The announcer is direct: "In 2008, the next generation of American Gladiators is gonna kick some …"
The naughty word that follows is drowned out by the sound of warriors in combat.
"Led by Laila Ali and Hulk Hogan," the announcer continues, still strong of voice. "Twelve new gladiators, 2600 pounds of muscle … and all that spandex."
His tone drops as he speaks the final four words, as if he is saying something naughty again. On the screen is a fleeting image of breasts straining to burst free from the shiny garment that restrains them.
For a moment one might think that American Gladiators, an updated adaptation of the syndicated 1990s action series of the same name, is set to return as another new fight franchise on Spike or a cheesy new reality effort on VH1. But as the promo referenced above makes clear, it is broadcast bound. Gladiators is NBC's first big new series premiere of the New Year!
Green-lighted several months ago and set to debut on January 6, American Gladiators may not have been recruited as the first NBC soldier sent to the frontlines amid the mounting casualties of the WGA strike, but it now has that dubious distinction. It is not just the first in what will be a wave of new unscripted reality shows coming on all of the networks in the months ahead -- it is the occupant of one of NBC's (or any network's) prime pieces of real estate: The all important 8 o'clock hour on Sunday, the lead time slot on one of the nights when household viewing is at its highest.
NBC memorably blew this time period one year ago when the insipid Grease: You're the One That I Want was chosen to occupy it. I can't help but think that recent history is about to repeat itself.
The arrival of something like American Gladiators on the primetime schedule of any broadcast network would be cause for some concern, even in the best of times. But for NBC to throw such weight behind it now, in the middle of one of its most desultory seasons ever, and with the true impact of the WGA strike about to be felt, and at a time of year when other broadcasters typically bring out some of their most popular product, is the occasion for alarm. CBS is preparing a new season of Survivor, ABC is ramping up with another edition of Dancing with the Stars, Fox is getting ready to once again rule the world with American Idol, and NBC is offering American Gladiators?
Is that the best NBC can do?
As I wrote for the Jack Myers Entertainment Report back in June 2001 about the arrival of another schlock reality effort on NBC, "Shouldn't broadcast be better than this?" I was referring at the time to Fear Factor, which went on to enjoy inexplicable success for several years and proved anything is possible in this junk food society of ours. So there may be hope for American Gladiators. As far as I know its contestants won't be munching on the testicles or rectums of various mammals. That counts for something.
I haven't seen the first episode of American Gladiators, but the promos suggest that it is a juiced up variation on the previous series of that title, so I believe my concerns are justified. The more I think about it, the more I am reminded of a conversation I once had with my film theory professor when I was in college. We were discussing genre movies, and my professor told me that while she was a big fan of grisly drive-in fare and slasher flicks, she had no use for big-budget horrors like The Exorcist.
"What do you mean?" I asked, recalling that The Exorcist had sent people running out of theaters in stark terror.
"I like my shit cheap," my professor replied.
That's how I feel about mindless action series on television. I can enjoy beer, a pizza and a UFC fight on Spike as much as the next viewer. I don't mind giving my brain a well-deserved respite from thought-provoking entertainment. (How else to explain my enduring fondness for Spike's hilarious MXC, perhaps the cheapest shit on television?) But I don't have any desire to watch big-budget remakes of such stuff. Like the great drive-in movies of yesteryear, the low cost and low-end production values of these properties only enhances their appeal.
I might feel differently if NBC had developed American Gladiators for its Friday or Saturday schedules, two nights when it has little left to lose. Then again, NBC went down the Give 'em Crap on Saturday path in 2000 with the hugely expensive XFL Football franchise, which proved to be one of the biggest disasters in the network's history. So maybe I'm being too generous.
Certainly, even with the arrival of American Gladiators and a celebrity-stuffed edition of the long-dead The Apprentice (premiering January 3), NBC isn't the only offender when it comes to unfortunate unscripted programming. Fox has a rich tradition of shoveling reality garbage onto its audience. The network that brought us Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé, The Littlest Groom, Temptation Island and so many other atrocities is readying two shows that sound perfectly awful: When Women Rule the World (a series that has been sitting on Fox' shelf for almost a year) and The Moment of Truth, in which people are strapped to a lie detector and reveal hurtful truths about themselves and their loved ones for big cash prizes. The CW this week is adding Crowned: The Mother of All Pageants to the junk heap and has something called Farmer Takes a Wife in its chute.
But I expect NBC, CBS and ABC to operate at all times from a position of leadership, and because I am old enough to remember when they were the only selections on the menu I'll never stop holding them to higher standards than basic cable networks. It is difficult to believe that the arrival of American Gladiators will in any way alter my mindset. Indeed, if NBC is to survive against superior content on the other broadcast networks and remain vital despite the ravages of the WGA strike, it is going to have to be better than this.