American Gladiators needs more over-the-top behavior but fewer scripted moments

American Gladiators debuted its first two episodes last night, and managed to deliver on what the previews offered–sort of. Whoever directed and edited the preview for the show deserves an Emmy, because it was a lot more intense than parts of the actual show.

My guess is that the ratings will be pretty strong for last night’s debut. But I also think viewership could hemorrhage over time if the producers don’t tweak some things. The challenges are awesome, particularly the pyramid, which offers us the chance to watch bodies tumbling through the air. And The Eliminator, the obstacle course that ends every episode, was truly thrilling, especially during its first run, when one contestant caught up and passed her competitor right before the end. The faceless commentator did his job perfectly, as did whoever played the song clips occasionally after a contender or gladiator failed (“Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye”), which prompted the audience to join in.

But the rest of the show kind of sucks. Perhaps it sucks in the same way as the earlier version, but nostalgia isn’t enough to keep people tuning in. Here’s what American Gladiators needs to do:

  • Dump the scripted bullshit immediately. Hosts Laila Ali and Hulk Hogan do nothing excite read scripted lines off a teleprompter, and those lines are terrible, and they are terrible at delivering them. Either let your hosts be spontaneous and ad lib–which they can clearly do, as their few genuine moments were good–or just dump them. Ditto for the clearly rehearsed responses from the contenders; it’s obnoxious to not trust the people you cast to speak spontaneously. The show literally stops dead during the pre- and post-challenge interview segments, which are bad but not in a fun-ironic way.
  • The Gladiators, particularly the women, have to stop being nice. Being a gladiator is about more than muscles; it’s about over-the-top personality, and only Wolf seems to really have fallen into his role well. Crush smiles way too much, and Justice seems to think he needs nothing more than muscles. And post-challenge, they can’t just drop their personas. The second time runs out, many of the gladiators transformed into real people, and were all, “Nice job! Let me help you up, and then I’ll buy you a smoothie while we go look at bunnies.”
  • If people get injured, give us slow-motion replays and detailed explanations. Two people–one contender and one gladiator–were injured in the first half-hour alone, and the final run through the Eliminator left one woman with a bloody face. That they can actually be hurt adds to the drama and tension, but that deflates when we’re simply told a gladiator got hurt and has to be replaced, rather than watching it and learning what really happened. More violence, less talking.
  • Take the “American Gladatiors, tomorrow 8/7c” bug off the screen, NBC. We’re watching the damn show and you’re already concerned that we won’t tune in next time? Remind us, sure, but stop being so desperate.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.