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TELEVISION REVIEW

'American Gladiators' meets 21st century

January 11, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Hulk Hogan, yards of spandex, iron-pumped bodies. . . . Notwithstanding some 21st-century graphics and gimmickry, you may be excused from thinking yourself knocked back in time while watching NBC's renascent "American Gladiators."

After an absence of almost a dozen years, the formerly syndicated show has returned to pit ordinary citizens in better shape than I am against pumped-up superfolk in much better shape than I am in a series of physical challenges I am in no way capable of meeting. At the end, one of the citizens will win $100,000, a car and a chance to become an American Gladiator next season, which suggests that the series, from the company Ben Silverman left to co-chair NBC, is as good as renewed.

Although it might be taken as a sign of a world in which scripted television is a fading memory we will recall to our grandchildren's disbelief, "Gladiators" was in the production pipeline months before the writers strike began. (Episodes of the original have been in reruns on ESPN Classic; it is just the zeitgeist.) And while there are deeper questions to be asked regarding the proper use of the public spectrum that the networks have been allowed to regard as their private property, I don't suppose you're reading a review of "American Gladiators" to hear them raised.

It is a colorful show (the colors are red and blue), pumped up with aggressive graphics and the sort of music they will be playing when the saucers arrive and the world ends. Its '80s-based, retro-futuristic Thunderdomesque, Rollerballish, Double-Dragony vision of a sporting future works the brain's nostalgia centers. Wide and long lenses make everything look huge.

At the same time, there is an almost homemade feel to it, as if it had been set up by some particularly clever children. (It's all the plastic tarps, I think.) But as silly as it can look, the contestants -- many of whom grew up on the original -- clearly regard this as serious business, a defining moment in their lives, the realization of a dream. And it isn't hard to root for them once the games begin. And to ponder the waivers they must have had to sign: They get knocked around a good deal. On opening night, Bonnie the ex-Marine finished the climactic obstacle course, called the Eliminator, with blood streaming down her face.

A mix of old favorites and new inventions, the challenges mostly involve the Gladiators stopping the contestants from getting somewhere (up the Pyramid, through the Gauntlet, up the Wall) or completing a task (putting balls in a basket, staying on a platform).

The Gladiators have names like Crush, Stealth, Venom and Fury -- and those are just the women. (Ba-da-ching!) Some of the contestants also get nicknames to encourage familiarity: daycare teacher Molivann Duy instantly became "Moly," although he was also "Spider Monkey." Their opponents make nasty faces and growl or howl and beat their breasts, but they are not scary -- they're like people you'd see dressed up at a theme park. (Hulk Hogan, who cohosts with boxer and former "Dancing With the Stars" contestant Laila Ali, has been cuddly forever; here he calls everyone "brother" or "sister.") Despite a bit of mild trash-talking, and the unavoidable heartbreak of defeat, there is more good feeling than not. No one was fed to a lion.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'American Gladiators'

Where: NBC

When: New episodes air 8 to 9 p.m. Mondays. A repeat of the premiere will be shown at 10 p.m. Sunday

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