Let the Battle Begin

American Gladiators: Season 1 Premiere

Television shows can take some time to get going. No matter how good or interesting of an idea a show may have it can take a while for that idea to develop properly. Elements have to be experimented with, tinkered with until the right formula is found. This is especially true for a series that's creating its own new idea without anything around to really steal from. If you're making something new you have to play around until it all comes together. Thankfully when something is new, and interesting, audiences generally will let the show develop as the experience the series for the first time.

It's lucky that American Gladiators was given the room to breathe and grow as this first episode, effectively the pilot episode of the pilot starting half-season, is pretty rough in many ways. If you've seen any of the later episodes of the show then you know the general dynamic and style that American Gladiators settled into. That vibe is missing here and, ,in its place, we have a very early draft of the series. It's basic, it's cheap, and it is indeed rough. But there was a seed here that was interesting enough that the show not only managed to finish out its first half-season but then went on to renovate, innovate, and continue for seven full seasons total.

If you've seen the series before then you'll get the basics of that this first ever episode offered: two male and two female contestants are put through a series of physical challenges, attempting to score points all in an attempt to best their opponent and win the episode. But a fellow player isn't the only thing that would stand in their way, though, as there were also the titular gladiators: three men and three women chosen for their physical prowess. These gladiators are there to stop the players at every turn. Your goal was to win the game but just getting past the gladiators was hard enough on its own.

It's interesting How the show would grow from this first episode and the first season that followed. The show was very much trying to figure itself out this early on and didn't truly have the formula going at all. That's evident, first and foremost, from just how much time is spent talking instead of playing. There's not only the player interviews but also gladiator interviews, player videos talking about themselves, people talking about the games, and on and on. Especially in this first episode I'd say probably half of the runtime was spent on talk and not the games. That's entirely the wrong mix as we're here to see the people play the games. Put another way, people didn't watch Double Dare to see the contestants talk about themselves; they were there to watch people do disgusting physical challenges. The same rules applied here, too.

The talking goes on long enough that we actually don't even get full video of all the events being played. Human Cannonball is only able to show off the last hit for each of the players, so we don't really get a good sense of how that game was played (especially not played well) and it breezes past way too quickly to make much of an impact (some pun intended). Meanwhile another game, Swingshot (not the same as the later Swingshot, we think) wasn't even broadcast at all. Who knows how good that game could have been because we never see it at all. Instead we get long interviews with the contestants. Learning about people is fine, but certainly not this much.

You could tell that the constant chatter was difficult for the team to manage. They used it as padding between events, sure, but that meant the team had to keep the patter going. The gladiators especially seemed pretty nonplussed by the experience. Gemini at least was able to get into it, putting on a tough-as-nails character, but it didn't really suit him. It was an act, not the real Gemini, and over time that persona would get dropped. Zap has one interview and she seems stilted and uncomfortable. And as for the other gladiators? Well they get to stand around and look pretty. That was mostly their jobs: be strong, look pretty, and mumble when the mic was in front of you. They get better at this, for sure, but the crew also doesn't try to make them care and share as much, which helps.

Things are also rough on the production side as well. For starters, there's host Joe Theismann, professional football players and announcer who frankly seems confused to be on this show. He mostly just does the announcing side of things while his co-host, Mike Adamle, would do all the heavy lifting for the show. Over time the series would ditch Theismann, letting Adamle take over lead chair duties, and that was for the best. Theismann didn't really seem comfortable being on this goofy sports show but Adamle was absolutely at home with all that American Gladiators had to offer.

The aesthetic of the show is also way different in this episode (and half-season) than what would come. The first set has a strange Roman Coliseum meets Rambo film vibe going. While the later sets didn't exactly look expensive, this first set looks so bad and cheap, like they grabbed a bunch of props and sets from a studio back-lot and trotted them out. "Let's make these episodes as cheaply as we can this first time around just to see if anyone will watch." People did and, thankfully, the whole production got redressed pretty quickly.

About the only things that really do work in this first episode are the games. While most of them would change in some form or another, getting rebalanced over time to make them more interesting and engaging, the bones of the events were absolutely here. Early games like Joust, Powerball, and Assault would remain mainstays throughout the series and they're still pretty fun to watch here. One particular highlight is seeing Nitro get completely splayed out on his ass during Powerball, a well deserved hit considering the asshole he would become over time.

When you watch this first episode you can see where the show started and it's easy to see how the producers took that and made something even better after the fact And yet, at the same time, it's amazing to think that this series actually took over. This first episode is so rough, so uneven, that you have to marvel at the fact the series became a success at all. Of course, once it did take off it basically brushed this whole first half-season under a carpet to be ignored. When the show was eventually released on DVD it started with the second half of first season (which also was the only DVD release). The official American Gladiators YouTube channel doesn't have the first season (first or second half) at all, aside from this premiere episode. It's basically like the show started with season two at this point. If you don't know about the first season then you basically would never find out.

There is charm in this first episode, enough that I don't think it should be ignored. It's rough, and unbalanced, and not that great, but it does show history. The series grew beyond this and got better and better (for a while anyway). You have to see this first episode, though, to truly understand all that American Gladiators was able to accomplish.

