Tuesday, July 15, 2008

I Love Being a Gladiator!

If there is one thing the entertainment industry has perfected over the past couple of years it's the art of recycling. Last summer we collectively suffered through a big budget take on Transformers and I hear G.I. Joe is looking to use his kung fu action grip on the wallets of America's movie goers. Meanwhile, original scripts are finding use lining the cat box of studio CEOs. The local cineplex's deluge of sequels and nostalgia cash-ins have almost convinced me that Hollywood is actually being run by an overly ambitious undergraduate art student whose dissertation is proving that art is dead and nothing is original. All of this would be tolerable if they picked the cartoons I actually want to see on the big screen. Where's my Exosquad film!?

That's not to say that Gen X and Gen Y (or whatever lame name they've come up with in the last month or so) don't share the blame. They are the ones buying most of the tickets after all. Beyond that most of these nostalgia mining flicks are geared towards Generation Xers who are starting to have kids of their own and want to share some of the stuff they liked when they were younger with their own spawn, not realizing that a lot of that stuff loses much of it's appeal when you're not eating a big bowl of Frankenberry on Saturday morning. Even if one recognizes that some things should stay in the past the siren song of irony can be powerful and many staunch wills have been unseated by its call. Of course enjoying the strange inclusion of Weird Al Yankovic's "Dare to Be Stupid" in Transformers: The Movie (the cartoon) is a world away from the straight faced comedy of Bumblebee urinating on someone in last years live action version. Who comes up with this shit? When the mockery of the eighties becomes the blockbuster of the aughts, then you know we've skipped straight past farce.

The curse of the remake, reinvention, or, for the truly desperate sell, reimagining has escaped the movies and made its way to the small screen where studios freely beg, borrow, or steal from past success, and when all else fails take crib notes from the British. If capitalism is so great, then why do we have to steal from those commies at the BBC? Already The Office has crossed the Atlantic and I've heard rumors that the British time traveling drama and David Bowie allusion Life On Mars is making its way through immigration. What better way to offset all of this anglophilia than to bring back the most aggressively jingoistic show on television past or present, American Gladiators?

I'm here to tell you that the good news is they didn't change a winning formula. Two sets of contestants, one set male and the other set female, are pitted against a slew of gladiators wearing red, white and blue and sporting names like Militia, Wolf, Titan, Crush, and Helga. My guess is the names came from an extensive and highly scientific poll of middle school boys. Your favorite contests are still here. Joust proves that nothing is more fun than two people hitting each other with sticks and assault just goes to show that Nerf toys are cool no matter how old you are. The new contests are basically just variations on pushing the other guy into a pool of water. People love the splash.

The biggest revamp comes from the contestants. In the 90's the most boring part of the show was the obligatory biography of the four contestants. We got to learn that Pete was a firefighter from Chicago and Sally was a part time aerobics instructor from L.A. Taking a cue from Deal or No Deal, a game show whose apparent lack of strategy makes scratching off lottery tickets the strategic equivalent of the Battle of Austerlitz, the 2008 American Gladiators frames the contest within some sort of theme. For example, one episode pitted police officers against each other and another episode featured contestants who had recently lost a lot of weight. You see, American Gladiators is really about the human story element.

The producers have also taken some of the steroids out of the female gladiator's diet. Gone is the fear that the male audience at home could be beaten up by a girl (they probably still could but it's less obvious and thus more reassuring) and the confusion of seeing a scantily clad woman displaying her sexually ambiguous body. Here are two examples of female gladiators from the original and the 2008 version:

The same approach has been taken with the female contestants. Unlike the early nineties there is a very strict "no femullet" rule. I'm not suggesting there's a casting couch at NBC, but here's an example of a recent contestant:

Her biography says she's just trying to make her way through school. Hmmm, where have I heard that line before?

What about the guys you say? Well, as you can see the female half of the competition has been overhauled to attract more male viewers. I guess you could say the same thing about the male half of the competition. Recently American Gladiators had their very first openly gay contestant, Sean Hetherington. Sean appeared on an episode whose gimmick was that the contestants had recently lost lots of weight. It was a very Oprahish episode of American Gladiators and it should have been commended except that not only was there no mention of Sean's sexual orientation but the producers actively attempted to hide the fact. In keeping with the focus on the personality of the contestants, often the show cuts to the family, friends, and significant others cheering and encouraging their player. Usually the girlfriend or fiance of the contestant is the center of the human drama, but in the case of Sean his cheering section was confusingly labeled "friends." Sean's "friends" received far less screen time than the friends of other contestants, and I would be willing to bet that at least one of the friends should have had "boy" as a prefix. In fact, it would have been impossible to know Sean's orientation, unless you suspected something when he broke down in tears after finishing the Eliminator, which would not only make you right but also make you a bigot.

American Gladiators is, not surprisingly, the television equivalent of 300 in terms of unwitting homoeroticism. This may be nothing new to the series, but come on guys it's 2008. It's time to fess up. We're adults we can take it. I don't care if Wolf and Titan are shacking up. If they are then it just adds to the human drama.

"Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?"

You may be wondering what's so "American" about American Gladiators? Well, bloated capitalism of course. So far the producers have been relatively restrained and the blatant advertising has yet to reach the level seen in lesser sports, like Nascar. Still, the audience is reminded just who's footing the bill whenever the announcer goes to the "Subway instant replay." About halfway through each episode it is kindly suggested that the audience go to the American Gladiator's website where you can read the bios of your favorite gladiators and find out what's their favorite Subway sub. It turns out Wolf likes the Spicy Italian with "double meat because the more meat the better." The Running Man this is not, but give it time...give it time.

The one element truly missing from the new American Gladiators, and the one element it can never reproduce is a contestant that took the country by storm and won the hearts of millions. I'm talking about 2 Scoops. His birth name is Wesley Berry but to me and the rest of America he will always be known by his moniker 2 Scoops. He gave himself this name because every time he won a competition he claimed he was giving more than one-hundred per cent. The amount increased as the competition progressed: 102%, 105%, 112%. He didn't exaggerate the number so I think he had some sort of a calculation system. Truly a great showman. More than Pete Rose, more than Jim Brown, hell, more than even Muhammad Ali, in my opinion 2 Scoops is America's greatest athlete. I can honestly say that if it wasn't for 2 Scoops I would not have the courage or determination every Monday night at eight to sit my ass in front of the TV and watch the new American Gladiators. Look at this guy go:

The secret to 2 Scoops's success is that he was everything the gladiators were not: small, wiry, and fast, with a special emphasis on fast. At times it was as if the gladiators didn't even exist. I have it from a reliable source that the special effects in The Matrix movies were in fact inspired by 2 Scoops's performance on American Gladiators. Let's see some more (you'll want to start at the 1:00 mark):

Not only is he magnanimous but he's also a Buddhist philosopher! No one is going to come along and deliver the kind of showmanship and nobility 2 Scoops had. He's the kind of guy you would love to have on your side in a bar fight and to take care of your kids if you're out on a date with the wife. When 2 Scoops was on the original American Gladiators I forgot about all of the kitsch and sat back and enjoyed a great moment in sports.

I guess that leaves American Gladiators 2008 with only the appeal of nostalgia and irony. As much as I railed against these two traps, I must admit I love the new American Gladiators for exactly those two reasons. What can I say? I can't help it, I'm a child of the nineties.