American Gladiators Is Still Kicking My Ass

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Quick story: some friends of mine and I were at Six Flags Magic Mountain out in California. It was the late 80s, and we were freshmen in college, on our first road trip. We had, as college freshmen tend to have, plans and dreams. (More the latter than the former, but still.) Magic Mountain, at that time, had a late-night show they did over a small pond they called Mirror Lake—it was a fireworks show. And it was great. Stirring. The explosives, the red-white-and blue, the patriotic music and, honestly, the times in which we were living all came together in this perfect combination. When it was over, we sat there for a minute or so, and then one of my friends turned to me and said "Damn, I want to go join the Army now." And if the Army had had a recruiting station outside Mirror Lake? We might have enlisted, plans and dreams be damned. It was that powerful.

Of course, it needs be restated that we were 18. Immortal, of course, and still mostly unconscious of our future or the pace of time passing. My point here isn't that we were right in feeling that way—my point is that we felt that way at all. There was a power there, a power that some of us can still feel on the 4th of July, or maybe on Veterans' Day, or maybe when you hear the American history on Schoolhouse Rock! It affects us. It gets into our heads and changes us. Moves us. Or can, anyhow.

And that's why American Gladiators is still on my mind. The return of bad taste is nothing new, of course. That's television for you. But it's not just the silliness of the show, or the vapid violence that it offers viewers. It's more than just a bad programming decision, an example of the lowest-common-denominator thinking that television so loves to embrace. Rather, it's what American Gladiators' reappearance might imply about the direction in which our country is heading that worries me.

Should the fact that American Gladiators is on NBC and not SpikeTV be worrisome? Shows like these never really died out, after all—they just faded to cable. There they have been easily ignored, and the fact that they had a small audience wasn't cause for concern. After all, there are viewers for just about anything. Some people watch fishing. Some people actually listen to what Ted Nugent has to say. But when those people start getting pandered to on the major networks? This is when I start to take notice.

So has the pendulum started to swing the other way? Is America, as we did in the Reagan era, embracing the patriotic jingoism that gave birth to the ideas that the then-U.S.S.R. was an "evil empire" and that America could do no wrong?

We may be. And shows like American Gladiators can be both cause and effect. They're self-perpetuating. American Gladiators gets on the air because some segment of the population really responds to its mindless, good-'ol USA mayhem; it stays on the air because more and more people are won over to that same form of entertainment. And meanwhile, the muffling of the national press goes on unabated while we all trade jokes on the internet about how ridiculously tough Chuck Norris is. This is how far we've already fallen—not only is Chuck Norris the height of cool, he's become a national political figure, stumping for Mike Huckabee on the presidential campaign trail.

To steal a line from Reagan himself, it looks like it's morning in America again. The question is this: to what America are we waking up?
-- Teague Bohlen

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