Arts & Entertainment, Sports

Picking Splinters: Gladiators Ready?

Growing up, my life had a very simple pattern: Wake up, go to school, come home from school, pop a bag of microwavable popcorn and watch “American Gladiators” on the USA Network. Given that ritual, you can imagine my excitement when I learned “Gladiators” would be returning in an all-new format on NBC this winter, and in high definition at that!

If any of you are looking for a reason why I loved a show in which men and women, who may have been of keen interest to Senator George Mitchell, romped around in spandex, I really can't give you one. The best I've got is that sense of awe you get when a bug hits a windshield and explodes everywhere. “American Gladiators” is like that, except the windshield has 36-inch biceps and a pugel stick.

The show was hokey and didn't try to take itself seriously. Larry Csonka actually hosted the show for a while, as did Joe Theismann. Former NFL referee Bob McElwee was even an official, you know, to make sure the contestants received just the right amount of abuse. This was a bit of a change from the guy he succeeded, a wonderful bloke who used the handle “The Executioner.”

While the new show debuted to huge ratings — it was NBC's highest-rated debut among adults 18-49 since  “Heroes” and roped in 12 million viewers overall — I have to say there is definitely some room for improvement.

For starters, the contestants talk too much. I don't care what they have to say, I don't care who they are, I don't care about their families or their troubled pasts. I want to see them hit, jostled, mauled, grabbed, dinged, donged and maybe a little bit broken. This isn't a Jimmy Roberts essay. This is “American Gladiators.” Interview the contestants less, hit them in the face more.

Next, Powerball is a joke. In the old “Gladiators,” contestants would have to weave their way through three well-muscled dudes in leotards to slam home a small foam ball in one of several cylinders whose openings were barely wider than the balls themselves. The results were predictably brutal for the contestants, who seldom slammed a ball down without being tackled or thrown several feet by a gladiator. In 2008, the openings f the cylinders are roughly the size of Guam. They're huge. Contestants were actually taking jump shots to score points and avoid the gladiators. That's garbage. That's a smear against the franchise's name and it needs to stop immediately. Kiki Vandeweghe should not be able to win an event on “American Gladiators.”

Finally, I know that the original batch of Gladiators didn't really have much personality, but this new crop needs to take a lesson from Wolf and play up their characters a bit more. NBC could help by providing a little bit better background material. For example, here's Wolf's online bio: “When you enter Gladiator Arena keep an eye out for Wolf! Able to smell fear and always going for the jugular, Wolf is 230 pounds of primal fury. He will ferociously defend his turf … and thrives on the opportunity to sink his teeth into any challenge.”

Yawn. There's no need to embellish like that. Just let people know where Wolf comes from and tell it like it is. Here's my suggested bio: Wolf was born when a residential trailer in Nevada was exposed to unfathomable amounts of radiation following a U.S. Military experiment gone awry. While the occupants of the trailer were killed instantly, the explosion altered the dimensions of time and space, allowing Wolf to emerge from the White Snake video the two ill-fated residents were watching on the trailer's TV while making a batch of homemade meth. Stumbling outside the trailer, Wolf heard the cry of a lone Canis Lupus from a nearby hilltop. He echoes its call to this very day. Wolf later learned the English language from an assortment of “Guitar Player” magazines the deceased trailer residents had left scattered on the floor and also through rogue radio transmissions of “Masterpiece Theatre,” which he was able to pick up on an abandoned short wave radio. After a brief stint as a roadie for Ted Nugent, Wolf is now the one handing out language lessons to contestants on “American Gladiators,” fully educating them in a vocabulary of PAIN!

See? Simple, understated and above all factually accurate.

The premise of the show hasn't changed much, it's campy, it's fun and there is a high probability of physical injury. A few small tweaks though could make the experience all the more enjoyable. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go fire up some popcorn.