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American Gladiators: Season 4, Part 1

We're now into the fourth season and the show has really ironed out its whole concept. If you watch the show evolve from it's initial Premiere through the various developments of second and third seasons, you watch a show trying to figure out just how it wants to film things. Where does the emphasis go? What do audiences care about? How can we keep butts in seats (and, thereby, keep advertisers and underwriters happy)? The first episode of the whole series is rough. The fourth season, by comparison, is silky smooth.

American Gladiators: Season 4, Part 1

I'd be willing to bet that someone, somewhere in the Gladiators production offices had the thought to see down and look at minute-by-minute ratings to see where people tuned out. Did they care about the interviews? Did they flip over to something else during commercials. Ratings analysis, and maybe some focus testing, likely led them to decide, "talking is boring, we need more action." I mean, anyone that has watched the show could have told them that; we don't tune in for the elaborate back-stories or in depth looks at what happened to a contender on their sixth birthday. We're there to see people smack into each other during Powerball. It's an athletic game so give us the athletics.

Give it to us they did, too. This season of the show has one major tweak to the format: a seventh game played during the main part of the episode, and then the Eliminator after. This extra event, dubbed "Crunch Time", is the last chance for the competitors to score points before the big finale, and it works. Crunch Time itself is silly as it doesn't even need the name it could just be another event, uneventfully introduced. Hell, after the first time it's played, with Super Powerball and an increase in points for the "Crunch Time" event, all of that is removed from the seventh game after. It's still called "Crunch Time", but the bonus points disappear quickly. That's good, in imbalanced the game.

What Crunch Time really represents, though, is the producers acknowledging that what keeps the audience watching are the events, not the people. There are good competitors here and there, and occasionally a poor sport that you love to hate. By and large, though, the competitors are interchangeable. They're fast, they're athletic, they can play the games. Personality is buried under the athletic drive and need to focus. Only a few stand out and, thus, we don't need to learn about every person and all the events that led up to them making the episode. We just don't. By giving us a seventh event, a lot of that "talk time" is used up and more athletics get to be displayed.

Now, let's be clear, there is a down side to the extra game: the health of the Gladiators. The contenders only had to play one round of games for their appearance, but the gladiators had to play two or three sets a day during filming. It was intense on their bodies and injuries were already likely in the previous three seasons. Adding an extra game meant more strain on their bodies, more chances for them to get injured, more down time they could be forced to endure. For the gladiators, that was a hard pill to swallow.

When you factor that with the rise of the show and how much money it was making (not just from advertisements but also clothing, toys, collectible cards, and a video game on the way at the time, just to name a few things), many of the gladiators were upset with the deals they'd signed. The original crew -- Zap, Gemini, Nitro, Blaze, Ice, and Gold -- that had been with the show all threatened to walk at the start of fourth season if they didn't get a better deal. Their contracts had signed away their likeness rights, and their faces were all over the materials for the series. They were the faces, naturally. They felt they deserved to get paid more than the (relative) peanuts they garners while the Samuel Goldwin Company pulled in millions upon millions.

The producers didn't go for it and the gladiators walked. Their strike, they figured, would force the hand of the company but, instead, new gladiators were brought on to replace the original crew, and the show went on like nothing happened. Within two episodes Zap returned. A season later Ice was also back. Nitro didn't officially return until the final season when he showed up as a commentator, not a player. For the rest, that was the end of the line, and you could feel the transition on the stage. Some of these players were the best the Gladiator team had to offer. They'd be the anchors of the show. To lose them meant that the series had to refocus and re-balance.

That's likely another reason for adding in that seventh game, then. With less talk there was less need to address the missing gladiators. Hell, the show didn't address them at all, instead simple introducing the new players and moving on like nothing had happened behind the scenes. "We don't need to talk about it. Here, have some more Powerball." And it worked. The show kept going, the "faces of the franchise" really weren't, in the end, and the ratings continued going up... for a time.

Surprisingly this wasn't even the peak of the series. We're still only halfway through season four and there's still one big event to come: season five and the best player ever to grace the Gladiator stage, "Two-Scoops" (we will discuss his downfall, post Gladiators., when his season comes up). This was the high point for the series, starting here in fourth season and moving into fifth. The format was tight, the new gladiators were (generally) great (barring Viper, who suuuuuuuuuucks), and the producers cemented their control. This was peak American Gladiators.

Hell, it was peak for the franchise. If you look across the globe (and eventually I hope that we will) the franchise was even launching international spin-offs. The UK, Finland, Russia, Australia, and South Africa all got their own shows. There were crossovers, international events, and bigger specials. Hell, some of these episodes were even broadcast on American TV as filler between seasons of American Gladiators. For a time this show was it's own little event TV. Fourth season is where it cemented it's glory, and the show never felt more unstoppable than it was, right here.

