So, the Spartan Ultimate Team Challenge premiered this week. It was actually a few days ago, but I only got around to watching it yesterday. I don’t have a TV, which makes me sound really pretentious—I actually watch more than I should, it’s just all online because I don’t really care about time-shifting.
I also wasn’t in a rush. The show is paired with American Ninja Warrior, which is cool but also really obnoxious. (I’ll be full-on pretentious here and declare the original Japanese one was way better.) The format is awesome, but the dressing-up with REALLY SHOUTY HOSTS WHAT SHOUT ABOUT EVERYTHING! and the increased focus on Backstory bug me. I fully expected that the Spartan show would take the same approach.
It does, to some extent. It dwells soundly within the reality show paradigm, and expecting it to avoid those trappings completely isn’t realistic. (The presence of Evan Dollard, Who I still affiliate with the American Gladiators reboot, one of the most egregious examples of taking a great show format and turning it into an absolute pile of shit*, which is completely unfair to blame him for and I don’t but it’s still something that happened, concerned me.) But, while I’ve got plenty of unsolicited recommendations to improve the Spartan show, I’d say it’s got a lot of potential.
The show started horrifyingly, I’ll say, with about 7 minutes of Backstory Glurge. And then, the first few obstacles were either skipped or shown in a fog of confusion. What exactly are the rules for that log jump thing? Is there any penalty for not making the jump other than having to climb out of the lake?
After the commercial break it got even worse: A tiny update on the “previous heat.” So, basically, in order to get enough time for Backstory Glurge, they turned the race into the Technical Oscars. Then, more obstacle confusion: The Log Traverse (I think? – the thingy where the teams had to hold on to a log while it swung somewhere) was massively unclear. What was the penalty for dropping off of it? And, more importantly: the show told us that one of the teams did succeed at it, but they didn’t bother to show how. I mean, “show don’t tell” is only the first piece of advice any aspiring storyteller gets, but when you’re a Spartan, why bother paying attention to that? It’s a problem that happened several times during the show.
The thing is, once they started focusing on the race itself, it got a lot better. Much to my surprise, by this point, I really got into watching the teams racing each other. There were plenty of points where teams could make up or lose time and pass each other, and the tension built nicely—it was fun and exciting to watch. I was also often impressed by how the obstacles were adapted into team challenges rather than individual ones.
I was especially surprised by this because of how hard the show pushed the “New York vs. Boston” “rivalry” that two “teams” in the second heat supposedly “had.” It’s unfair to have this reaction, but I was so happy when neither team was fast enough to qualify for the final. Even though that meant that we just got more special-needs-baby emotional porn as a replacement.
So, yeah, I’d love to ditch that kind of thing. I suppose I’m not qualified to declare whether or not the competitive aspects of the show are sufficient to support a show on their own, and I’m obviously a bit biased, but I think they are. You know, the way real sports do.
A few other criticisms that I hope are constructive:
Insight about the teams would be a great replacement for “story” about the teams. The hosts noted how important strategy is, to take advantage of team members’ strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. But I don’t think the show ever mentioned any details. I’d love to have some idea of who’s fricking awesome at raw strength but so bulky they can’t climb, and how teams deal with that, or whatnot.
Insight about the obstacles would also be awesome. As I mentioned, the program often told us that teams completed a really hard obstacle without showing it. It also told us how epic a challenge some obstacles were, without giving any kind of insight about how it could or should be completed, particularly if there are options that each might have advantages or disadvantages.
At times, the show felt overly performative. A lot of things seemed to be played up way beyond what was real: I can’t say for certain, but I suspect the woman’s hyperventilating at the dunk wall was a bit less serious than the program tried to make it appear. (Also, it was pretty poor form of the show to immediately follow that with a segment about how the women on that team are redefining feminine strength.)
This may also be unfair, but it also seemed like some of the encouragement provided by the coaches were playing to the cameras—like the producers might have told them to be sure to keep up a running commentary. And equally unfairly, I suspect that some of the post-race celebrations with families were only captured on the third or fourth take.
Not every ad break needs to be a cliffhanger. Especially not when the cliffhangers were as stupid as this show had. “Will the guy who managed to jump into the lake before manage to jump into the lake this time? Gosh, I don’t know!”
If you’ve got to have product placement, be more interesting about it. The fitness watch (I won’t give the brand, because no need to encourage that kind of behavior**) could have potentially provided some interesting insight rather than just mentioning one guy’s heart rate at one point in the race.
The hosts were surprisingly good. I was worried that the two of them would impersonate fourteen hosts, the way American Ninja Warrior’s do, but I didn’t mind them.
Yeah, Spartan loves its medals. I had to freeze-frame it, but I can confirm that they’re not identical to the regular medals. But they’re close.
Ultimately, though, I think there’s a really good base here to build from. I hope the show evolves and finds success, particularly if it can find success as a sports show rather than a reality show.
* Why did the reboot suck? Sin #1: They crapped all over the gameplay. The events had the potential to make maybe 10 seconds difference in the Eliminator—which could take 10+ minutes. And even the Eliminator was stupid, because almost all of that time was taken up by that reverse treadmill at the end. So the entire show came down to that one thing. Sin #2: They managed to slow the pace down to a crawl by doing really unintersting interviews with every competitor before anything happened, and after anything happened. Sin #3: Hulk Hogan was a spectacularly annoying host.
** Unless they want to pay me, of course.