Thursday, August 4, 2011

Garbage Gladiators

As there's no news this week, I thought I would revisit the "Create An Induction" contest I entered on Game Show Garbage (the third place winner will be posted on the site on August 5). When I told you I entered this contest, what I didn't tell you is that I actually wrote two entries before deciding which one to submit. So, to tide us over during the summer lull, here is the Game Show Garbage entry I didn't submit. The induction: one of the worst kids game shows ever made...

We’ve gotten thousands of letters asking “When are you going to let kids play the Gladiator games?” The answer is…probably never.

I think it’s highly unlikely that you are reading this and have never heard of American Gladiators, but just in case, it was an athletic competition game show that ran in syndication from 1989 to 1996 and remains pretty iconic to this day. In each episode, four incredibly fit contenders (nothing as mundane as a “contestant” here) challenged a regular group of even more incredibly fit Gladiators (with names like “Tower” and “Blaze”) in awesome athletic events.

Now, it should come as no surprise that kids would watch this and want to participate. Certainly Nickelodeon knew this, as in 1992 they launched GUTS, a show more or less conceived of as a kids version of American Gladiators in all but name. This being television, the producers of American Gladiators weren’t going to take this lying down. So 1994 saw the launch in syndication of a bona fide kids version of American Gladiators. They called it Gladiators 2000, a title I can only assume came from a conversation like this:

First Producer: We need a title for a kids version of American Gladiators.
Second Producer: Um, I know. It’s 1994, right? Which means in 2000, all the kids who are on this show will be able to be on American Gladiators. Let’s call it Gladiators 2000!
First Producer: Great! It’s only six years from now, but kids will find it so futuristic!

Now once we get past the hokey title, we come to the hosts. American Gladiators was of course hosted by former NFL football player Mike Adamle with whatever sportscaster they have this season as co-host (Larry Csonka is the most famous example). I wouldn’t exactly want to see Mike hosting a quiz show, but for the purposes of American Gladiators, he was great. The hosts of Gladiators 2000…

...oh, you have got to be kidding me.

Yes, the one on the right is Ryan Seacrest, in one of his earliest jobs in television. I’m going to go out on a limb here and state that I actually think Ryan is a pretty darn good host on American Idol and everything else he’s done, and yes, that includes Gladiators 2000. Unfortunately, this does not extend to co-host Maria Sansone, who was thirteen at the time and pretty much embodies the reason kids game shows are not hosted by kids. At different points in the show, the two engage in what’s supposed to be witty banter…

Maria: "I feel tall and powerful."
Ryan: "Eh, don't get a big head."
The future host of the most popular primetime show on television, everyone.

The spiel given by our hosts after their entrance differs slightly from episode to episode, but generally amounts to “We’ve gotten thousands of letters asking ‘When are you going to let kids play the Gladiator games?’ The answer is…right now. Welcome to Gladiators 2000.” After that’s out of the way, we come to the introduction of the contenders and Gladiators. The red team and the blue team each consist of one kid of each gender, coached by two of the Gladiators from the parent show (again, one of each gender). After each team dramatically enters, we come to the real problem with this show. I quote Maria Sansone: “Gladiators 2000 isn’t just a challenge for the body. It’s also a challenge for the mind."

…wait, WHAT?
Oh yes, I forgot to mention. This isn’t just a kids version of American Gladiators. This is a kids edutainment version of American Gladiators, designed to educate kids on health and fitness. In between events, the kids are lectured on things like stress relief…and guess who is giving said lectures?

The Gladiators, that’s who! Yeah, that’s Sky teaching our contenders how to best brush their teeth. Never mind that on the parent show, these guys were invincible professional wrestler-types who gloated constantly about how much tougher they were than the contenders – they have hearts of gold! Well, either that or really good paychecks.

To be fair, not every educational bit is provided by the Gladiators. Ryan and Maria do a few, and there are a few other recurring characters, most notably the above cartoon character, Ben, who is apparently supposed to represent everything kids shouldn’t be doing. His back story, in as much as he has one, is that his parents have sent him to Gladiator camp against his will. When he shows up, it’s usually to complain about how sick he is of getting educated…making him sound like the average viewer of this show.

