Saturday, December 22, 2007


It's hard not to have a soft spot for a television series that quite literally saved your life, even if its reincarnation carries the virus that will further weaken if not kill television as we know it.

On January 6th, NBC will launch its new version of "American Gladiators" a series which graced the network from 1989 - 1996, featuring a cast of pumped up, spandex clad "athletes" (the Gladiators) who excelled at such sports as ducking tennis balls, defending a pyramid of giant foam mats and fighting with oversized Q-tips.

They were the Gold's Gym version of the Mouseketeers.

With big hair and package hugging outfits, the Gladiators went by names such as Nitro, Laser, Ice, Dopey, Doc, Cubby and Annette.

Competing in their "athletic events" on a giant neon and laser lit set that was a cross between Studio 54 and the playroom at Chuck E. Cheese, they set a tone and style that was soon mimicked by virtually every porn film shot in Southern California and continues to this day in the ambient cultures of $30/month gyms and Club Bouncers.

This mass assault of Disco/Spandex/Glamrock Cheese was given a patina of respectability by the network in being hosted by legit NBC sportscasters and real athletes like NFL Quarterback Joe Theismann, author of my favorite football quote: “Nobody in football should be called a genius. A genius is a guy like Norman Einstein.”

But -- they did save my life.

I was peripherally aware of the show but had never seen it. Around the 3rd season, I came down with what I thought was a bad case of the flu. My doctor wanted to shoot me up with some kind of wonder drug. But, convinced I could lick a simple bug on my own, and promising to call if my temperature got higher or I began hallucinating, I went home to a comfy bed and a big TV.

My wife came in to check and found me watching "American Gladiators". She asked how I was doing and I assured her I was feeling better, but "This is the worst football game I've ever seen". An ambulance ride and some wonder drugs later I pulled through.

So Blaze, Malibu and Lace, thanks for that. But I fear what you helped unleash on the world is about to destroy television as we know it.

And let me say, I don't blame any of that prognosis on the gym-rats, failed athletes and "I wanna be on Reality TV" narcissists who will be drawn to be part of or watch the new version of the show. If all you got's a hammer, everything's a nail and our society doesn't offer many alternatives for those with good pecs, a nice tan and not much else going for them. And what's wrong with being good at a made-up sport when you're just not good enough to play in a real one, anyway.

No, what bothers me about the new version of "American Gladiators" is how jaundiced and concocted it looks and how it so clearly represents an almost palpable disdain for the audience by the executives at NBC who revived it.

Faced with no scripted dramas because of the WGA strike, Jeff Zucker and his fellow suits only real alternative is reality programming. But why this reality? What does programming a new version of "American Gladiators" really say about the state of television and the people who decide what goes on the air?

First, it comes from Reveille, the company previously owned by NBC Entertainment/Universal Media Studios co-chairman Ben Silverman, who also developed the project. Proving that while the big media owners may not technically be guilty of self-dealing or colluding, they sure do like to air shows that come from their own inner circle.

That proves that the gene pool from which Television draws its newborn is shrinking and like all shrinking gene pools will soon birth only defective and mutant offspring.

"We've been circling around this property for a long time now," said Craig Plestis, exec VP of alternative programming, development and specials at NBC Entertainment.

I love that quote from Variety on so many levels. "Circling" like sharks, and circling what sharks most often feed on, the sick and damaged or simple carrion. But the image also implies intellectual caution and uncertainty, as in “Are we gonna have to do this?”, “Are we really this desperate?”…

I’ve always believed that television executives want to program good television, but now many seem aware that they swim in a corporate culture that demands profit no matter the aesthetic, ethical or social cost that might be incurred.

In going for the lowest common denominator of 1989 and pushing it even lower, NBC reveals not only how bereft of creativity they have become, but how little they care about the industry that used to be their license to print money and more importantly the audience that was the source of that wealth.

