Two weeks ago NBC’s American Ninja Warrior bested The Bachelorette in the coveted 18–49 ratings demo, after the two raced neck-and-neck all summer. Last Monday night the finale episode pushed The Bachelorette to victory again, but ANW has proven to be the summer’s surprising hit. Its popularity has confounded Slate’s television critic, who asked, “What’s the source of the show’s hypnotic appeal?”
Good question, but Slate offered no answer, except the fascination of “watching dozens of men and women fall off obstacles that could only be dreamed up by a borderline sadistic ringmaster very familiar with the interactions of muscle groups.” But that explanation doesn’t do the show justice.
American Ninja Warrior, now in its seventh season, is the big-budget American version of the Japanese original in which contestants run an insanely demanding obstacle course (even the original version has produced only three winners in 31 seasons.) Currently hosted by commentators Matt Iseman and Akbar Gbaja-Biamila, ANW features amateur (and occasionally professional) athletes taking on a torturous array of physical challenges.
The contestants try to survive increasingly difficult stages of obstacle courses to earn a trip to the finals at “Mount Midoriyama” in Las Vegas where, as Slate pointed out, no competitor has successfully completed even the third of four possible levels.
Some of the extraordinarily demanding challenges require contestants to use only a crossbar to haul themselves up a tall “salmon ladder”; to swing from nunchuks suspended over water; to use only their fingertips to cross a lengthy narrow ledge; to run up a daunting, 14-foot “warped wall”; and to overcome other obstacles that all require superhuman levels of agility, flexibility, grip strength, and most importantly, mental discipline.
But its popularity can be attributed to more than just the expectation of watching people dunked ignominiously in the water underneath each obstacle. First, rather than the staged melodrama and backstabbing of many reality TV competitions, ANW instead emphasizes skill, sportsmanship, and the drive for personal excellence. There are plenty of “guilty pleasure” programs (like The Bachelorette), and an abundance of reality shows that seem to reward bad behavior, but too few that touch viewers in an inspirational, uplifting way. ANW presents mostly ordinary (but extraordinarily disciplined) men and women striving for extraordinary achievements, which compels viewers not only to cheer them on but also to want to give it a go themselves (the number of applicants is up almost ten times from the previous season). Even I was tempted to try out for the show, until I came to my senses.
Second, apart from the astounding physical demands, it features a variety of competitors from all walks of life, from the young (you must be over 21) to the old (the oldest contestant was 72) – whose personal stories and motivations, presented in short profiles, are often very touching. Some, for example, compete in order to serve as good role models for their children, or to honor the memory of a lost loved one. Yes, a one million dollar cash prize awaits the winner, but it is clear that most if not all of the contestants are motivated not primarily by money but by more personal reasons, and by the ambition to earn the Holy Grail title of the first American Ninja Warrior.
Third, the show is devoid of the ugly arrogance evident in too many other reality TV competitions. Instead, the community of ANW athletes exhibits a camaraderie, mutual support, and good sportsmanship that are too often lacking even in professional sports.
Fourth, the show teaches perseverance and how to fail gracefully. Surely it would crush one’s spirit to train hard all year and come so far only to fall short. And yet the contestants rarely react with anything less than momentary disappointment and a smile. They often tell the interviewer immediately afterward that they intend to get back to training and try again next year.
Fifth, ANW is a welcome, family entertainment alternative. I watch the show with my five-year-old and two-year-old daughters; we all find it fun and exciting and even inspirational. Maybe one of them will be the first American Ninja Warrior.
In short, to answer Slate’s question: we love American Ninja Warrior because it ignites in us the desire to be and do our best, to reach higher and achieve more. And that beats a guilty pleasure like The Bachelorette any day.