Ask a Gladiator

American Gladiators: Season 3, Part 1

Somewhere between the second and third seasons of the series, American Gladiators became a cultural phenomenon. The series grew out of country fair events and strong man contests put on by the eventual show's producers, and now, just a few years later, it was everywhere. It was a successful syndicated show. It had endorsements. It had toys. It had a freaking video game. At some point every kid growing up saw at least a little American Gladiators and you could all but guarantee a few of the episodes they watched came from the third season.

You can tell that this third season is where the series hit its stride. The competition moved to the new "Gladiators Stadium", which wasn't that much different from the previous studio space except it was no longer hosted at Universal Studios. The arena was still the arena where the various games were moved in and out. There was a training room attached, though, instead of just a random backstage area, and the cameras moved around through there to show you what the competitors, and gladiators, were up to between events. The point was to show off how legit this competition was.

Partly that's because the gladiators grew to be the stars of the show and American Gladiators wanted to show them off. You can tell this was something the show was trying to adapt to. In the first two seasons the gladiators were sort of the villains. While they were never depicted as evil, they were certainly menaces to be overcome. Heck, the first half of the first season had a referee dressed up as a Medieval executioner. The contestants were the heroes and the gladiators were the bad guys that had to be defeated. It makes sense from a storyline perspective, and the show put a lot of emphasis on the contestants.

But the gladiators were also the constant presence on the show. Many of them, like Gemini, Nitro, Zap, and Laser, had been with the series since its first season. The kids watching the show couldn't really identify with the 20- and 30-something blue collar workers that competed but they certainly could understand the guys and gals dressed in sparkly spandex. They were dressed like heroes, wearing American colors. They couldn't be the villains; they were the real stars of the show. American Gladiators had to adapt to that and put what the kids wanted front and center.

Thus the gym, where we could see the gladiators working out. And the gladiators would come out more to watch the action, hanging out on the sidelines and giving encouragement to their fellow athletes. The series even started running segments devoted to the gladiators, such as "Ask a Gladiator" (which was mostly fan-mail) and "Gladiator Moments" (which recapped past big events from the show). "Ask a Gladiator" was usually questions about workouts and how much the gladiators could bench (which I'm sure was the only fan-mail that was Saturday afternoon appropriate). Meanwhile the "Gladiator Moments" are pretty worthless if you're binging the show since you would have just recently seen all these events, but I could at least buy that recapping cool moments from the past shows was a good idea when these were broadcast once a week and seasons were once a year.

The emphasis on the gladiators had another effect on the show, though: more good sportsmanship. Previous seasons you could tell there was an us versus them mentality. As much as gladiators like Gemini and Laser would talk about trying to keep up the feeling of competition and being there for the contestants, There was a strong vibe that anything less than a shut out in every event was a failing. Gladiators (especially Nitro) would get visibly mad anytime things didn't go their way. Third season, though, changes that.

The competition was no less fierce, mind you, with people throwing themselves into the games on both sides (leading to a few injuries, if we're honest), but there was also a better sense of teamwork and friendship on the field. The hits were hard at the time, but once the whistle blew everyone would shake hands, give hugs, and congratulate each other. Partly that's because, end of the day, this was a job for the gladiators and they just had to keep things spicy. They weren't on the hook for a championship, there was no trophy for being the best gladiator. They were just there to play the games and have fun.

But also, again, this was for the kids. The first couple of seasons there was a mix of people in the stands, sure (especially once they had people and weren't filling out the audience with cardboard stand-ups), but through the back half of second season and into this front half of third, the presence of children in the audience was much more noticeable. You'd get cheering sections of kids screaming for their favorite gladiators, leading chats, giving them big bursts of energy. Some of the gladiators really fed on that, like Ice who seemed so happy and so proud every time the kids were screaming her name. The gladiators became a big deal among the elementary school groups.

That was inevitable. Not only were these gladiators dressed up as superheroes, but this show aired during the peak time when cartoons were all about the heroes (and the toys they sold; it's not wonder this show had a bunch of toys that went along with it). Where I lived, American Gladiators aired on the local Paramount Network (a precursor to UPN) and it came on Saturdays right after the cartoon block ended. Cartoons into American Gladiators right into some cheesy afternoon movie. Those were Saturdays in the late 1980s and early 1990s for many kids growing up then. The audience for this show were children.

