American Ninja Warrior: What’s Wrong with This Picture?

American Ninja Warrior capitalism anewdomain
Written by Jason Dias

No one won the American Ninja Warrior title for years. Now someone has, and still we keep watching, transfixed by a setup that almost exactly mirrors circumstances in our lives, says Jason Dias. It’s the intersection of hope and hopelessness and impossible dreams.

aNewDomain — In the 1990s, we had American Gladiator. Ex-football stars hosted this show, which basically involved bodybuilders beating up athletic but non-steroidal people, using boffer sticks or pads. Athletes had to perform any number of weird tasks – like climbing up poles and putting foam balls into baskets – all while being attacked by massive, muscled men and women with smooth blond(e) hair and names like Nitro and Lace.

American Gladiator is dead. Nitro and Lace are mostly forgotten. And now, in their place, we have American Ninja Warrior. 

It’s kind of the same idea. Like AG, it has breathless hosts and an insanely difficult obstacle course. Only now there is no opposition.

On American Ninja Warrior, competition is about endurance, skill and time. It’s based loosely on parcour, or freerunning.

But now it’s based on hope disguising hopelessness, a perfect metaphor for so much that is wrong with our lives right now.

American Ninja Warrior anewdomain

Think about it.

If American Ninja Warrior contestants are compensated in any way, that’s a closely guarded secret. The contestants appear to work for free, for a remote chance at completing the course and taking away the million dollar bounty. They’re living on hope and the kindness of others, if they’re lucky, and they all think if they just do the right thing, they’ll win big. But then, when one actually manages to defeat the odds and make it, does he win?

Nah. Life isn’t fair, and American Ninja Warrior isn’t either.

Take this season. Sure, Isaac Caldiero completed all four finals courses and took away the prize money. He became the very first American Ninja Warrior winner and America exulted for him, knowing full well he wasn’t the only contestant to ever complete the course. Another guy was, but it was Caldiero to take the spoils.

Dozens of people compete at this contest. They line up for hours or even days for a chance to compete as a “walk on,” even if they are not accepted on the strength of an audition video. 

They are so devoted to the idea that they’ll be able to make it where no one has before that they train relentlessly, often building their own courses with replicas of the ANW obstacles or going to purpose-built gyms.

Each, at some point in the show, says “I’m goinAmerican Ninja Warrior anewdomaing to be the first American Ninja Warrior.” And then we watch, all full of schadenfreude, as their dreams get obliterated.

Except one of them was right this season. I don’t mean Caldiero. I mean the other contestant who was able to make it up the final obstacle, before Caldiero did. He conquered a course that was impossibly hard, that no one else before him had ever completed. 

For about six minutes, Geoff Britten was a millionaire.

But then Caldiero came along behind and beat his time by a few seconds, taking the title and the prize money. 

Sorry, Britten, you could almost hear Americans thinking. Them’s the breaks. And Britten went home totally and completely empty-handed. 

It’s a lot like life, as that old Depeche Mode song chanted back in 1984.

These athletes all work for no compensation. Like wage slaves, they accept the minimum possible reward for merely a chance at the big payoff. 

We all want to be rich, don’t we? And don’t most of us think that the way to get there is to slave away relentlessly at some low- or no-wage occupation.

The competitors on this show build their own gyms or pay to train in professional ones. When they aren’t up for the tasks on offer in the courses, they blame their failure on themselves.

That’s just like the rest of us operate. Even when there are three unemployed people for every job opening and the demands of potential employers grow ever more unrealistic, there are still people willing to go to school for eight years on their own dimes, taking out massive student loans and incurring health problems, just to qualify.

american ninja warrior anewdomain And in the end, there can only be one winner. 

As for Britten, he trained, sacrificed, devoted himself; did everything for his passion. And then someone else took the reward.

Caldiero was just fractionally better.

But the real winners here aren’t Caldiero or, even Britten. They’re the Esquire Network and NBC, a fact that is so obvious and intuitive, from experience it seems almost too obvious to mention. The rich get richer. And maybe some of us even find comfort in that.

As the show gets bigger and bigger season by season, EN and NBC rake in plenty of money on the apparently uncompensated efforts of the athletes. 

They appear to pay only the bounty for the quickest completion. 

And would you believe the show has been on for seven seasons without a victor. Yet we still watch. Because it all just seems too eerily familiar.

This is how we understand America to be. The small people make nothing or next to nothing. There are just enough rags-to-riches stories, but not too many. In the real world, there are, of course, NBA draftees and lottery winners, successful startups and so on. Their stories of success divert us from the ugly reality that there are millions of kids behind and beneath them, kids pinning their hopes of escaping poverty to making the team. Like so many capitalism casualities, they and we forget that most small business startups fail. In striving, they trick themselves into forgetting the unequal opportunities afforded by their births. And so we must trick ourselves, too.

On American Ninja Warrior, there are just enough winners to make us keep getting up in the morning to go to school on our own time and dime, to slave away at impossible dreams, to dream, to hope. To close our eyes and let that hope blind us to the truth.

The seasons of our life pass without the big winnings, and we keep playing. 

Congratulations, Isaac Caldiero. 

For aNewDomain, I’m Jason Dias.

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