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New “American Gladiators” is worth watching, despite changes

Jay Fitzpatrick | Friday, January 25, 2008

“American Gladiators” is back – just not the way you remember it.

NBC has resurrected the reality competition this season in the wake of the writers’ strike, but the new, glitzy version of the show fails to live up to the legacy of the original.

Viewers are greeted to the arena by former WWE superstar Hulk Hogan and boxing’s super middleweight champion Laila Ali. Hogan can be counted on to get the crowd excited, and his personality has not changed much since he was a professional wrestler. But Ali lacks the charisma that defined her father, Muhammad Ali, and often comes up short when doing interviews.

Moreover, the pair act merely as talking heads, lacking the same kind of play-by-play coverage that former hosts Mike Adamle and Larry Csonka did in the original series. Adamle and Csonka could be counted on for quality and insightful commentary that rivals most of what is on television today.

Ali and Hogan’s interviews with the contenders rarely add anything meaningful to the show, instead only wasting just enough time to cut down on the number of events. (In the original run of the show, contenders competed in seven events before the eliminator. That has since been reduced to five.) The contenders usually show their hubris by blurting out absurd statements that make them look either silly or rude.

The contenders themselves are inherently different from their counterparts in the original. When standing next to the gladiators, the original contenders looked downright puny. They were fit, but rarely did any of them have any really muscular builds like all of them do today.

The contenders were also asked only to be athletes; now, each of them has to have an interesting story. In the same episode, three different contenders claimed they needed to win the $100,000 grand prize in order to rebuild a house destroyed by Hurricane Wilma, buy a house to help her mother move out of a trailer and help spread Christianity.

On the other hand, the gladiators remain as they were in the original: mysterious and dominant. The names that you grew up with are gone (no more Thunder, Lazer or Gemini), but they have been replaced by the Haka-dancing Toa and the howling Wolf. Wolf is by far the best of this new crop of American heroes, if for no other reason that he looks to be flat out crazy. During events in which he is competing, he has the wild look in his eye of a madman bent on vengeance – something that has suited him just fine in the early goings of “American Gladiators.”

The female gladiators have drastically changed from the original. Fans of the original series will remember the Amazons who competed were large, incredibly muscular women who would have fit right in with the East German swim team. But in an age when sex sells, NBC traded in these behemoths for a set of gladiators who, despite still at least as strong as their predecessors, look like actual women. Even the mighty Hellga, whose role in the show is simply to be an immovable object, at least has some ladylike features.

Many of the events remain the same as in the original series, and the new ones still have the same general feeling of contender versus gladiator. But the new show has a distinct advantage over the original in its Eliminator. In the original series, the Eliminator was a lengthy obstacle course at the end of the show that was more or less ceremonial because it was impossible to make up any lead lost during the race. But that has all changed. The Eliminator is much longer now and requires contenders to use all of their strength just to finish.

The most important change is the move of the “travelator” (an inclined treadmill) from the beginning of the race to the end. This has wreaked havoc on the contenders in the revival, punishing the proud contenders as they struggle to maintain their footing all the way up to the finish.

Overall, the new series provides the same quality entertainment that the original provided a decade ago. Even though the current installment of “American Gladiators” has not been able to, and may never, match entertainment and competition of its predecessor, this new 21st-century installment is still very much worth watching.