Every so often an idea feels so right for the times as to trump its execution, and so it is with NBC’s reality-TV-influenced revival of “American Gladiators.” The absurd “Running Man”-type stunts are just cheeky enough to look fresh again, even if the producers have ratcheted up the volume and stupidity factor by seemingly coaching the smack-talking contestants to be as annoying as possible. The two-hour premiere thus spends more time gabbing than competing, but preliminary Nielsen scores suggest the network may have found a respectable strike-proof hour, if not perhaps the game-changer NBC could use.
Time has caught up with “Gladiators” in several ways, most of which ostensibly benefit this new version. The original, introduced during the first Bush administration, performed moderately well in syndication, yet these days, equivalent results would qualify the show for a long life on beleaguered NBC.
Moreover, the airwaves have been filled with all manner of junk sports and incarnations of pro wrestling, making the sight of Spandex-clad participants and howling, snarling, heavily muscled and oiled gladiators a trifle less jarring, if no less laughable.
At first glance, NBC has tinkered with the competition format merely by adding a few new challenges, as several old standbys — Powerball, Joust and the final obstacle course — return largely intact, albeit with what appear to be an injection of steroids.
Unfortunately, someone has also figuratively juiced hosts Hulk Hogan and Laila Ali along with the participants, all of whom sound determined to be the next Omarosa — wedding the dog-eat-dog attitude of “Survivor” and “The Apprentice” with the anything-to-make-”play of the day”-mindset of “SportsCenter.”
“I’m gonna wipe these girls out like a little sandstorm,” a Marine and Iraq vet crowed before diving into an event — a martial theme the announcer couldn’t resist when the same player later got dunked in water, proclaiming, “Our Marine has joined the Navy!”
In the debut, the interviews were so painfully persistent as to approximate network coverage of a basketball game in which players are asked how they feel about things after every free throw. Another irritant was the omnipresent instant replays, which seemed to have less to do with appreciating the bursts of action than with creating in-show sponsorship opportunities for Subway and Toyota.
None of that, however, should matter terribly much so long as “Gladiators” can get a “thumbs up” from its sought-after demos — particularly young men bored enough to keep tuning in. In addition, the show features what might be the perfect 21st century prize — not just $100,000, but the opportunity for the champions to become regular Gladiators themselves should the series continue. In the self-propagating world of reality TV, the lure of such celebrity just may be the ultimate aphrodisiac.
Granted, someone may break a leg (in the literal sense, not the showbiz one) along the way, but in the world of “American Gladiators,” no pain, no fame.