What I Learned from Watching a Season of ‘American Ninja Warrior’

     February 5, 2018

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I’m always looking for shows that allow me to unwind, and reality TV is a nice place to do that, although most American reality TV seems based on interpersonal conflict. There’s always someone there who’s “not there to make friends.” Hence my love for The Great British Baking Show and why I watched an entire season of the NBC sports series American Ninja Warrior.

The show first came to my attention when I would flip through the TV listings and inevitably see a marathon running, but because titles are abbreviated, I assumed a network was running a marathon of the 1985 Michael Dudikoff action movie. When I clicked over, I saw people running obstacle courses while two incredibly enthusiastic commentators (currently Matt Iseman and Akbar Gbaja-Biamila) discussed what was happening on screen.

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Image via NBC

For those who are unfamiliar with American Ninja Warrior (ANW), it’s a spinoff of the Japanese TV series Sasuke. ANW began in 2009 and is now headed towards its tenth season. Each episode features various contestants (or “ninjas” as the contestants are sometimes called) running through an obstacle course that tests their strength, speed, and agility. Unlike a show like Wipeout where contestants have next to no chance of making it through the course and wear safety gear for their various “wipeouts”, ANW is a real challenge where physically fit people must complete difficult obstacles in order to hit a buzzer at the end of the course. The show is divided up into three sections. Season 9 ran through six cities and each city had a qualifying round with six obstacles, a finals round with four additional obstacles, and then those that made it through finals would head to Las Vegas for an even more challenging course. If a contestant can make it through all four stages at Vegas, they’ll win $1 million. Sprinkled throughout each episodes are stories about the contestants whether it’s personal challenges they’ve faced in the last year or triumphs they’ve accomplished.

On the surface, ANW is entertaining simply because it’s fun to watch athletes do incredible things. While there’s a bit of redundancy throughout episodes because every contestant is running the same course, you still get wrapped up in the effort because they’re doing things that are clearly difficult whether it’s jumping a ring across a gap or the salmon ladder or some other fiendishly difficult obstacle. Always in the back of your mind, there’s the thought, “These are just regular people, and if I trained hard, I could be on this show.” And then you go back to your plate of nachos and be like, “THAT’S NO WAY TO MAKE A DISMOUNT.”

But when you watch an entire season of ANW, it becomes clear that the producers have given the show its own little universe. No athlete on the show is as famous as Simone Biles or Mike Trout, but they’re superstars within the universe that ANW has created. So contestants like Jessie Graff, Joe Moravsky, Drew Dreschel, Daniel Gil, Kacy Catanzaro and more are treated like conquering heroes. The genius of ANW is the understanding that the reason we watch sports isn’t just for athletic accomplishment, but to root for certain individuals, and if those individuals keep coming back, then they become stars within the sport, and thus viewer feel a kinship with someone like Moravsky, a weatherman from Connecticut by day, but in the world of ANW, he’s an all-star.

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Television