler flick representin' for the fellas. Toyota (winners get featured-on-set Sequoias) and Subway (sponsor of the "Gladiator stat sheet," which serves up info on height, weight and favorite steroid) received the only in-show plugs.

All this may well be moot, as the "Gladiators" second-season premiere spit the bit in the ratings: 4.92 million viewers tuned in on Monday night, as opposed to the 12.04 million who watched the show's January debut and the 7.3 million who checked out the last new episode back in February. My guess is that idjits like myself showed up at first to see whether the show would deliver, then swiftly turned our attention elsewhere. Slotting "Gladiators" on the same night as "Raw" wasn't the brightest idea, given Hogan's enduring popularity with the wrestling set.

In any event, I have no clue who the audience for this show might be, and I suspect that NBC doesn't either. It's a shame, really. By attempting to make "American Gladiators" mainstream family viewing, NBC has neutered it. Somewhere, Nitro weeps.
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