American Gladiators: Smells Like 1989
This is some painful déjà vu. Was it not enough that it's nearly 20 years later, and we still have a Bush in the White House? Do we really need to revisit American Gladiators?
NBC apparently thinks so. The peacock network resorted to bringing back this product of the Reagan-era into its prime-time line-up last Monday night. The reason why is clear: it's unscripted and cheap to produce. And during these dark times for television (thanks, Writer's Strike!), unscripted shows mean fresh shows. Sort of.
But really, American Gladiators? Did we have to sink so far, so fast?
Okay, let's get the apologists argument out of the way here: that the show is cheesy, harmless fun. And fine; it is. It's just regular folks like you and me (well, probably not you and me, but like those people you and me see going into the gym every day when we're buying our lattes at Starbucks) facing off against professional wrestler-grade athletes. It's gladiatorial, for sure; but there's no real violence. And better yet, no one's trying to get someone to marry their father, or eat llama testicles, or out-skank everyone else in order to sleep with Flava Flav. American Gladiators does, I'll admit, have this small note of grace.
But this new edition of American Gladiators shares the same fault as the original (which, you may recall, came to be as a result of the last Writers' Strike in 1988). Namely, that it appeals to our baser instincts. That made more sense in 1989—we were just coming out of the 1980s--the "Greed is good" era, the Rambo years, the waning days of the cold war. Power was everything. And American Gladiators provided a venue for that power in its most naked of forms: highly muscled, very oily men and women in skin-tight jumpsuits, who want nothing more than to beat the hell out of you.
And who better to captain this steroid-laden ship but the master of 80s muscle cheese himself, Hulk Hogan? "The Hulkster," as he was fond of calling himself back in the day, is now master of ceremonies, and not the hired muscle himself. Still, he has that same old glossy sheen of suggested sweat about him, which certainly adds to American Gladiator's ambiance. Not that the hired muscle of the AG squad needs more sweat—they do fine on their own, and with their own hyper-dramatic names: Titan, Wolf, Crush, and Hellga. Yes, two "L"s. Scarier that way.
That was then; this is now. We aren't the nation we were almost two decades ago. So is it a good idea to bring back late-80s television again—especially bad late-80s television—just to have something to fill our television screens? Would American Gladiators have ever gotten the green light were it not for the Writers Strike? Would it have gotten any attention from audiences at all?
Just because something is new (or at least new to this millennium) and available, does that mean that it's suddenly worth watching?
-- Teague Bohlen