On the evening of May 21, with all of my regular Monday night shows off the air or shamelessly moved to Sunday night (where for art though Nurse Jackie?) I just decided to take a gamble and see what was airing on network television. When I flipped to NBC I saw it immediately and knew I was hooked. Here were world class athletes trying out in round after round of qualifying competition and the action was peppered with their inspirational back stories. Sometimes the athletes were victorious and sometimes they fell flat on their faces, quite literally. We will only celebrate one of these prime specimens as a champion and an American hero. No, the Olympics haven't already started, this is American Ninja Warrior.
For the uninitiated, Ninja Warrior is a Japanese game show that airs on far-flung cable channel G4 which features people both fit and otherwise competing to complete a nearly impossibly series of obstacle courses. They hang from logs, race across spinning pillars, climb inverted staircases using only their upper bodies, scale cargo nets that are hundreds of feet long, and complete an insane gym class torture known as the "salmon ladder" (imagine having to hang from a bar bell and raise it up four notches using nothing but your arm strength and will power). It is absolutely insane. One small slip and they are out of the competition. Four years ago G4 started producing their own competition in America and then took the final competitors to Mt. Midoriyama, the storied Japanese course that separates the supermen from the astronomically super men.
This year NBC, desperate to air anything that gets as many viewers as a puppet show at your local mall, is airing American Ninja Warrior (and a day after it airs on G4, so this network is so hard up it is now airing cable TV reruns). You should be watching every damn episode.
Ninja Warrior is ideal summer time television: something that you don't have to pay too much attention to, something where you can miss an episode or two and not feel left behind, and something that is going to make you feel absolutely awful that you haven't been doing squats, crunches, and sh**loads of cardio all winter long. It's sort of like Wipeout for smart people, where you are actually rooting for them to complete the course rather than get punched in the face and fall in the mud for our enjoyment. But there is plenty of falling off the course and landing in the water. Unlike Wipeout, this is empowering and belittling at the same time.
So much television these days is about watching extremely talented people do things we couldn't even dream about. What do you think Project Runway, Top Chef, American Idol (and all its ripoffs), and even every show on HGTV is all about? We can't sew a dress in an afternoon, cook a gourmet meal with food from a vending machine, sing "Hallelujah" with a complete lack of irony, or set up a water feature in our backyards, but its as if we can watch someone doing it well then we can do it too. The same with Ninja Warrior. Ninety-nine percent of the people in the world couldn't get past the first two obstacles in the qualifying course nevertheless find a way up Mt. Midoriyama, a feat that only three people in the 25 seasons of Japanese Ninja Warrior have been able to muster. But, damn it, we're going to watch these men (mostly) try. They're the one percent you actually root for, and if we have to look at their wonderfully muscled physiques while they doing it, then so be it.
NBC, as the nation's premiere rerunner of cable television content, has brought the fabled Mt. Midoriyama to Las Vegas so that we don't even have to go to Japan anymore for the big, multi-part final craziness. Yes, the American version is far more earnest than its Asian counterpart and could use with a bit more camp, but before we see our premiere athletes compete in the decathlon, the 100 meter freestyle, and the oh-so-serious art of synchronized swimming, I'm going to be riveted to Ninja Warrior. At least until Wipeout starts.
Update: I guess I read the Ninja Warrior schedule wrong. The qualifying rounds air on G4 on Sundays and the final rounds air on NBC on Mondays. Guess they're not so much reruns after all.
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