Evaluating the Gladiators:

  • Gemini: While none of the gladiators are all that good at their games yet (Gemini gets knocked off in Joust twice, and that would become his best game), Gemini does at least exhibit some real personality. It's an act, of course, and the mean and aggressive character he puts on here would soften once the real Gemini was allowed to show through. Still, he's a character, one that drew attention, and at this point that's what the show needed.
  • Lace: A stalwart of the first seasons, Lace started here but the first episode doesn't give her much to do. She prances around in her mini-dress outfit, with lace lingerie stockings, and there's a very sexual vibe to her performance. Yeah, the show would absolutely change that pretty quickly.
  • Malibu: The big, buff, surfer dude, Malibu played every game in this episode with a giant smile. He was fun to watch, but he also didn't really seem to fit the vibe of the rest of the series. When he eventually leaves the series you gotta think it was for the best.
  • Nitro: Considering he'd become one of the most divisive gladiators on the show it's amazing how little he does here. He stands around, gets knocked out once, and otherwise just looks stoic. The Nitro we all knew (and hated) was still some ways off.
  • Sunny: Sorry, Sunny, but you had the least amount of personality of any gladiator in this episode. You're tall and you smile and... well, actually, that was about it. She didn't even play any of the games besides Powerball. Not a solid first showing.
  • Zap: Apparently nicknamed "The Terminator", Zap puts on a gruff and mean persona for this first episode. She does a decent job in her games (Powerball, Joust, and Assault) but she'd still need time to truly find her feet. Eventually she'd become one of the more depending gladiators, but she just wasn't there yet.

Evaluating the Events (In Order of Play):

  • Joust: This game plays very differently than in the later versions of the event (even from the back half of season one). Here, in its original form, the game is played on a long bridge with the combatants meeting in the middle, competitor and gladiator. They have to fight their way from the middle to one end of the platform where a trap door will drop the other fighter. Do that and you win. But get knocked into your own trap door, or pushed off the platform in general and you lose. The only thing that carries over from here to other later version is the pugil sticks which are you main form of attack. Don't use your hands, use the sticks or you'll get disqualified. Frankly, I an see why they changed this game as being in each others faces encourages using hands, arms, elbows, and everything else you can. Plus, the concept of pushing the other player down the bridge changes this dynamic. It's more wrestling than a joust.
  • Assault: The game isn't that different from later incarnations, but you can tell they were still feeling it out. The basic arena is smaller here, and there are only four weapons -- bazooka, cannon, pistol, and grenades. And the contestant starts right inside the first bunker, meaning they have practically a free first shot. Oh, and there's no timer, so the contenders can really take their time lining up shots. They get 100 points for a direct bullseye, 60 for any other hit on the target. The only advantages the gladiators have is that the rate of fire on the gun does feel faster than in later versions. Still, this one absolutely needed the re-balancing the later iterations provided.
  • Powerball: Speaking of games that had to be rebalanced, this iteration of Powerball is different from what comes later. While the concept is the same -- take balls, put them in one of five scoring cylinders -- the arrangement is different. Instead of a long fiends that the contenders run back and forth across, the game is played on a semi-circle with all five scoring pods guarded by the three gladiators. Both players go at once, but they have to deal with a pretty literal wall of muscle in front of them. Despite that, one good power tackle at Nitro drops him like a sack of bricks and the contenders have a field day running around the gladiators. And because the contenders can go back and forth to the same scoring zone over and over, the game gets unbalanced in the other direction. The field is too wide, the rules too broad, and this game just doesn't yet work.
  • Human Cannonball: This one actually isn't far off from what you might remember if you've watched later seasons. The player is on top of the tower, they grab a rope and swing down to the gladiator, forming a "human cannonball" to knock the gladiator off, scoring 30 points for each success (with a 10 point bonus if they go three for three). Do it one and get 30 points. Do it all three times and you get the full 100. Two differences are notable here. First, each contender goes separately instead of at the same time. And two, the rule about not using your feet hasn't been instituted yet, so the game is much rougher and far more brutal for the gladiators. Poor Lace and Malibu each had to take all six hits in their respective runs. Ouch.
  • Breakthrough & Conquer: This event apparently hasn't really changed since the start of the series. As seen in later versions, the player first has to run down a 15 yard "football field" and score a touchdown, and then they gotta wrestle a gladiator out of the ring. The only twist is that each event alone is worth 30 points, and if you do both you get a bonus of 40. The points needed to be rebalanced, but the game is solid already.
  • Swingshot: This isn't the game by the same name you'll see later. In fact, you won't see this one at all. This first episode just references that "Swingshot" (whatever it was) was played and who scored what (among the women as only they played this game instead of Breakthrough & Conquer). Footage wasn't shown here and, apparently, later episodes that had this game also didn't show the footage. No footage of the game was ever released so no one is actually sure what this game was or how it was played.
  • The Eliminator: The big finale, and while things are different here in this first version, the basic concept is the same: race to the end of the obstacle course and cross the finish line. It starts with pushing a big medicine ball up a ramp (this is replaced with running up a conveyor belt in later versions). Then the contenders had to cross a balance beam while smaller balls (in bags) were swung at them. Then they had to go across rope bridge "commando lines". Then a small rope swing over a wall (which was later replaced with a long zip line). Finally they have to choose one of four paths, all of which are covered in paper. Behind two choices is a gladiator to fight past, one is a free ride. Get through this and its across the finish line. Do it all in sixty seconds or less, and do it first, and you win.