Gotta Hang Tough

American Gladiators: Season 2, Part 2

What's clear having now watched both the first and second halves of is that this was a show still finding its footing. Makes sense, in a way, as it was creating a new kind of game show, something that sat between classic games and sporting events. It was, in essence, a collection of mini-games that the contestants had to run through, and the producers had to find a way to dress it up and make it interesting to watch.

This second season, while improved over the rough beginnings of season one (with it's own weird Medieval / Roman theming for the first half of the run), still didn't really have the right flow to it. The games are fun to watch (well, most of them), and the big personalities of the gladiators helped to keep things entertaining, but the show still needed to work on its patter to keep the audiences engaged. There was a little too much talk, a tad too much downtime, and not enough focus on the games themselves.

In fairness, this was also a flaw of the 2008 revival of the series, with that version of the show double-down on talking to the contestants. You'd get an hour-thirty worth of episodes but maybe only a third of that runtime was actual sporting events (with many of the better events shoved Online as web exclusives). Thankfully, here in 1990 with the second season of this original version, we don't have to worry about any game being shoved out as a web-exclusive. Everything had to be shown on TV because that was all the viewers had. The show just needed to work on its flow a bit.

Take the intro for the series. At the start of each episode of this second season the announcers would come in and banter, and then the contestants would come in for some banter. The hosts would ask them awkward questions, the contestants would say a lot without really saying much that mattered, and then entire first five minutes of the show was eaten up before we even got to the games. That's a lot of talking for what is, as I noted, essentially a live-action mini-game collection we were just supposed to watch. We were here for the games, not to listen to people we'd never see again.

Don't get me wrong, some talk is fine. Interviewing a contestant after a particularly solid victory in Joust, or a hard beat in the Assault, that makes sense. Catch them in the heat of the moment, learn what they're feeling, get the vibe for actually being in the games. Most of us never had a chance to be on this show (even when it was running on TV at the time) so actually knowing what it was like to be a contestant, so we could live vicariously through them, that was a key part of the formula.

With that said, man the hosts are bad at normal patter in this first season. Mike Adamle and Larry Szonka are personable dudes, don't get me wrong. They were clearly hired for this gig because they had charisma (and were willing to be "sportscasters" on a really stupid show), but theses guys are terrible interviewers. They'd ask leading questions, they'd make cringe-worthy jokes, and they frequently (and unintentionally) sexually harassed the contestants. Sure, it was a different time back then (30-plus years ago), but I could do without seeing Adamle put his hand on another woman's thigh while calling her "babe". That was a bit much.

Frankly, the series really wasn't great at dealing with its women this season. And that doesn't just go for the contestants as the female gladiators also had to deal with just a touch of sexism. Some of it is just the bounds of our language: calling men "smooth" as they glide through the air while women are called "graceful". But there are plenty of times where the hosts would say, "man, Laser is really tearing up that wall," while for Blaze of Lace they'd say, "those ladies really look good on and off the wall." You can feel the bit of male gaze there and while you can chalk it up to being "unintentional" that hardly feels like an excuse now.

While we're at it, the costumes for the female gladiators were a bit much. No one is going to accuse the costuming department of making demure clothes on this show, as everyone is draped in skimpy spandex. But while the men got shorts and tight tops, the women (for the most part) are unitards that often had little skirts and/or looked like lingerie. Eventually this changes, and the costumes do improve for the female gladiators, but it's pretty awful having to see Lace bounce around in her short skirt onesie and act like this is something you just normally wear.

This is all bearable in the heat of the moment, though, when it's contestants against gladiators in the middle of the events. We get one new event in this back half of the second season, Hang Tough, and it's a lengthy game that does help to stretch and pad out the sports portion of the show (meaning there's slightly less talk and slightly more athletics). It takes over from Human Cannonball in the rotation for the entire second leg of the season, and that's great because, man, Human Cannonball is a boring game to watch. There was no skill to it whereas Hang Tough actually looked like it required strategy, strength, and agility. That's a much better test for out contenders.

Just in general, though, this is a season of transition. It's not as goofy as the first season (which itself tried to course-correct halfway in) but it doesn't quite have the smooth flow that later seasons would eventually provide. It's a little too goofy, a little too uneven, and just not quite a show you can go back to again and again. It had a following at the time, but it still had plenty of room to grow to become a true cultural moment.