Evaluating the New (and Updated) Events

  • Assault: This game starts of unchanged from the previous season. While the goal remains the same (shoot the target above the gladiator), the game does get changed up just a little within the first four episodes of the season. The pistol is moved from station four to station one, flipped with the crossbow (now featured at station four), and the completely useless mini-mortar at station five is swapped to two balls. I think this is a solid re-balance. of the game overall.
  • Atlasphere: In the semi-finals the launch ramps for the spheres is removed. Now explanation for why this change was made. Maybe just to keep the hits at the start of the game from being quite as hard.
  • Human Cannonball: Making a return after being off for a season, this game is played as before. Contenders get two swings, one each against two gladiators, to try and knock them off by hitting them in a solid, tuck position. It's not really a game of skill, just momentum, and I question why it was brought back.
  • Powerball: This game is largely the same as before. One small wrinkle is that the balls have been switched to what look like textured Nerf-style balls, making them easier to grip. There were a lot of missed points in last season to the balls slipping out of the hands of contenders. This is a solid upgrade.
  • Sky Track: This is an iconic game that actually comes pretty late in the American Gladiators cycle. A gladiator, and both competitors, are raised up to a suspended track. That track is covered in Velcro and the all three players have to run, on all fours, along that upside-down race track. The go from one end to the other or the long, twisty course, and then spin around and come back. If a contender beats the gladiator they get points: 10 for 1st, 5 for 2nd, nothing if you come in 3rd behind the gladiator.
  • Super Powerball: A variant of Powerball, this one featured two-on-two action with only two gladiators participating. To balance it, though, there are only three scoring pods (instead of Powerball's five), all in a horizontal line across the width of the field. It makes for a slightly different, and more hectic, game.
  • Swingshot: Although the basics of this game remain the same, it is interesting to note that after the first time it's played in season four, the gladiator participants are reduced by one (from three gladiators at a time in this event, down to two). Presumably that's to minimize tangles in their lines and prevent some of the chaos of the game from happening.
  • The Wall: Strangely, during the semi-finals they change the lead time for the contenders from 10 seconds to fifteen seconds. This has the effect of making the gladiators all but useless in this event against any contender that can actually climb. A weird change indeed.
  • The Eliminator: Much of this event remains the same -- treadmill, hand-bike, rotating cylinder, cargo net, zip line, and a wall climb. That then leads to the "gauntlet", a run down a hall with blocking dummies swinging back and forth. Get through that and its just a single hurdle and the finish line.

Evaluating the New Gladiators:

  • Cyclone: A fill-in gladiator who is only seen sparingly this season. He's a big dude but he didn't get a lot of time to get used to the events and, very quickly, gets outplayed by the contenders.
  • Elektra: At 5' 10" and 145 lbs (as per her introduction on the show itself), Elektra doesn't seem like a very muscular gladiator. She did, however, come in with a gymnastics background, which she immediately illustrated in her "at bat". Up on Hang Tough, she immediately closes in on the contender and takes them out before they could even get their bearings. She brought skill during her reign.
  • Lace: Another fill-in gladiator. Not the same Lace as the previous gladiator of the same name, it's actually kind of weird to have one exit and another come on back-to-back. She also didn't make much of an impression in her few outings at all.
  • Havoc: Another gladiator who comes in for just a few brief appearances. Not really much to say about them, sadly, because they never really get time to warm up. You gotta feel bad for the guys that come on for a walk-on like this and don't get a chance to make their big moment because these games are tough.
  • Saber: A new addition this season, but Saber very quickly rises to the occasion. With the loss of Gemini and Nitro, there needed to be a new skillful hothead, and while Saber has the attitude he absolutely backs it up with skill (unlike Nitro). A solid addition to the cast.
  • Siren: Just have to say, Siren rocks. The first hearing impaired gladiator, Siren came onto the show and immediately made herself at home with the other gladiators and the audience. Plus, she's great at the games. It's also cool to see her and Elektra conversing as, apparently, Elektra was fluent in sign language. Pretty neat.
  • Sky: Getting her name from her huge height (she's nearly as tall as Tower), Sky is a big woman with a lot of lean muscle on her. She's great in the hard athletics, putting her strong muscle to good use.
  • Viper: We didn't see much of Viper last season, coming on in the last episode as a walk-on replacement. Here, though, we get to see him in action with a whole year to prepare and, well, he sucks. He's not very good at the games, and he's as hot-headed as Nitro. Not an enjoyable guy to watch at all.