And Then They Feed You to the Lions

American Gladiators: Season 2, Part 1

Growing up in the 1990s there were any number of things that were absolutely of the moment. The rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesOriginally dreamed up as a parody of Marvel's Daredevil comics (going so far as to basically reproduce to opening shots of that comic's hero gaining his powers), the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles not only launched a sudden boom of anthropomorphic fighting animal comics but have, themselves, starred in multiple comics series, TV shows, and movies. and the prominence of "Turtle Power". The transition from the early boy bands into the Grunge Era of music. Saved By the Bell and the weird, day-glow aesthetics of the early part of the decade. And, yes, American Gladiators. For many of us, sitting around after the cartoons went off in the morning, with the Gladiators then coming on around noon, was how we marked our weekends.

Let's not pretend that this was good television, mind you. American Gladiators is a goofy show, through and through, with weird sporting events played by wannabe athletes, with every covered in crotch rock and spandex. There was nothing about the show that, in retrospect, really should have been considered "good". And yet, it was immensely watchable and stupidly enjoyable. It had the right blend of everything kids (and adults) of the 1990s were looking for in their syndicated entertainment. American Gladiators was a weird cultural touchstone that marks a particular generation as much as anything else can.

For those unfamiliar, American Gladiators was a show technically started in 1989, although the first half of the first season had a weird aesthetic and style that was quickly reinvented for the second half of that first season (and that's part of the reason why the first season is hard to find on its own for anyone wanting to watch the series). Arguably the show really came into its own in the second season when all the elements that made this particular production really work. Those elements: muscled men and women in spangle spandex taking out competitors with style and vigor in the goofiest athletic events (that could still be taken seriously) you'll ever see.

Each episode depicted one run of the competition where two men and two women would compete in a series of events, collecting points all in the lead up to the Eliminator, the final obstacle course that would determine the winner of that episode. Standing in their way weren't just the goofy events themselves but also the gladiators, big hulking men and women there to stop the competitors any way they could (while still taking their physical safety into account). Five episodes in each half of the season would play out the prelims, which would then lead (through the points collected) by the competitors into the quarter finals, semi finals, and then the finals. Now, that wouldn't be the end of it, as the second half of the season (which well cover in a later review) also featured the Grand Championship where the first finalist would take on the finalist from the second half of the season to prove true domination and be that year's Grand Champion.

Depending on what you tuned in for you may or may not care about the contenders and their struggle through the various rounds of the tournament. Back in the day I did think it cool to see some "normal" people go up against the gladiators, proving themselves to be awesome as they won round after round. I was also nine when this show really got going (ignoring the original season) so my idea of what "normal" looked like back then was skewed. I didn't understand relative sizes of people, I just saw that the gladiators were hulking beasts so anyone that could beat them had to be pretty awesome.

Of course, the whole concept of the gladiators themselves, the big behemoths that guarded the stadium events, really did come out of the era's action drama. It's easy to look at the likes of Arnold and Stallone and say, "hey, what if normal people had to battle these guys in sporting events?" We were eating up the action films from these hulking stars and we were ready to see more. The visceral thrill of seeing people taking on guys (and ladies) that looked like our action heroes, and winning, just added a certain thrill to the proceedings. You can understand why adults, back then, got into the whole competition week after week.

It did help that the events were pretty fun. American Gladiators didn't go in for normal events. There wasn't any discus or 100 meter dash, nothing you'd see at the Olympics. Instead we had the Wall that the competitors had to climb, Jousting between competitor and gladiator with padded pugil sticks, and Powerball, which went on to become quite the cultural smash in its own right (considered by most to be the shows signature event). These games were quick, with a lot of physicality, and they were unique to the show (at least, for a little while).

For kids at the time the show also worked to foster good sportsmanship. Very often the show would illustrate the point by having the competitors pump each other up, saying kind words between opponents or working together to fight off the gladiators. Other times you'd see the competitors and gladiators congratulate each other after a bout, shaking hand and ribbing each other. Very rarely did you see anyone act like a poor sport or a sore loser... unless you were watching Nitro.

The gladiators all had goofy names given to them by the show, the likes of Nitro and Gemini, Turbo, Ice, Blaze, and Laser. Those names are jokes now, but it was cool to see these one-name power-hitters trot out back in the day. Most of them were pretty awesome people, too. Gemini was team leader for the first couple of seasons and he genuinely seemed like he wanted the competitors to step up and win. Ice was the same, throwing it blow for blow with the competitors and then shaking hands with them immediately after. Only Nitro really seemed like a giant dick. He's cheer and yell any time he beat a competitor, and then get pissy and throw a fit whenever he'd lose. If the rest of the crew was there for good sportsmanship, Nitro seemed to be all about Nitro's own ego.

