January 7, 2008
The return of American Gladiators aroused much excitement in me. A two-hour (!) series premiere on NBC allowed for some good roommate bonding as we cracked smart-aleck remarks at the over-the-top demeanor of Hulk Hogan, the theatrical personae of the Gladiators, and the (seemingly scripted) indefatigable optimism of the many contenders. It also left me with many questions. Questions, Gandalf would say, that need answering.
The formula and nearly all of the events remain largely the same as the original. All of the favorites are here – powerball, gauntlet, joust, assault, etc. Any point advantage gained during competition only earns the leader precious seconds of head-start time during the culminating event, The Eliminator. This is old wine in a new, very ridiculous bottle.
Perhaps a simple side by side comparison will help flesh this out. The original “Gladiators” (series began 1989) had a meat and potatoes kind of aesthetic. Dan Dierdorf and Joe Theismann, both NFL greats and Monday Night Football mainstays, were amongst the announcers. The gladiators themselves wore red, white and blue onesies that barely covered their obviously ‘roided out physiques. This included the women. The men had mullets . The 2008 reincarnation features a disembodied announcing team with raspy voices. The presence of Hulk Hogan and Laila Ali as on-the-ground correspondents adds to the surreal atmosphere and Korn-infused-light-show intensity. The gladiators themselves, however, are the biggest difference. Featuring names like Wolf, Toa, and Hellga, there is a theatricality here that was never present before. The gladiator is more in costume than anything else. It seems that meathead gym rats beating up on accountants is not sufficiently entertaining in these, the days of reality TV.
Though he is writing about the perpetual rehashing of old TV as inspiration for film, The Times‘ A.O. Scott demonstrated why our cultural moment is one in which nostalgia (sadly no solastalgia to be seen) sells by catering to both the parents who grew up on the product as well as their children. He is worth quoting at length:
“The basic, benign selling point is that parents, fondly remembering their own experience of these shows, will bring their children along to the theater, initiating the youngsters into a charmed circle of endless parody. Many of the original programs were benign satires of familiar genres and conventions…In the movies, though, that mild, occasionally thrilling sense of subversion is betrayed not only by the overblown scale but also by a tone of vulgar smirkiness that makes the grown-ups feel smarter than they should and the kids feel dumber than they need to. The adults, that is, laugh knowingly at the in-jokes and moments of pastiche, while their children chuckle at the easy physical humor and the inevitable scatology. And then the grown-ups can lecture the youngsters about how much better — smarter, more innocent, more fun — the originals were. Which is so frequently true that you begin to suspect it may be the point, that built-in inferiority is part of the formula.”
Though the parallel is not perfect it is useful. Does “American Gladiators” 2008 have as its target audience a new generation that did not know the original? Or does it play to those of us who enjoyed playing along with the original by building pillow forts in our houses or just by winging tennis balls at each others’ head? Perhaps the answer is: both. If the 18-30 (34? 40?) consumer bracket is really the target as it is with most things these days, I can sit with my roommate and laugh at how overblown and vulgar the new gladiator on the block truly is while some young upstart can eat up Wolf’s eye makeup and antics with a fat spoonful of irony. Or perhaps it is just that our generation has become both child and parent in the equation and that the producers of our culture are able to patronize us more than ever.
Pop-culture nostalgia is at the very root of our…cultural moment (I do like that phrase ever so much). Most glaringly, the hipster will cut and paste artifacts for the sake of cultivating irony and detachment (read:douchedom) as fashion. However, the referential quality of Family Guy relies on a mere difference of kind to achieve its goal – comedy is entirely different as a desired outcome – but there is certainly no difference in degree. Perhaps it is just the let-down from a pre-millenial foment, or the explosion of technology and the imdb-wiki-google age, but it seems that these days it is he who remembers the most obscure cartoon from their childhood or knows the most about the original upon which the movie is based is tops. As I am Dr. Haverstam I suppose you might think it strange for me to find nothing romantic in such hyper-nostalgia. Don’t get me wrong – rehashing classic themes is what Western civilization should be in the business of doing. The problem is when the half life of what is deemed classic becomes smaller and smaller and the snark-factor becomes larger and larger. What the Ciceronian says in earnest about Competition as demonstrated by his contemporaneous gladiators carries great weight. Whether that means 1989 or 89 CE I’m not entirely sure. All I know is that Wolf is a clown.