Competitive reality television thrives on provoking one of two reactions from its audience: “Oh, I could totally do that,” or “Oh… I could NEVER do that.”
So You Think You Can Dance? No, I do not! Not without training! I could NEVER do that. Dancing With the Stars? OK, I couldn’t do that well, but the way that disco ball of good vibes and hard training is set up, I could totally do it some. Chopped? I mean, don’t put on camera on me, but I could totally do that. Beat Bobby Flay? Look: NO ONE can do that. But… I do have a showstopping browned butter shortbread recipe, and he is weak in pastry.
Your mileage may vary on any one of those franchises, but I stand by the premise—for them and any other competitive reality series out there, most people will know instinctively within the first few minutes which camp they fall into. Either you sit rapt because you just know you could go toe-to-toe with any of the schmos that passed the audition, or you sit rapt because you can’t imagine a situation in which you could possibly accomplish the thing happening on your screen.
But then there is American Ninja Warrior, NBC’s high-flying, limit-defying, walk-on-welcoming, American community-loving version of Japan’s cultural behemoth, SASUKE, with its four-stage obstacle course that starts with simple balance steps that, man, it sure seems like anyone could do but ends in a 75-foot rope climb, which literally fewer than three American competitors have done in 9 years.
Here is the full Stage 3 + 4 run from one of them, Isaac Caldiero, who completed the climb faster than fellow Stage 4 winner, Geoff Britten, and became the only ninja in nine years to win the competition’s promised $1,000,000 prize:
Like… I could I could NEVER do that. But also, he built one of the obstacles in his parents’ backyard to train on. I have access to parents. I have access to a backyard. I have arms. If that’s not the definition of “OK…I guess???? I could?? also?? do??? that?????” then, like, what is?
And that’s American Ninja Warrior’s whole deal: Making what looks impossible possible, and convincing everyone watching—young and old, male and female, already fit, not-at-all fit, or fresh-out-of-medical-hell—that with a positive attitude, a strong support network, and (sorry) an intense amount of hard physical work, personal excellence is absolutely achievable. Sure, maybe the rest of us won’t be reaching the top of Mount Midoriyama (the majority of the professional ninjas don’t make it there), or even making it past the steps in Stage 1’s first balance obstacle, but that, the show insists, shouldn’t stop us from trying, from testing our own physical limits and seeing what personal bests we might achieve.
What American Ninja Warrior does, that is, is make the argument that anybody is capable of greatness, on American Ninja Warrior or off. And that Platonically anodyne message has resulted in an explosion of ninja-passion in millions of American living rooms, families not just watching together, but training together—and sometimes even going on to compete in a city qualifier, themselves, like “Ninja Mom” Jessica Clayton:
It’s not just the inspiring success story “packages” that make American Ninja Warrior’s argument at universal potential effective, though. It is also how relatively young the sport is (yes, despite its skeleton of boobtube spectacle, it is absolutely a sport), and how many opportunities that youth opens up that just aren’t available in legacy sports.
One example of this institutional flexibility is on the cultural level, in the fact that American Ninja Warrior puts all ages, genders, and years of expertise up against each other at once. Some of the most impressive competitors each year are well past the retirement age in other sports. Some are absolute unknowns who have walked on after waiting weeks for the opportunity. Many (though not as many as the promos might lead you to believe) are women. And they all compete on the same course, with the same obstacles. In fact, executive producer Kent Weed is proudly on the record about height differentials being the only element for which an obstacle will be adjusted. “I think there’s a big difference between gender and physical dissimilarities,” he told SB Nation’s American Ninja Warrior vertical in response to their question about the show’s continued mixing of male and female competitors. “What we try to do is to make the course even and fair for everybody, I think, regardless of size and shape and gender. The gender doesn’t really play into that.” This followed his note that in 2017’s Philadelphia qualifiers, four women qualified for the finals on their own steam, head-to-head with the men (as opposed to simply being in the top 5 women in the qualifier, who automatically move on to the finals as of a Season Nine rule change presumably meant to encourage more female competitors). “I think it’s because they’re methodical in how they treat the course,” Weed said in that same interview. “They’re not necessarily stronger, but they can be smarter at times.”
The youth of American Ninja Warrior as a sport also means that the field of enthusiasm-generating “new records” is wide open. In 2014, Kacy Catanzaro became the first woman to make it up the Warped Wall. In 2015, Geoff Britten became the first American ninja to complete Stage 3, and then to complete Stage 4; a few runs later, Isaac Caldiero set the new world record time climbing the rope of Stage 4. In 2016, Jessie Graff became the first woman to complete Stage 1. In the 2017 USA vs. The World international competition, she became the first woman to complete Stage 2 (seen above). This year’s competition dropped the minimum age of competitors to 19; this month, Mathis “The Kid” Owhadi became the youngest ninja to complete Stage 1. Last year, meanwhile, Richard Talavera, 70, became the oldest competitor to complete an obstacle, while this year, veteran ninja Jon Stewart (not that one) became the oldest competitor to complete the qualifying course at age 56… in the very same qualifier as Mathis Owhadi.
This is not to say that there are no limits as to who can compete on American Ninja Warrior. On a physical level, the obstacles, requiring as they do both upper body strength and lower body agility, still presume a baseline of able-bodiedness that will preclude most athletes who use a wheelchair or who have prosthetic limbs (although not
all). On an it’s-still-television level, there are the vagaries of the superficially visual- and emotional-driven industry to consider, which, when matched to the 2-hour broadcast limit, makes for a depressing return-on-investment for even the lucky few who make the first cut (out of, this year, 70,000-plus) to compete in the first place: Out of 120 competitors in each city, only 20 will make it to air, and half of those are likely to be fan favorites like Jessie Graff, Drew Dreschel, and Flip Rodriguez. There are people who have competed for years and never been on air for the dumbest reality TV reasons (“Either their story isn’t unique enough or they fall on the third obstacle and it’s not that interesting,” according, depressingly, to Weed. “They don’t have any fans. There’s not much to go on. Not much content. Not much meat of the story.”), while Stage 4 winner Geoff Britten’s follow-up run is aired, despite him goofing up early and slipping on the first obstacle.
For would-be ninjas whose interest lies not just in the athletic challenge, but in the possible fame, that last statistic might be a bummer, but the show makes clear that those are not the types of ninjas who will go far. Of the legacy ninjas—Drew Dreschel, Jessie Graff, Geoff Britten, Najee Richardson, Meagan Martin, etc.—not one appears to prioritize image over performance. Neither do they prioritize personal victory over collective excellence. For athletes training at the level the American Ninjas do, on a course as wildly inconstant and unpredictable as American Ninja Warrior’s is, they all recognize that any success one of them has is a success for everyone else. They share in each other’s every joy, pump each other up after every fall, never resent the success of someone who bests them, and just in general model for the audience what healthy competition looks like—which in these fractious times, in which every interaction with another human being feels breaths away from being a vicious argument to be won, is not a bad thing to be reminded of.
So, you want a solid show to bond with your family over? You want a show that inspires you, like Isaac Caldiero, to build practice obstacles in your own backyard? You want a show that will remind you that no matter who you are, you can have a conversation with your body and find some way to love it for all it can do for you, whatever it can do for you?
That show is American Ninja Warrior. And oh, you could totally do that.
The Miami Qualifiers of American Ninja Warrior air tonight at 8 p.m. on NBC. Beginning June 18, the remaining City Qualifiers, Finals, and Nationals will air Mondays at 8 p.m. Individual runs are available to watch any time online.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.