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TV Series Review

My second-grade gym teacher was an old drill sergeant. He made us run and tumble until we nearly fainted. If we were too slow, he'd pelt us with balls—the big, rubber kind that left a mark on your back. He believed that unless someone was throwing up, we weren't working hard enough.

I suspect that when that old gym teacher allowed himself to dream—to envision new, more terrible ways to permanently scar little second-graders—he might've imagined crafting an obstacle course like those found in American Ninja Warrior.

A fixture on G4, the show is now a summertime experiment for NBC. It's a strange amalgamation of sport, reality programming and the circus. It's  American Idol without the singing,  Wipeout without the gleefully mean-spirited narration. This is American Ninja Warrior, the latest entertainment import from Japan—and it might be one of the cleaner shows on television.

During the program's summertime run (preliminary rounds air on G4, while the high-stakes events show up on NBC), contestants will lift walls, leap chasms, swing from bars and scramble up cargo nets in ever more difficult obstacle courses—competing against the clock, the course and each other for the right to scale the man-made Mount Midoriyama, the mother of all obstacle courses. The Mount, created for the original Japanese Ninja Warrior, has succumbed to only three contestants … in 15 years.

Hosts Matt Iseman and Jonny Moseley make a big deal of the fact that no American—not NFL players, not former Olympians—has mastered that mountain. This year, they say, may be different: For the first time ever, Midoriyama's being reconstructed on American soil, meaning the Yanks have home-course advantage. But even if they don't punch Midoriyama's buzzer in time, they still have a chance to win a $500,000 grand prize.

You can think of American Ninja Warrior as a cross between a real sport and ABC's Wipeout—a reality show for guys who never really saw the point of American Idol or Dancing With the Stars. While there are a handful of laughably overmatched contestants in the qualifying rounds (whose runs at Midoriyama end with embarrassing splashdowns), it's not long before the competitors are winnowed down to bona fide athletes.

The obstacles make it impossible for anyone to succeed based purely on size or strength or agility. While certain sorts of athletes seem primed to succeed here (parkour experts are particularly in vogue), world-class gymnasts might slip navigating the "bungee bridge" (an obstacle where contestants have to cross a watery chasm via platforms made of bungee cords), and free-running experts might falter while navigating the salmon ladder (where you hang from a parallel bar and must move the bar, and yourself, upward by way of a series of grooves). It might be a mild-mannered fisherman or golf landscaper who turns in the best time. And because of that, the show plays up the inspirational back stories of contestants—some of whom have faced real-life obstacles that make Midoriyama seem like a metallic molehill.

Are there any downsides to an upbeat sport that demands your very best effort just to give it a go? Well, the series sometimes actively encourages everyday ninja wannabes to keep up the practicing ... by showing people doing some pretty dangerous stunts in public places like parks and bridges. Episodes are often rated TV-PG for a few profane outbursts. Male contestants like to strip off their shirts to show off their ripped selves when they're victorious, and females sometimes compete in skimpy swimwear.


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Episode Reviews

American-Ninja-Warrior: 6-4-2012
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