American Gladiators does the gym proud
After recently switching my gym membership from an all-female fitness center to a co-ed sports club, I began to get nervous before all of my workouts. When you’re exercising in front of other women, it doesn’t matter very much if the free weights you’re bench-pressing look like a pair of AA batteries, or if you can’t jog more than a mile on the treadmill without pausing to curl up in a fetal position on a blue stretch mat, helplessly clutching an old issue of Vogue. But now I’m surrounded by a scary proportion of burly men who, I’m neurotically convinced, are waiting for the opportunity to make fun of my uncoordinated ab routines in the locker room. Which is why I’ve taken to following the latest incarnation of American Gladiators (NBC, Mondays at 8 pm) — the show is a wonderfully campy, oddly comforting motivator that suggests anyone with the guts and desire can become a modernized version of a Roman warrior.
American Gladiators circa 2008 works much the way the original 1989 version (spanning six seasons) did. Two male and two female competitors are selected to battle in the designated Arena, taking part in strength and endurance events against eight Gladiators — four males and four females in each episode. Despite the expensive Hollywood make-over the Arena’s sets have been given this time around, the show still gives off a reassuringly low-budget vibe, though hosts Hulk Hogan and Laila Ali do their best to add a touch of sporty glamor.
The athletes must fight for as many points as they can get per event, because whoever comes out on top will receive a several-second head start once it’s time to face off in “The Eliminator.” This masochistic obstacle course involves everything from flaming swimming pools to a zip line and pyramid sprints. But that head start doesn’t always provide much of an advantage when they reach the Eliminator’s final challenge, which our hosts fondly and ominously refer to as “the great equalizer.” Even though it seems a simple task, the reverse escalator is a heartbreaking test of will power and stamina. And succumbing to it appears to hurt — physically and emotionally — far more than any damage gladiator Mayhem and his 20-inch guns could do.
Which brings me to the thing I remember best about the original AG. The program’s hook isn’t the opportunity to root for your favorite competitor, or even to wonder which contestant will have the nerve to trash-talk Helga, a 6’1” 205-pound blonde with a rawhide wristlet as her sole accessory. It’s in the Gladiators themselves, their American Apparelish lycra ’80s bodysuits with cut-outs that they probably enjoy wearing, and the droll pride they take in their thoughtfully developed musculature. No matter how earnestly the show tries to pretend otherwise, the Gladiators are the beloved punching bags of these shenanigans. They don’t mean to be — they’re constantly flexing and growling insults and fake-scowling to show their Crest White Stripped teeth, as though we ought to worship them as fitness deities — but they are, nevertheless, the jolly butt of each and every unsaid joke. Whether they were trained to behave like a cross between a WWE wrestler and a dinner-theater cast member or that’s just a natural penchant on their part, there’s a strange beauty in their obtuseness that continues to touch a chord in my insecure, out-of-shape soul.
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