Even the patina of respectability and nuance of "sports entertainment" have been dropped. Everything about the show says, "We know it's shit and we're happily eating it, so you should be too."

I start wondering why Jeff Zucker's desperation needs to become one of my entertainment alternatives and I also start asking questions like:

1. Did they hire Hulk Hogan to host this show because...

a) He was a part of the WWF programming that killed the first version, so maybe he knows how to make it better?
b) He had a failed reality show and is going through a costly and messy divorce so he's desperate for cash and will be on TMZ like all the time?
c) He taught his son to street race and now the kid's put a buddy in a coma and is up on charges, so we know he's 'edgy and irresponsibly quirky' so he'll be on TMZ like all the time?

2. Are the fighting Q-tips so much bigger in this version of the show because...

a) The new Gladiators aren't as tough as the old Gladiators?
b) We now have insurance companies influencing our creative decisions and those guys are gonna kill our budgets if anybody gets like -- really hurt?
c) This will continue to send the message that violence doesn't really hurt anybody, like those soldiers we won't show you coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan?

3. NBC Sports has been wringing its hands about steroids in baseball for months, any chance the Hulkster will discuss his own steroid use or any of the Gladiators will be tested?

But, we already know the answers to any questions we might have, because this appears to be the clear goal of Big Media – “Buy the crap we sell you, even if it’s poisoning the culture or deluding your kids and not even providing the people who make it with a reliable income. It’s good for us and we're all that matters!”

No wonder these guys hired the former tobacco industry shills to be their public face! It’s the same profit at any cost philosophy -- and maybe sending the same signal that the gravy train has derailed and it's time to move on to something else.

Overall, the new cast of “American Gladiators” radiates a quality I would describe as "skank".

This is an ensemble most people would go out of your way to avoid at the mall, let alone invite into their homes. As someone opined, “Grape smugglers and women who look like men. ‘Hellga’ and ‘Mayhem’ already seem to have swapped sexes.”

Look, I’m not saying that you have to be pretty to be on television. (Hellga)

But it sure looks like NBC went out of its way to find people unlikely to ever acquire a SAG card and therefore potentially be in a strike position against the network. (Mayhem)

One of the cast “Toa” (formerly The Rock’s stand-in) is described as “Drawing on the power of his ancestors, Toa has the strength of a thousand warriors flowing through his veins, and he will never, ever show mercy.” – illustrating that neither “Toa” nor his showrunners or publicists have the first inkling of any warrior culture they insist they are replicating.

Meanwhile, fellow cast member “Militia” has already been outed as a performer in gay porn films, counting among his significant roles, “Naked Pizza Boy” and “Curious Guy at Gym”. After viewing Mr. Militia’s porn resume, I have to say it’s unfortunate his most striking asset will be hidden from NBC viewers, although I’m sure it helped Mssrs. Zucker, Silverman and Plestis thoroughly enjoy the casting session as well as the private meetings which have surely followed.

I wonder if Sodomy will eventually round out the competition events if ratings sink low enough? Maybe NBC can even find a way to begin offing the cast like real Gladiators (or drama series regulars who got too pricey) as a way of increasing the numbers.

Or maybe they’ll just use “American Gladiators” as a way of cross promoting “Heroes” or “Bionic Woman” (Save the Cheerleader from -- Venom! Tonight, Crush on a very special Bionic Woman!) as those dramatic franchises are sacrificed for the good of television’s future – a place where actors are replaced by porn stars, writers by manufactured reality and programming that inspires thought by that which numbs any desire to resist.

Or, maybe they’ll just do us all a favor and pit the entire Gladiator cast against the winners of “Clash of the Choirs” -- Michael Bolton meet Militia. Please bend over.

In closing, here’s a sample of what’s in store…

Um – NBC -- there's still time. Couldn't you just hire some writers and do something you can be proud of? I mean, before you ruin it for all of us?


wcdixon said...

oooo...can't wait!

The Book of Don said...

Wolverine could kick their ass. I'm going with the X-men team.