Monday, June 06, 2005

The worst damn sports show, period

Since I've got the trial tomorrow, I'm trying to get as much sports done today as possible. That also means that coming up with new blog material is somewhat low on the old priorities list, so I'm going, once again, to post the upcoming commentary for this week's paper. This came out of a random discussion that arose this weekend on '80s kitsch.

American Gladiators: The worst damn sports show, period.


Tom Arnold returned to television airwaves a couple years ago with a program called, "The Best Damn Sports Show, Period."

While the idea of Tom Arnold participating in anything even remotely associated with athletics is funny enough, I think that since there's a "best" sports show, there must also be a "worst" one, and I have a nomination for that category.

Think back about 16 years. It's 1989, the first George Bush was president, and Guns 'n Roses was considered an "edgy" band. On TV sets across the nation, people were watching the first season of "American Gladiators."

The premise of the show was to pit ordinary people from, say, Peoria, Ill., against super-human "gladiators" who wore spandex and had names like "Nitro" and "Blaze" in competitions that ranged from climbing a rock wall to avoiding tennis balls being shot out of a cannon at 100 miles per hour.

Action took place inside an arena that looked like it came straight out of the set from any '70s B-grade science fiction movie, with surfaces painted flat-grey with "space-age" stripes placed seemingly at random.

One event was the obstacle course, where contestants raced gladiators through a series of brightly-colored pipes, ramps, and rolling catwalks, trying to avoid being yanked down by other gladiators stationed below.

There was also the joust, which immediately came to mind during basic training when the drill sergeants introduced us to the pugil sticks. One gladiator and one contestant would perch on raised platforms and try to knock each other off using their jousting sticks. This activity could probably be nominated for "Television Event that Resulted in the Most Dental Surgery," since kids my age had a tendency to pick up broom handles and square off against siblings after watching the show.

As the series went into subsequent seasons, the show's producers tried numerous gimmicks to boost viewership. These included having celebrity guests participate, including "Lois and Clark's" Dean Cain, whose Superman was anything but gladiatorial.

Miami Dolphins hall-of-famer Larry Csonka did a stint on American Gladiators as an "analyst"... although I'm not quite sure what kinds of strategies existed within the context of the show to analyze. Coming up with lines to fill dead air must have been tough: "Gee, Mike... it looks like Blaze should have tossed the old jumpsuit in the wash before contending today."

I'm making the case for "American Gladiators" being the worst sports show ever, but I don't want to confuse anyone -- I watched the show avidly when it initially came out, and probably could have been considered a fan. Looking back on the show, however, I realize how monumentally stupid it was. I suppose there are a lot of cultural elements I could include in this category -- Star Wars, for instance.

Much like other horrible television programs, "American Gladiators" spawned an entire line of merchandising, including kid-sized jousting kits, action figures, video games, and trading cards, which I suppose were meant to lend the steroid-enhanced "gladiators" an air of athletic credibility that their actual profession didn't provide.

The show had its fans -- including me -- but I'm not sorry that it's gone. There has been no shortage of awful television programming to fill the gap it left 10 years ago. Tune into ESPN's "Around the Horn" if you don't believe me.