Judge Mike Rubino can neither breakthrough nor conquer.
From the moment the electric drums and synthesized trumpets begin their epic march, you are transported to a magical hybrid world of ancient Roman combat and late-'80s spandex. It's a bizarre world where combatants exchange blows amidst wrestling mats; where men cannot strike each other but must hug instead; and where "Zap" is considered a feminine name. Yes, it is the strange and mesmerizing world of American Gladiators, captured for all time thanks to the gracious DVD gods residing inside of the Shout! Factory.
Facts of the Case
Host, Mike Adamle: Hi, folks, Mike Adamle here. I'm your host of American Gladiators, and today we're going to be showing you some of the most exciting and athletic action around. It's the second half of the first season! But before I get into details, let me introduce you to my co-host, Todd Christensen. Todd?
Co-Host, Todd Christensen: Thanks Mike! Like Kenny Loggins would say, this is it! Now let's make like O.J. Simpson and shuffle over to the Lethal Weapon-esque shoot out about to take place in Assault. Soul Train!
Mike: Um…alright Todd! The way this DVD works is simple. It starts off with the recap of the first half of the first season, the original 13 episodes that were so bizarre we decided not to include them. So enjoy that recap! Then once that's over with, we'll kick off things with a brand new tournament.
Todd: That's five rounds of preliminaries, four quarter-finals, two semi-finals, the finals, and then the grand championship! That's when the guy and gal who won the first half of the season's tournament come back to face the current champion. Magnum P.I.!
Mike: Oh Todd, you're just full of extremely timely pop culture references, aren't you?
Todd: Don't have a cow, man!
If you grew up in the early '90s, odds are you crawled around in your kitchen while a sibling or friend threw tennis balls at you. If you were really daring, you constructed some sort of make-shift Atlasphere. It's only fitting that after 20 years, this classic staple of Saturday afternoon entertainment hits DVD in grand style. While it may not be the entire original first season, what's here is too awesome to disqualify. American Gladiators is as absurd as it is athletic.
The original American Gladiators had a bizarre beginning back in 1989. The show was originally themed to be more like classic Roman games, complete with agrarian obstacles in Assault, a coliseum-like arena, and referees that looked like executioners. Those first 13 episodes, which featured the only appearance of the gladiator Malibu, commentator Joe Theismann, and the contestant/actor Billy Wirth, have been left out of the set—for better or worse. The DVDs pick up with the half-season recap show, which sums up what you missed and ushers in the Gladiators we're more familiar with. The show moved to Universal Studios, and was met with ultra-patriotic sets that looked more like Tron than Spartacus.
The greatness of American Gladiators resides in its clever mix of reality and Hollywood. Everything from the tournament brackets to the improvised play-by-play commentating raises this show to the level of some strange professional sport. These competitors are really going at it with great athleticism and determination. There are plenty of injuries, and even more close calls. When American Gladiators was rebooted in 2008 on NBC, the show felt like it was all theatrics and Hollywood. The original series has some of that—there's still that sweet delayed explosion when a gladiator gets knocked out in Assault—but the show is dedicated to portraying realism. A big aspect of this realism comes from the limited number of games found in this debut season.
The games found in each and every episode of season one are as follows:
• Joust: A gladiator and a challenger climb up on to two pedestals and smack each other around with pugil sticks (read: giant Q-Tips). This game usually takes longer to introduce than it does to play, but there are more than a few grand duels in this set.
• Human Cannonball: A gladiator stands on a pedestal and a challenger swings at him or her. In the second half of the season, they sped up the game by having both challengers swing at once. This game can be pretty tedious.
• The Wall: The challengers have to scale a massive rock-climbing wall while gladiators chase after them. Later in the season, the producers started moving around or eliminating hand grips on the wall just so guys wouldn't memorize how to climb it. Talk about vicious!
• Breakthrough and Conquer: The challenger has to run a football into the end zone without getting tackled. Then they have to wrestle a second gladiator and try and knock him or her out of the ring. This game is probably the closest thing to a real sport in the entire show.
• Powerball: Challengers run around like desperate parents on Black Friday and try to stuff balls into buckets for points. All the while, gladiators are pummeling them. This game messes dudes up.
• Assault: Challengers must make their way to different weapon stations while a gladiator shoots tennis balls at them. At each station is a weapon that, if aimed properly, can knock the gladiator out of the game. This is by far the coolest game in the season, although I'm fairly certain that the pistol is completely useless.
• The Eliminator: Last but not least, each episode ends with the challengers racing through a gauntlet. They have to push a massive ball up a hill, walk across a balance beam whilst being pummeled with soccer balls on strings, tight-rope walk, swing over a wall, and run through a paper barrier…possibly into the meaty arms of a gladiator.
If there's a downside to all of this, it's that the introductions and post-event interviews often take longer than the events themselves. The introductions definitely started to wear on me after a while, but the interviews were always pretty entertaining (if only to hear the absurd commentary from Adamle and Christensen). Thankfully Shout! Factory added in chapter breaks for each game, so you can always skip ahead to the next event.
This three-disc set comes in two slimline cases and a cardboard sleeve. Shout! Factory did a great job putting everything together, complete with some pretty cheesy menus and a nice booklet. The audio and video aren't anything to write home about—they're about as good as what you'll see each night on ESPN Classic. The video is your standard full frame tape and the audio is in basic 2.0 stereo. It's still a very colorful, well-produced show that's held up surprisingly well.
The special features in the set are meager, but certainly appreciated. On more than a few episodes, you're treated to a commentary track featuring Nitro (Dan Clark), Zap (Raye Hollitt), and Laser (Jim Starr). The three are pretty entertaining, although they interrupt each other far too much. It's probably worth checking out once, but only the die-hards will be interested in all of them. Also, on the third disc is an interview with actor Billy Wirth (The Lost Boys), who appeared in the first half of the season. It's odd that they chose to interview him for this release, seeing as how he's only in the recap episode. He does, however, have a good bit of insight into how the show worked.
If you're simply not content with trying to catch American Gladiators re-runs on late night cable stations, this is certainly the way to go. American Gladiators: The Original Series: The Battle Begins may be a ridiculously long name, but it's a great start to what will hopefully be a long-running DVD franchise for Shout! Factory. It's a lot of fun going back and watching the tournament in chronological order, cheering on your favorite contestants, and counting all of the ridiculous pop culture references dropped by the hosts. It's kitschy, yes, but it's also an artifact from a time when sports/reality/game shows felt honest and real (you know, despite the steroids.)
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• Episode Commentaries
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