In its 15th season, American Ninja Warrior still has athletes leaping through the air, clinging to tiny ledges with just their fingertips, and navigating the obstacle course in ways that often seem effortless but that I know would make my body shatter into small little pieces.
The physicality and competition remains impressive. The show, not as much. There’s something off about ANW season 15 so far—actually, several things.
My overall sense of the season so far is that we’re seeing fewer people do less, and it’s making less-enjoyable reality TV competition.
The one thing we’re definitely getting more of is Matt Iseman shouting “where every run is a race!” as many times as Akbar Gbajabiamila shouts “I see you!”
The two biggest changes in ANW 15’s qualifiers are:
- the addition of two head-to-head races for the final spot in the semifinals, and
- reducing qualifier episodes to one hour from two.
American Ninja Warrior has already used this head-to-head format before, in Esquire Network’s Ninja vs. Ninja and Universal Kids’ American Ninja Warrior Junior.
In each of those, it helped differentiate the spin-offs and added a different flavor. As part of the main show, it’s been a dud so far, taking away more than it’s adding.
We’re getting a preview of the head-to-head races—and courses—that will be used during the semifinals, and since I’m already annoyed with them, that’s not exciting me for the semifinals.
I’m annoyed because American Ninja Warrior is, yes, ultimately a competition for $1 million. But since most people will fall, and sometimes no one makes it to the very end, the real competition is person versus the course.
I’m here to watch people attempt obstacle after obstacle, cheering each other on from the sidelines, not watch them duke it out in a race. (Those who have competed in the head-to-heads have been extremely supportive of each other, such as cheering on their competitor after they fall.)
The episode length is not as big of a deal on its own. Episodes are 42 minutes without commercials, and now the last act—about five minutes—is handed over to the head-to-head races.
But we don’t always get to see those in full. A considerable number of runs in these shorter episodes are delivered in montage form, or just mentioned in passing.
In episode three, for example, of the nine men who ran the course, we only saw five full runs, with four others shown in montages. Five women ran the course; we only saw two runs, with a third in a montage.
Four of the night’s cut runs were the four people who made it to the head-to-head race—and even that got cut down. The men’s race was just quickly summarized, so we only saw the women’s race in full.
No reality TV show can include everything, and story producers and editors have to make decisions about what gets makes the episode and what does not. I don’t envy their jobs, even while I complain about the results!
While I’m complaining, the bio packages are too much. I am always glad to get to know the competitors beyond the course. I could use less focus on adversity alone, which makes people seem like they’re only about overcoming their worst moments, and thus sometimes becomes a kind of inspiration porn.
The bio packages can be even longer than the actual run. We’ll get several minutes of backstory, and then someone will fall on the first or second obstacle, and they’re done.
Last year, I asked ANW showrunner Anthony Storm about how producers decide who gets backstory time and who does not.
Storm told me that “every episode has its own mix,” in which “we’re trying to do our best to, [first], represent what took place in that night of competition properly: How many finishes were there? How difficult were each of the obstacles? Was there a progression where people started to figure out the course over time? How did the course play, and how did the competition play out?” After that, he said, they figure out when to include biographical elements. (Read the full interview.)
If that mix was already leaning too heavily toward bios, it feels especially off this season. Perhaps that’s a result of how few competitors have made it deep into the course.
Last season had about 35 competitors run each two-hour qualifier, according to the Sasukepedia Wiki’s list, though not all those runs were shown. This season, we’re getting about 18 runs per qualifier, though again, not all of those are shown.
In episode three, of the 18 people who qualified, only four hit the buzzer. But four others who qualified only completed two obstacles!
In episode two, just two of 18 hit the buzzer. Eight fell on the obstacle right before the warped wall. Three people only completed two obstacles, and one got through just the first obstacle. About 20 percent of semifinalists from that episode didn’t make it through three obstacles.
Why are so many qualifying people falling early? Could it have anything to do with this year’s addition of an incentive to run faster?
The warped wall is now a requirement for everyone, and the Mega Wall is only available to those who hit the buzzer in less than one minute and 20 seconds.
They are then allowed to attempt the 18.5-foot Mega Wall, going for $10,000. Very few people have even had that option, since so few have hit the buzzer or even made it to the warped wall.
I wonder if some competitors are screwing up because they’re trying to beat that time. (And we haven’t even gotten to the semifinals, where I’ve heard that EVERY RUN IS A RACE.)
It could also just be that these obstacles, especially the new ones, are more difficult or unfamiliar. This course is difficult even for the pros.
What is very familiar is the location. Since the pandemic, American Ninja Warrior has stopped traveling around the country, and now brings contestants to its course.
Both seasons 15 and 16 were filmed back-to-back this spring, and both filmed their qualifying and semifinal rounds on the backlot at Universal Studios Hollywood. The finals will move to Las Vegas as usual.
That’s a cost-saving measure—one production, one location, two seasons—but it’s bringing a sameness to the episodes, and I’m writing this before episode four of season 15 has even aired.
While I’m glad NBC renewed American Ninja Warrior for two seasons, I’m worried that this combination of decisions—one-hour, one location, head-to-head races—is hurting one of their flagship summer shows. Let’s hope it’s just stumbling early in its run and recovers from here.