In Praise of 'American Gladiators'

Abraham Lincoln, in an 1861 letter to a widow who was trying to find jobs for her children, wrote, "Wanting to work is so rare a merit that it should be encouraged." It may sound a little, well, odd that this quote came to mind while I was watching the two-night premiere of NBC's revived blood-sweat-and-Spandex sports competition "American Gladiators." But in watching the show, in which contestants compete in gonzo athletic events for a shot at $100,000, I couldn't help but think I was watching the triumphant return of actual effort on television. And despite the fact that the show met with criticism and snobbery, I'd argue that "Gladiators" is among television's most noble shows.

Don't get me wrong, I get the resistance to the show on many levels. The aesthetics of it alone are enough to discount it: those second-skin uniforms that only forgive obsessively perfected physiques, the comical posturing of the Gladiators, the mere sight of Hulk Hogan. It's all very difficult to take seriously. (Not helping matters was the revelation that one Gladiator was once featured in--ahem--all-male pornography.) But beneath the cheesy surface is the closest thing to pure competition on television these days.

There is lots of competition on TV now--it's always been the easiest way to provoke drama--but most competition-based television shows are far from meritocratic. Each season on "American Idol," for example, the integrity of the game is called into question because it leaves too much margin for error. Some ardent fans bombard the phone lines with computer autodialers, while "Idol" haters like those behind the Web site Vote for the Worst encourage viewers to keep less talented competitors in the running. When Ruben Studdard trounced Clay Aiken in the season two finale, the FCC was flooded with complaints from viewers alleging the show was rigged. Those who posited that more phone lines were allotted for Studdard or that the results were tampered with so the black contestant could win sounded the most reasonable of the bunch.

It isn't just the "democratic" competitions that are impure. Shows whose winners are determined by expert judges, such as "Project Runway," are just as flawed. "Runway," as terrific a show as it is, has an elimination process that is a complete black box. There's absolutely no way of knowing what is actually going into the elimination process, and the elimination decisions are often befuddling. It certainly doesn't help that as standard practice, reality competitions feature in their credits boilerplate language that essentially says that judges don't have complete autonomy. They confer with producers before making a final decision, reinforcing the notion that contestants are eliminated for being boring to watch rather than for lacking in talent.

"Project Runway" isn't even the worst offender. NBC's stand-up competition, "Last Comic Standing," fomented coup in its second season, when its celebrity judges found out their input had nothing to do with who would actually advance. Drew Carey, along with Brett Butler, stormed off the show in a fury when it was revealed their choices bore little resemblance to the list of advancing contestants. Our sense of what constitutes a competition has become so muddied that the more arbitrary the results, the better. A main selling point of Donald Trump's "The Apprentice" is just how random the vetting process is. Will Trump fire one contestant or two? Or three? Will it be for actually underperforming on a task, or for blurting something out at the wrong moment? Tune in to find out!

The reason for resistance to meritocracy came immediately after Monday's episode of "Gladiators"--an all-new "Deal or No Deal." You know, the show in which people who have invested absolutely nothing ponder how much of a windfall they'll deign to accept for having yelled out numbers. Television competition, it seems, is about wish fulfillment. Apparently, it's no fun to watch people who deserve to have things actually getting them; it's more fun to watch undeserving people being showered with cash and prizes. We cheer for the "Survivor" contestant who wins a cool million bucks for "flying under the radar," but mock the "Gladiator" contestant who pushes himself physically for a shot at a 10th of that amount.

This is why I'm a little peeved when people act as though "American Gladiators" signals the downfall of our culture. "Gladiators" is a show where people are rewarded for working hard and being the best in the competition. If you're better at climbing rock walls than your opponent, you win that round. If you swing a mean pugil stick, glory will be yours. If you can shoot a ball into a basket while being tackled by a former star of gay erotica, to you go the spoils. There's work. There's merit. There's deservedness. This is as it should be. What would Lincoln watch?