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American Gladiators

Flawed as it might be, I find myself thinking more about Mike Judge’s Idiocracy than just about any other movie in last few years. The film transports an average guy 500 years into the future, where society has devolved to such a degree that he’s by far the most intelligent man alive. Here, a movie called Ass wins multiple Oscars (including Best Screenplay), medical benefits are offered via slot machine, a sports drink called Brawndo has replaced water (“like from the toilet?”), and the mouth-breathing populace sits around watching Ow! My Balls! and a network devoted to ‘batin material.

Here’s the thing: The future is now, and it’s on NBC. American Gladiators, once a syndication staple in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, has returned with very little retooling for network television. Basically, what was good for Channel 78 back in the day is now good enough for a primetime slot on a major network. Not only that, the new Gladiators has been promoted on the bottom corner of virtually every NBC show this week, including a minute-by-minute “countdown” to the premiere on tonight’s special ‘80s rendition of Deal Or No Deal (featuring encouragement and hugs from Debbie Gibson and Corey Feldman!). This is apparently the television event of the season. The writer’s strike can’t end too soon.

To be honest, the shameful nostalgist in me was looking forward to American Gladiators redux, and I’m sure I’m not alone on that front. (In fact, if I weren’t convinced that many A.V. Club readers would be watching, I wouldn’t have bothered writing this review.) I have only the vaguest memories of watching the original Gladiators while it was on—and probably only in snippets before changing the channel—but a revival seemed like a fun idea, or at least a so-bad-it’s-good guilty pleasure. After two grueling hours, I want my brain cells back. Me no think good.

Let’s break this down into easy-to-digest categories, because any coherent thoughts I had tonight have all been expended in my Wire recap:

The Hosts: Hulk Hogan and Leila Ali. Enthusiastic and in their competitive element, they’re probably ideal for this sort of thing, since they preside over this spectacle without the slightest hint of condescension. They really seem to believe what they’re saying, which in Hogan’s case is unfortunate, since much of what he says is either inane or nonsensical. (Example: “The sun, the moon, the stars, and Venus were all in alignment tonight.”)

The Gladiators: What a bunch of tools, especially on the men’s side. And Tool #1 would have to be Wolf, whose schtick is to psyche out opponents by howling like, well, a werewolf. He’s followed closely in tooldom by Toa, who begins his events with some tribal chanting gibberish, and Mayhem, who lost Joust twice in a row for stepping onto his adversary’s platform. (This despite being over a foot taller and 100 lbs. heavier than one of them.) The women don’t stand out quite as much—well the personalities behind the hardbodies, anyway—but over two hours, we only got one appearance by Hellga, who was clearly conceived as one of those East German beast-goddesses that existed before the Iron Curtain dropped.

The Contestants: My favorite contestant appeared right off the bat: Jesse, a runty single mother of three who really, really needs that $100,000. Why? Because she works as a toilet-paper salesman. And if that’s not pathetic enough, she goes out with a horrible knee injury after the very first round. So the poor woman doesn’t win a dime and she’ll probably have to pay for reconstructive surgery. Her replacement, an Asian doctor named Venus Ramos, vows to win the Pyramid event by “going straight to the top, just like I did in med school.”

In the second hour, we meet the incredibly annoying Bonnie, a Marine Corps sergeant and Iraq veteran who never fails to remind us of that fact any chance she gets. (“I’m going to wipe these girls out like a little sandstorm”; “As a Marine, I’m the best of the best”; “This is what separates the Marines from the ladies”; “Semper fi!”) It’s like she’s already auditioning to be the next gladiator: Sandstorm. Her surprising loss in the Eliminator challenge was one of the evening’s few happy moments for me.

Then there’s Molivann, “The Spider Monkey,” a spry nerd who manages to outpace a stronger but infinitely more pathetic guy who was all set to be on American Gladiators 14 years ago, but didn’t qualify because L.A. gridlock made him late for the audition. The show’s return to the air was his big chance at redemption, which is too sad to even consider.

The Events: Many of the old favorites are back: Joust, Powerball, Pyramid, The Wall, Hang Tough, and Assault. Added to the mix for ‘08 are Earthquake, where two people wrestle on a platform hanging above the floor, testing their strength and balance; and Hit And Run, where contestants have to dash across a bridge over water while the gladiators swing 100 lb. demolition balls at them. They’re both passable enough for what it’s worth, though neither involved people rolling around in giant hamster balls, so they can’t be that good.

The problem with all these events is that they’re virtually meaningless. For every point one opponent has over the other, they only get a half-second lead in the Eliminator, which takes so much time for them for finish that a second or two doesn’t make any significant difference. So basically, the first 45 minutes of every hour are pretty much pointless. Seems to me the best strategy is to not overexert yourself in the other challenges and save your energy for the big finish.

The Prizes: $100,000, a new Toyota Sequoia, and a chance to be a gladiator in Season Two, which we all know is an absolute certainty. Does that sound stingy to anyone else? The four winners on tonight’s show don’t get anything more than a chance to compete against another set of winners for the prize, which means that at least six hours of television will pass before anyone gets any money, right? Cheapskates!

So am I being a wet blanket here or was everyone else just totally deflated by this show? Nostalgia can be real killer.

Grade: D

Stray Observations: Um... I'll pass.