Last November, in a rural Georgia park, I interviewed several contestants for American Grit season two. It was the first thing a tiny contingent of press—two Fox TV station crew, and another print reporter and I—did before traveling to the actual set, where the contestants would be mentored by military elites and test their own endurance in the John Cena-hosted show.
From the moment the contestants stepped out of the van, though, it was clear something was wrong.
The first person I interviewed was George Foreman IV—yes, the son of that George Foreman—who isn’t himself a household name, but his name certainly has more celebrity cachet than contestant on season one. I wasn’t surprised, though, that the series would cast a celebrity-ish contestant for a low-rated show that nevertheless was renewed.
While George seemed athletic and ready to compete, after him, I was quickly baffled by the handful of cast members I interviewed. They seemed so out of place, from their wardrobes to their lack of physical preparedness. They had no answers for my questions about the kind of challenges that season one’s cast faced.
I felt like I was interviewing rejected Big Brother cast members who were about to play Survivor. Why would this group be cast on a show that prided itself on the toughness of its cast?
What I learned later was that this is not American Grit season one, because the show made some major changes.
Here’s how John Cena described the show’s changes to me:
- “they’re not going to be roughing it as much”
- “a different style of competitor”
- “[me] and the cadre are going to be condensed together”
- “the challenges won’t be purely physical”
- “the contests won’t be purely physical”
- “we end with an elimination challenge”
- “it won’t be purely a team show”
- “only one person can win”
Also, the elimination challenges aren’t endurance challenges.
How exactly is this American Grit? And is Fox ruining yet another wonderful summertime show? That was my biggest fear—that a show capable of producing this absolutely amazing moment was going down the path of Home Free.
So that’s the first thing I asked John Cena when I interviewed him, and he said he was as concerned as I was about the new format: “Initially, yes, because I didn’t want lose the DNA of the show,” he told me while we stood swiping at mosquitos on a bridge near where both he and the contestants will live. “And the DNA of the show is doing good by helping people.”
When the second season’s format was pitched to him, he said, “a lot of that’s dumped on your plate at once, so it was a lot to digest. It took me a deep breath and a cup of coffee to realize that it’s actually better than the first time around.”
“Because people are starting from the bottom. When you recruit the 1 percent, they already know hard work, and they already know grit. But there’s a lot of folks out there that may be in a lull in life—or maybe just, Oh, you know, nothing good ever goes my way. Well, you have to learn how to make it go your way, where you have to just look at life differently.”
“Hopefully that’s what’s going to happen here,” he added.
How the changes affect the contestants and the cadre
When American Grit season two’s cast was announced last week, Fox said that its 17 contestants are people “who either have lost their grit or never had it.” That’s a significant change from season one, when “sixteen of the country’s toughest men and women will face a variety of military-grade and survival-themed challenges set in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest.”
Instead of freezing cold weather and a shared living space, the contestants and their lack of grit will live in lakeside cabins, complete with a floating dock and fire pit. (I’ll have details from the show’s production designer in a future story, but you can see Cena’s house and the contestants’ cabins in this photo.)
The one thing that hasn’t changed is that four ex-military mentors will lead teams of contestants. (There are four teams, so guess what happens to contestant #17.) This season, the cadre will have to help their contestants succeed despite the contestants’ lack of ability.
“I think that’s a much better use of the talent we have in that house right there,” Cena told me, gesturing toward a large house sitting on a lake, which overlooks the four brand-new cabins that were built for the show.
“The accommodations are, in my mind, a little more plush. I think the backdrop is beautiful. We’re in warmer weather—it has this drawback with the bugs, but that’s not bad,” Cena told me. (The bugs were really bad.)
Cena said he didn’t want people to be so uncomfortable they quit, so the housing situation—beds, couches, a kitchen—helps by giving them a place to unwind. “They’re going to change their life but not to the point of, Hey, you’re out on an island with nothing. They’ll still have creature comforts of normal life, but they’ll just have to do it differently enough so they have to look within themselves,” he said.
The cadre will coach more than they did in season one.
“I think they’re here, broken down to us. They’re going get time to spend with their cadre; their cadre are going to do their best to prepare them for what their cadre thinks they’re up against,” Cena said. “So you’ll have a lot of coaching before these challenges, which is something we didn’t necessarily have last year, so you’ll get a lot more preparation.”
Also in season one, Cena connected with the contestants at various points during the competition, but stood out especially for his one-on-one conversations before endurance challenges. Will that continue?
“I anticipate a lot more conversation with this group,” he said. While it was easy for him to relate to dedicated, athletic contestants during season one, Cena said, “I’ve got no idea what I’m dealing with—no idea. So it’s going to be tough for me to help these people, and it’s going to be tough for our cadre to help these people. The only way you can get over a problem is to communicate.”
But even American Grit didn’t know what to expect from this relatively pampered, definitely unprepared group: “Who knows, man? I think that’s what’s fun—it’s unexpected, it’s out of my comfort zone, so it’s going to be fun.”
What John Cena wants American Grit to do
John Cena is still committed to American Grit, as an idea and as a television show, and wants it to have an impact on both the contestants and viewers.
“You can always make TV, but when you can do something that hopefully betters people’s lives, both in the competition and watching at home—that’s using the entertainment platform to give back,” Cena told me. “At the very least, they’re entertained, but best case scenario they take away a few tips to help themselves.”
“I think and hope that [viewers] get attached to people on the show,” he said, “because every single person is going to go on a journey. We have some pretty elite cadre that aren’t used to working with the competitors we have. That’s going to be a challenge for them. Like I said, it’s going to be a challenge for me. And it’s going to be a challenge for the competitors to look inside themselves to see if they’ve got what it takes to change.”
The format change for American Grit is, he insisted, “gonna be fun because it’s so unpredictable. I really did like season one,” he said, but added that it was easy to figure out who’d do well and who would struggle.
This season, though: “I don’t know. We all have no idea,” John Cena told me. “We don’t have that this year, and I think that makes for a better television show.”
Read this next: An interview with Jon Kroll, American Grit’s executive producer and showrunner, and a behind-the-scenes look at the new set that the show’s production designer built in South Carolina.