Evaluating the Events

  • Hang Tough: Coming in as a (at least temporary replacement for) Human Cannonball, Hang Tough sees the constants go one on one against a gladiator across a field of hanging rings. This is another one of those iconic events for the series, making it surprising it actually debuts so late (most of the events you think about came along in the first season). Still, it's a fun game, watching the duel as the two foes go across the rings. As a new event, it also sees some tweaks after its introduction, going from just a flat score (5 for a draw, 10 for a win if the contestant can get all the way to the other side) to a tiered score (5 for getting to the middle, 7 if you get near the end, 10 to win). They also tightened the rules, making it so the contestants have to put in a good faith effort to try and move off their rings (as some early players just hung out at the end and barely made progress). A good game that gets better over the course of the series.

Evaluating this Season's Gladiators:

  • Blaze: it seems like Blaze has a lot of fun in the events, and she really gets into them. Unfortunately that's often her downfall as she gets a little too into her role as a gladiator. She'll get to caught up in attacking in Joust, sending herself often to the other pedestal. And there were multiple times in Powerball where she ended up disqualified for attacking an opponent's head. She's got the energy, but not the control.
  • Diamond: One of the taller gladiators, Diamond was often described as the "graceful" gladiator on the women's side. She did have grace, in fairness, and moved with smooth flow on the Hang Tough rings. But she also had power, and was a solid force in other athletic events, like Powerball. She was one of the more consistent gladiators this season.
  • Gemini: The leader of the gladiator team from season one, Gemini continued that role in this season season. Built like a tank, but with surprising quickness, Gemini was also a force in all the events. His best was Joust, where he had one of the best win/loss records of any gladiator. And he was a consummate professional, complimenting the contestants on their performances and understand that, end of the day, he was meant to make the games interesting, not completely prevent the contestants from ever scoring.
  • Gold: Honestly, Gold frequently seemed lost in these events. She was okay at Powerball, but too tentative in most other games. She wasn't as muscular as some gladiators, like Ice, so it really felt like Gold could get outmatched in these events. Gold just really didn't seem to get the energy and flow of these games.
  • Ice: On the flip side, Ice was an absolute force on the women's team. She was huge, both tall and rippling with muscles, making her a hard foe to beat in some of the one-on-one athletic competitions. Trying to get her out of the ring in Breakthrough and Conquer was a futile task, while she could tackle with the best of them in Powerball. Ice was probably the female gladiator most competitors didn't want to face.
  • Lace: Were it not for Gold I would have ranked Lace as the least effective gladiator on the team. She was pretty good at the Assault, a killer with the tennis ball gun, but in most other events she could be easily outmatched by the competitors. She had big energy, though, and clearly enjoyed playing the games, so while she wasn't the most effective she was often fun to watch.
  • Laser: Another really good competitor from the gladiator's side, Laser really seemed to enjoy his role on the team and got way into the events. However, he was rarely ever mean or cruel, often congratulating the contestants after a match. A good sportsman, and a great athlete, Laser was one of he more enjoyable gladiators on the team.
  • Nitro: There's no other way to put it -- Nitro was a dick. Gemini and Laser were good sports in the events but Nitro was just an asshole. He was a sore loser, getting super angry any time a game didn't go his way, but he'd also gloat when he won. He's be unnecessarily rough with contestants, throwing them around even after they'd failed to score and were supposed to be let go. He was too caught up not only in the game but also his own ego. He wasn't fun to watch.
  • Thunder: The biggest gladiator on the team, Thunder was a quiet giant. He didn't have the charisma of the other gladiators, and didn't seem to get interviewed all that often, but you don't have to speak much when you're built like a Mack Truck. He had one job, be a wall that the contestants could get past, and he did that really well.
  • Turbo: When the season started Turbo acted like another Nitro, caught up in his own ego, But he quickly softened over the course of the season, becoming a good sport and a great gladiator. An injury did sideline him from some events later in the season, relegating him to manning the gun in Assault or hanging around in Hang Tough, but he was generally quite personable and just seemed happy to be part of the team. He gets credit for being the most improved this season.