Knife or Death Is the Most Embarrassing Reality TV Show Netflix Has Ever Aired, And I Can’t Stop WatchingPhotos via Netflix TV Features Reality Tv
Since the earliest days of ridiculing poor singers on the audition episodes of American Idol, reality TV in the U.S. has often thrived on humiliating its own contestants… whether or not those people even realize they’re being mocked. It is a cruel sport, the result of some genuinely misanthropic producers going out of their way to find and highlight embarrassing human beings who are pumped full of false confidence and bravado, and then sent forth to fail in spectacular (and therefore entertaining) fashion. For all their delusion, many were goaded into embarrassing themselves in front of an audience because they understandably dreamed of pursuing a fantasy that millions and millions of people share: Being a major music star. It’s not hard to sympathize with them, because it’s easy to imagine sharing the same dream.
Less easy to imagine: Being a 50-something adult man whose greatest dream in life is to cosplay as a samurai, shuffling through an obstacle course as you gasp for air and bend your most precious possession out of shape, beating your katana against giant, unyielding blocks of ice until you’ve wrecked the one thing in life that you love. This is the stuff of Knife or Death, the single most embarrassing reality series to ever air on Netflix. Each episode is an unmitigated disaster of hubris, delusion, misanthropy, and toxic masculinity—and after watching a few newly uploaded episodes out of morbid curiosity, I now find myself completely unable to look away. I am entirely under the spell of Knife or Death, in awe of both how the show takes advantage of deluded contestants, and how genuinely pathetic most of those contestants are. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt this much secondhand embarrassment watching a TV series.
What is Knife or Death, exactly? Well, it’s a spinoff from History’s long-running Forged in Fire, itself a somewhat silly reality competition series featuring amateur bladesmiths attempting to replicate historical or fictional weapons. But where Forged in Fire is a genuine display of often extremely impressive craftsmanship—how many of us could really forge a quality sword in our garage?—Knife or Death takes the last few minutes of a Forged in Fire episode, when they try out the weapon, and then makes an entire competition series out of it. This is a show about competitive chopping, what participants would refer to as “BladeSports,” which throws a group of competitors against a fantastical obstacle course in which they must chop and slash their way to the finish line with their chosen weapon. Or at least they would chop their way to the finish line, except for the fact that most end up failing as they catastrophically overestimate their own endurance, lack any of the necessary technique, or break the very weapon they’re supposed to be demonstrating their aptitude in. Knife or Death is a ceaseless parade of failure. It’s also the show’s defining quality.
Granted, the spectacularly embarrassing nature of Knife or Death seemed to pass largely unremarked upon in its original run on History, with three seasons airing in 2018-2019. But like so many other shows to appear a few years later on Netflix, the clout of the world’s largest streaming service could theoretically give this clusterfuck a garish second life online. And I hope it does, because more people need to see the madness contained in any given Knife or Death episode.
As a viewer, you know you’re in good hands when you realize that Knife or Death isn’t open to just previous Forged in Fire contestants, or even solely to amateur blacksmiths. No, that’s not it at all—although many of the competitors do indeed craft their own blades, some of the contestants are seemingly just people off the street who happened to buy a sword that week. I am not exaggerating here in the slightest: There are contestants on Knife or Death who confirm that they have essentially zero experience handling swords or knives, who purchased blades online and are now excited to run around and chop things on camera. These contestants perform about as well as you would expect them to, often bombing out early on the obstacle course, or breaking their weapon. That is, if they’re allowed to compete at all—because each blade must be inspected by the show’s “blade inspection specialist” before they run the course, it’s also possible for contestants to be rejected before they ever even swing a knife. And trust me when I say that seeing a crestfallen, middle-aged guy rejected and prevented from using his crappy, glued-together knife due to safety concerns is just as funny in practice as it is in theory.
Even the folks who forged their own weapons rarely fare any better, because the vast majority of them massively overestimate their own skill and stamina. They start out as confident, cosplaying warriors, draping themselves in medieval garb or historical clothing—one guy proclaims that he’s “been in 3,000 sword fights in armor”—and minutes later they’re gasping for air, or ineffectually stabbing a rubber bucket full of gravel over and over, before being utterly defeated by a raw chicken dangling from a string.
Repeatedly, you see these guys humbled in humiliating fashion as their fantasy of looking like a sword-wielding badass is dramatically shattered. Multiple contestants necessitate the show to even call in medical attention, so afraid are the producers that these guys are about to keel over from a heart attack in the middle of the course. One contestant in the second season is taken away on a stretcher after two obstacles, with host Bill Goldberg (yes, the ex-wrestler) helpfully informing the rest of the contestants later on that the guy was taken to a local hospital, just “as a precaution.”
Perhaps the ultimate bit of emasculation on Knife or Death, though, is the competitors who forged their own knives, only to be let down by their shoddy bladesmithing. This is an aspect of the show that can’t be overlooked—it’s filled with men who obsess over masculinity and the phallic imagery of forging a weapon, which infuses their blades as proxy objects that contain so very much of their own self worth and ego. Like Sauron pouring his will into The One Ring, they bring forth this totem of their manhood and offer it up for inspection by the show’s expert bladesmith… only to have all the physical flaws and imperfections of their knife detailed to them in crippling detail. It’s like watching the sword-based equivalent of someone’s typically private “I’m naked in high school taking a math quiz” nightmare. And when they venture out onto the course and then snap that knife in half? Jesus, you can only imagine how it will fuel their insecurity complexes for literal decades to come.
A lot of people think that safety pads are the most important accessories for competitive chopping, but turns out it’s actually medieval robes.
What’s worse is that the producers and hosts clearly know exactly what they’re doing, and they’re all too happy to let the contestants embarrass themselves while not-so-subtly chiding their performance from the sidelines. Goldberg and co-host Tu Lam, a former US Army Special Forces Soldier, seem to enjoy throwing shade at the contestants when they’re out of earshot, resulting in sound bytes like all of the following:
— “He needs to stop before he hurts himself.”
— “He started off strong, and it only went downhill from there.”
— “He’s sucking right now… sucking air, that is.”
— “That’s one of the worst times we’ve seen.”
These quips are rendered via some of the worst audio recording and ADR—which is somehow even worse—that I’ve heard in the last decade. Watching via Netflix, it feels impossible that this was actually a professionally shot TV series that ran for three seasons on cable, but the technical incompetence of Knife or Death also feels oddly appropriate, mirroring the procession of embarrassment endured by the competitors. It’s as if everyone involved in every aspect of the show was simply flying by the seat of their pants, projecting a sloppy, messy aura of chaos that permeates every frame of what we see on screen. Not since Most Extreme Elimination Challenge have contestants on a “competition” show suffered such indignity, largely of their own doing.
And so, if the thought of a clip reel of overconfident men learning they’re not nearly as good at hitting things with swords as they assumed they would be sounds amusing to you, by all means fire up Netflix to enjoy the well-honed schadenfreude of Knife or Death.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer whose knife-wielding experience ends at the boundaries of the home kitchen. You can follow him on Twitter for more film, TV, and drink writing.
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