Ben Silverman treated NBC viewers to a sneak preview of a writerless future last night, bringing American Gladiators back from the dead. Could this be the straw that breaks the striking WGA’s back? Almost certainly not.
While the only stars of the original version were the gladiators themselves, this version focuses more on the civilian contestants, in the traditional “being on this show will change my life forever” format of reality shows. The first match of the new era of American Gladiators is between life coach Koya Webb and toilet-paper saleswoman (really!) Jesse Adams. Koya is from Beverly Hills, her training video shows her working out on Venice Beach, and in her contestant interview, she cheerfully explains that what she loved about the original American Gladiators was watching someone “ripping the other competitor to shreds.” Jesse, on the other hand, is from Donahue, Iowa, her video shows her actually carrying a giant bag of toilet paper, and she spends her own contestant video talking about the three children she is raising alone after what sounds like a heartbreaking divorce.
It’s pretty clear we’re meant to root for Jesse. Which makes the first event a masterpiece of betrayed audience expectations right up there with Psycho.
In the first few seconds of Powerball, Jesse gets tackled by Stealth and thrown into a wall and regains her feet for only a moment before her knee collapses in a hideously painful manner. The next time we see her, she’s on crutches, and a new contestant, health-and-fitness expert Venus Ramos, is taking her place. Although Ramos inherits Jesse’s low Powerball score, she goes on to defeat Koya, though by the end she seems half-dead and all crazy (she yells, “This is the most incredible feeling in the world. I’m in so much pain, I can’t breathe, but I am so freakin’ excited and happy to be here!”). We approve.
The premiere features three more matches after this first one. The gladiators are all fairly insane, but which is our favorite? It’s a two-way race between Wolf, who has frosted hair and howls every time he gets the opportunity, and Toa, who is supposedly related to Dwayne Johnson and is the only gladiator to forsake the traditional spandex pants for a Polynesian lavalava. Advantage: Toa, who performs a tribal dance before one of the events that confuses and terrifies his opponents and the audience. In the final match, ex-Marine Bonnie smashes her head against an iron pole in the Eliminator but still finishes, blood streaming down her face. So the American Gladiator premiere ends more or less as it begins: with an ordinary person getting injured for our amusement. Thanks to the writers’ strike, we’re finally getting the kind of television Stephen King has always told us we deserve. —Matthew Dessem