So many of the changes make a lot of sense when viewed from that perspective. Less time talking to the competitors after every event, more focus on the gladiators. Their costumes were changed (especially for the women to give a little more coverage) and the gladiators were positioned as role models. Play fair, be good sports, and you could grow up to be giant meat-men and meat-women, too! Heck, I bet even the newly focused halftime was meant for the kids: all the boring talk was crammed into a section in the middle of the show, and all the kids could get up, wandering off, grab a snack and a pee break and then be right back for the back half for the show to watch more gladiator action. It's perfect.

All together, though, it does not only make for a more family-friendly show, but also a more polished experience. This was a show that essentially grew in a void, taking random event concepts, slapping them together to create a visceral, athletic experience that hadn't really been on TV before. Naturally the show would have to take its time improving the experience, and while this third season isn't as big a leap over the second as that was over the first (especially the really awkward first half of the first season), it still shows a lot of improvement and upgrades. It was coming into its own, and this season is the show at its most watchable.

And yet, the best for the series was still to come. We're still some time from one of the best competitors on the show, and that man would redefine the competitor experience...

Evaluating the New (and Updated) Events

  • Assault: Minor scoring change grants one point for each weapon fired, which means that just playing in the game is worth some points (assuming they aren't knocked out immediately). It's a full ten for any hit on the target, which is also a change for the better.
  • Atlasphere: The high rims on the scoring pods were removed, making it far easier to get in and out of those pods (as contenders used to get stuck in them in the past season). Also, now the contenders don't have to settle in the pods, just hit a score button, making the game far easier to play.
  • Breakthrough & Conquer: Although this event remains the same from the second season, the points have been adjusted, tweaking them down to three points for each half of the event. Makes it a little less worth the effort, honestly, even if I can see the reasoning. The event is quick, so why make it worth as much as some of the longer challenges?
  • Hang Tough: redesigned wit a subtly shorter length, easier for the contenders to not only break away but also score.
  • The Maze: This is an odd one. The contenders have to navigate a maze within 60 seconds and it's exactly what you think it is: a maze of padded walls with a couple of paths through it. Along the way four gladiators will stand around and harass the contenders if they blow past. Otherwise, while there's a lot of running around, this feels like one of the less athletic events in the competition.
  • Powerball: This game didn't change at all between seasons (aside from the show constantly changing just how much the balls are worth depending where we are in the season). However, an interesting ruling does come up in the first half finals when one contender accidentally picks a ball of the other player's color and then scores. The result: their score counts for the other player.
  • Swingshot: This is a new game where everyone, two contenders and three gladiators, are strung up on bungees. They jump off high platforms to the floor, bounce up to a central cylinder high up in the middle, and grab soft balls velcroed onto that cylinder. Balls successfully grabbed and brought back to their own score buckets will net points for the contenders (1, 2, or 3 depending on their color and value, although values were appropriately upgraded in brackets, pushing them up to 1, 3, and 5 respectively). Of course, the gladiators are there, too, to try and knock the contenders away. It's an interesting game, and certainly in the style of the show, although maybe not the most interesting to watch. Not just yet.
  • Eliminator: This has been reworked this season. First, the scoring was shifted such that the lead contender gets a head start based on their points, which is a change that makes the run far more dynamic and interesting. The course was also changed up, with a number of obstacles shifted around. The balance beam was swapped out for a big, rotating cylinder. And then the run at the end was changed, replaced with a wall to climb, gladiators armed with giant medicine balls (although these were quickly removed, as the gladiators were too aggressive, and replaced with a second wall to climb), and then more medicine balls shoved down at the contenders at the end. Overall, a grueling event.

Evaluating the New Gladiators:

  • Storm: Coming on late in the first-half competition, Storm replaced Lace (due to an injury). He outfit actually looks like Lace's, just in opposite colors, leading some to speculate that the producers had to slap her in something quick to get her out on the field. Still, for a new gladiator thrown into the mix late, Storm does well. She doesn't show off a lot of personality in her first few episodes but she does get to show off some solid athletics, proving to be a formidable foe on the field. A solid gladiator for her few episodes so far.
  • Tower: Also coming in due to an injury, this time for Turbo, Tower is a big dude. He's easily taller than anyone else on the Gladiator team, and built about as big as Thunder. You can see why they call him Tower. Hell, the guy is so tall that his feet drag on the platform when he had to play in Hang Tough. The man did know how to swing he weight around, though, acting as something of a wall to competitors when put up against him. He was hard to drag out of the Conquer ring, for example, having a solid record in the game for his mid-season so far. And he seemed like a a nice guy, giving an "aw, shucks" smile between events, once he got comfortable. He's a solid add for the team, and a good star for the show.