Bread and Circuses

American Gladiators gives the ancient blood sport a Hollywood update

If there's one thing in television programming that's brought me pure, unadulterated joy during the writers' strike, it's the revival of American Gladiators. I admit to watching a ton of it growing up. It was a fun, cheesy game show of brute force, the trials well-known by the spectators, and the contestants forgettable pawns in service of the spectacle itself.

In the spirit of not fixing it if it ain't broke, the 2008 version of American Gladiators, which closes with a two-hour season finale on Sunday, takes full advantage of the big, dumb brilliance of the original but doesn't get bogged down by its safety-scissors approach to ancient blood sport. (The current show provides plenty of padding for its contestants, of course, but it embraces the goofiness of the effect.)

The new American Gladiators also has something much better: a budget for the set. It's still an expanse of red-and-blue vinyl-coated foam, as far as the eye can see in almost every event, but where former face-offs left you feeling like you were watching the baddest wrestling match in a high-school gymnasium ever, the new and improved AG plays out those battles around and above the baddest high-school swimming pool ever. Watching anyone fall the disappointing distance of only their height onto a tumbling mat can't hold a candle to the dramatic plummet and splash of a regular-gym-buff-Joe—and giant stunt man alike—not only suffering defeat, but getting totally drenched in the process. A measly blast of dry ice used to signify victory; now there's the thrill of seeing an impossibly huge gladiator flung airborne by a harness and chucked into a watery fate.

Challenges like Wall and Powerball remain unchanged, but the money spent on props elsewhere bolsters the appeal of the show: the aforementioned wrestling circle has been replaced by a suspended platform that shifts with the fighters' movements, adding difficulty to an already daunting task of ordinary ambitious folk going head-to-head with several monstrous piles of muscle.

Which brings us to the gladiators themselves. The original show didn't do much to differentiate between these immovable objects, leaving them nearly as anonymous as the contestants. Their big builds and blond coifs were all similar enough to make them more or less interchangeable. The new AG capitalizes on that mass and brings back all the pro-wrestling bluster that gladiator names like Lace and Nitro were always meant to have. Now we're blessed with personae like the eyeliner-wearing, Skynyrd-chops-sporting, baying-at-the-spotlights Wolf and the unimpeachably awesome 6'1" Hellga, who looks exactly like you imagine. Even her milkmaid braids are the size of your biceps.

That interest in highlighting personalities isn't always a good thing, though. Your average contender's preliminary trash talk is only as entertaining as the equally predictable "It's a lot harder than it looks" comment that follows defeat. The hosts do little to help them along—Laila Ali stands as a gorgeous grin of an Amazonian lousy-pun-generating counterpart to Hulk Hogan's routine as a Muppet with Barbie-doll hair sewn into a do-rag that says "brother" while pumping its fist.

Regardless, whether interviews reveal a participant to be just a fun-loving guy in ad sales or a cowgirl trying to win her mother a ticket out of the trailer park, the playing field is what counts. Each task gives the sense that these men and women are seriously working their butts off, from dodging 100-pound bags on the suspended bridge to writhing desperately in mid-air to wrangle free from Venom's legs clamped around their torsos. And when early contestant Bonnie Blanco began the Eliminator course by slamming her head into the pipes that shoot flames across the surface of the pool, she shook it off and completed the course, her face covered in blood. She may have lost, but she looked fierce.

From the warriors themselves to the objects hurled and climbed to the rush of racing the clock, American Gladiators is just plain big. Whoever wins or loses, whether you root for speed or strength, pluck or prowess, the whole thing has a majesty of scale. When it's gone, it won't be missed. But while it's around, viva Hellga.