And yet he had his fans. Hell, of all the gladiators, Nitro had one of the most successful careers on the show. Laser was there as a gladiator throughout all seven seasons of the original show, by Nitro did for seasons, then came back a an announcer for the last season of the original show, all before coming on as a producer on the 2008 revival. For many fans, Nitro was a quintessential part of the show. You hated him, but he was an iconic part of the series.

Still, it was the competition itself that really drove the series. Watching these people come up in the first half of this season, stunt-people and college athletes and guys wanting another crack at the NFL, all putting their dreams on the line in this weird little competition. Going back and watching it now, it was hard not getting sucked into the events all over again. Yes, it's goofy to go back and watch a season of this series from 33 years ago, knowing that all these "young" competitors are old and haggard now and all the gladiators are likely not anywhere near as bulky as they used to be... and yet that fades away as you watch people do goofy sporting events for the thrill of it.

As this first half of the season season shows, American Gladiators knew how to tap into that thrill. For 45 minutes every week this was the sporting competition to watch, and a whole chunk of a generation did, time and again, just to see their favorite gladiators send another set of contestants packing.

Evaluating the Events

  • Assault: This event had the contenders going from one station to another, shooting nerf guns (effectively) at a target above the gladiator while the gladiator themselves shot at the contenders with a tennis ball gun. The second season configuration was, essentially, an all or nothing feat: either you hit the target of the gladiator (scoring either 7 or 10 points based on your accuracy) or cross the finish line (for four). If you only got a couple of weapons off before getting hit, or ran out of time, you didn't get any points. It always felt bad when the contestants shot four weapons, wasted a bunch of time, and didn't get any points, but that was how the game was played at this point in the series.
  • Atlasphere: Contestants and gladiators are put into giant spherical ball cages and then set to roll around the arena. If the contestants could get in (and then settle into) scoring "pods", they'd get either 1 point (early in the competition) or 3 points (in the quarter finals and beyond). Frankly, this game was hard, as getting the ball going was rough and then settling it while a gladiator was on your tail seemed impossible. The increase in points helped a lot, but this was still a tough one for the competitors to really win at.
  • Breakthrough & Conquer: A fun two-part event that combined elements of football and wrestling. In the first half the player had to run in a touchdown against a gladiator on a 15 yard "field". Then they'd go into a wresting circle and attempt to pull any part of that gladiator out of the circle. Doing either could net you 5 points for a total of 10. This one was cool as it was about speed and power and it kept the gladiators on their toes. One of the more fair and balanced events in the competition.
  • Human Cannonball: This was probably one of the dumber events, and one that the gladiators were on the record as absolutely hating. The gladiators stood on little pedestals with big blocking pads in their hands. Meanwhile, the competitors were up on a raise platform where they'd jump onto a rope and swing at the gladiators, acting as, well, a human cannonball to knock the gladiator off their perch. There was practically no skill to it, and the event went by way too quickly. Not really a fun one to watch, unless you liked seeing gladiators just knocked around.
  • Joust: One of the iconic events of the competition, this one set a gladiator and a competitor on opposing platforms right next to each other (at least, from season two onwards) and had them beat on each other with double-ended, padded pugil sticks (that looked like giant Q-tips). Knock the opponent off and get 10 points. At least last the whole time and you'd get 5 for the draw. This one was wild, with a lot of physicality (and beat-downs), but also cool to watch as it took skill and balance to win. Certainly tested different skills from other events.
  • Powerball: Another iconic event, this one was like football mixed with basketball dunking. Both competitors had to take on three gladiators in an attempt to score in any of the five scoring buckets around the field. They could dodged, duck, dip, dive, and dodge their way around the field, doing anything they can to get their balls in, while the gladiators would hit and tackle them the best they could. If there was any game that showed all the elements of American Gladiators at play all at once, it was Powerball.
  • The Wall: This one was probably the simplest event to understand. It was, essentially, a standard climbing wall that the competitors had to scale. The only trick was that, after 10 seconds, the competitors would be chased by a pair of gladiators that would attempt to pull them off. And that's it. Climb fast and be good and you get your points. The simplicity of the game is part of why it lasted from this second season all the way to the end of the original series.
  • The Eliminator: And finally, we have to discuss the last event every episode. The Eliminator was an obstacle course the competitors had to cross to see who won. Second season's was a treadmill, followed by a hand bike, a balance beam, climbing a cargo net, then a zip line down to the final set of hurdles before they'd break through paper barriers, maybe battle a gladiator, and cross the line. It was cool seeing the competitors in a race for their life, but the scoring format in this season didn't really work. Each second on the course was worth two points, and the competitors raced at the same time to try and be faster so they could earn points. It was weird, though, because one competitor could win the event but lose the tournament. Thankfully, in later seasons they tweaked the format so that the winner here would win the episode, but that wouldn't be for a few more episodes of the run.