OK, time to get to the actual game play. Each half-hour episode has two events followed by the show-ending Eliminator. The events…they can’t be that different from the events on American Gladiators, right? If this show is going to educate you, it’s going to balance it out with some really good events, right? Come on, they’re not going to turn the classic American Gladiators event Pyramid into an event based on the USDA food pyramid…
You bet they are! Nothing educates kids about healthy eating like grabbing giant fake fish off a pyramid marked “proteins.” Admittedly, a few events did survive mostly intact, but in every episode there is at least one educational event, and lest we forget, each episode has two events prior to Eliminator.
After each event is played and the points scored by each team are totaled, we come to a bonus question. Ryan reads out the category (and by category I mean something like “Choosing The Perfect Sneaker”) and the team that won the last event gets to choose question A or question B. The questions are all based on the lectures between events, but they’re frequently…kind of open-ended. In one episode, the category was “Dealing With Stress,” which, incredibly, led to the question… “What are some ways to deal with stress?” The team replied “relax” – the judges accepted that as a correct answer for twenty-five points. Huh?

Finally it’s time for the highlight of any show with Gladiators in the title – Eliminator. You know how this works – it’s a giant obstacle course, it’s the same every time, it’s worth so many points that the events before are rendered almost moot, and it is awesome. Wait, that’s Eliminator on American Gladiators. Here’s how Eliminator plays out on Gladiators 2000.

Eliminator is always introduced via the same film of Ryan and Maria running it, accompanied by the same voiceover describing the course. Even at age six I eventually got sick of this part, as I had figured out how Eliminator worked. Ryan and Maria didn’t sound particularly enthused while describing it either. Their description began “The Eliminator starts with a climb up the ladder…” with “up” emphasized as if the kids watching didn’t know which direction that was. It only gets better, though – we are trying to educate here. Which means…
 …question boards! The questions are drawn from the lectures again, and each choice is represented by a different route through the course. Picking the right answer not only means a faster route, but an instant twenty-five points added to your score. After both teams have finished Eliminator, the team that finished in the faster time gets a final fifty points.

 After that, the team with the most points was declared the winner, and won a prize package that appears to be the same every time: a new bicycle, a handheld color TV, a boom box

and some Microsoft products for their school. Can you get cheaper – or more 1994 – then this? The losing team won a Walkman and a new camera. 
That’s the show. I adored this when I was six.

If you’re asking “If you adored this show when you were six, why are you trashing it so much now?” let me get to the punch line. When I was a kid, I adored Gladiators 2000 even though I had never seen American Gladiators. I eventually did figure out that Gladiators 2000 was the kids version of a show called American Gladiators. I just didn’t bother to watch and didn’t see the parent show until years later in TNN reruns. I can only assume that if I had watched American Gladiators as a kid, it would have put Gladiators 2000 in a whole new light.

That’s Gladiators 2000, at least in the 1994 season, which is the one I clearly remember watching as a kid. I only vaguely remember the 1995 season, which is a shame as watching the 1995 season now, it actually improved the game play tremendously, varying the events a bit more and cutting down slightly on the educational element. At the same time, of course, the 1995 season had even smaller prize packages, just one Gladiator coaching each team, and Maria was replaced by…

Valarie Miller. I’ll forever remember her as Original Cindy on Dark Angel…oh who am I kidding, I’m a game show nut and she was the co-host of Peer Pressure. Valarie was just as loud and annoying as Maria was stiff and shy, but at least she was the same age as Ryan and had much better chemistry with him. Ultimately, though, American Gladiators was canceled in 1996 and brought Gladiators 2000 down with it.

The postscript to this whole story is that to tie in with the revival of American Gladiators in 2008, MGM Domestic Television actually syndicated reruns of Gladiators 2000 for local stations to use on Saturday mornings. The one kid who was actually still watching his local station on Saturday mornings in 2008 must have been pretty confused, especially since Nickelodeon revived GUTS at the same time (say what you will about My Family’s Got GUTS, it beats Gladiators 2000). As for Ryan Seacrest, he did do a few other kids game shows (remember Click?) but left Gladiators 2000 safe in the knowledge that he would never host an ill-conceived kids version of a show for adults again…

Back to normal next week,

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