There has to be something to the fact that almost every even mildly successful made-up athletic-ish game-show-y spectacle that shows up on American television contains more than a whiff of the playground. Maybe it’s just a matter of implicit permission—that it’s somehow okay to plunk in a system of arbitrary rules and simplistic goals if we can relate back to the last time any of us invented our fun out of a few willing participants and whatever landmarks were within giddy sprinting distance.
So you’ve got American Gladiators, the early ’90s staple that was King of the Hill quite literally on steroids, mixed in with the sick thrill that comes with wailing on someone with an object from the Nerf family (or, in warmer climates, the pool noodle). I can’t be the only short, poorly coordinated, pudgy kid who still has the occasional dream about SlamBall, the trampoline/basketball hybrid that was invented by literally everyone with access to a trampoline and a portable basketball hoop, and which actually had a few official seasons worth of televised competition in the early 2000s. Or there’s Wipeout, the still-running humiliation-a-thon that combines aspects of bouncy castles, The Ground is Lava, and laughing at people eating shit from the top of a slide.
The latest reasonably popular competitive diversion shares both the obstacle-course structure and the Japanese roots of Wipeout, although it has dropped schadenfreude in favour of solemn appreciation of people with freakish upper-body strength. American Ninja Warrior—its Japanese progenitor is Sasuke, which means “Excellence,” so presumably we were only a pitch meeting away from NBC airing a show called Jesus Eagle’s Cowboy Justice Squad—features a succession of people making their way through feats of strength that are part CrossFit exercises-of-the-day, part revitalized elementary school sandbox (that last part is no joke, as anyone who has attempted monkey bars after the age of 10 will tell you).
Even when the obstacles sound like they got their names from the Mr. Sparkle commercial (“Floating Stairs”) or bad iPhone games (“Crazy Cliffhanger”), and even when the competitors look like people trolling the X Games, American Ninja Warrior has a sort of automatic stickiness—the intrigue that attends any competition, however imaginary, especially when failure could come at any second. Sure, that is an amateur MMA fighter jumping a chin-up bar up a series of stylized pegs, but—wait a minute, why am I even couching that? It’s absurd, and awesome, the kind of thing causes a long, night-swallowing pause when you’re flipping through channels in a hotel room, an instantaneous attraction that makes historical knowledge or even an ultimate goal pretty much irrelevant. Holy shit, now he’s using rings to swing across a climbing wall. Never let this arcane display stop.
Still, there’s a certain inferiority complex that attends these things, some recognition that televised athletic competition should not be this dialed-in to the pleasure centre (i.e. every dunk needs its solidly executed chest-pass). You mostly get this from the commentators (a comedian who specializes in cable hosting duties, a sideline reporter, and a former football player, for legitimacy), who make such a point of calling every competitor an “athlete” you begin to think they have a very specific form of Tourette’s. They also treat every minor note of highly contained historical significance like these athletes were personally tearing down the Berlin Wall, most notably demonstrated in the run of Kacy Catanzaro, the first woman to ever complete the qualifying course. Though it was notable enough to go mildly viral—at least in part, it seems, because Catanzaro, a former gymnast, is an excitable little five-foot wood elf among the grim barbarians who normally power their way through the course—the commentary made it sound like she was climbing to the actual moon, not just doing abnormally well on an adult jungle gym in front of a live audience.
Through all the strained attempts at legitimacy, though, the hype men actually do a decent, if unintentional, job of parodying the acceptable athletic competitions American Ninja Warrior wants to pretend to be. It’s really only because enough people happen to agree with them that the hyperbolic rhetoric of sportscasters goes largely unchecked, that all those slow-mo spirals and buzzer-beaters actually do seem worth mythologizing in clip shows and splashing on front pages. The artifice of something called American Ninja Warrior reveals itself a little more plainly, but the essential difference between being able to curve a ridged ball and run up a curved wall, at least in terms of degree of societal celebration, is that the former has been important for over a century.
Granted, you can’t just manufacture that much feeling, no many how many times you call someone an athlete. But it is a sort of interesting relief, the way these crafted spectacles strain for the threshold of respectability, for that moment when it stops being a game and starts being The Game. Ultimately, it’s all just about how many people have gathered around your playground.