OPINION: Imagine wandering down to your local adventure playground and watching someone trying to get all the way around the assault course without falling off.
Then watching someone else make an attempt. And again, and again, until you’d seen 20 people have a go. Then turning up again the next day to watch it all again.
As a television formula, it hardly sounds compelling. But Australian Ninja Warrior – which is, in essence, a show about over-confident athletic types trying to defeat one giant assault course – proves to be a triumph.
Originally a Japanese, then an American, then a British format, the Australian version (I can’t see any prospect of an NZ imitation, given the assault course looks as if it cost more than $5) has that brash, slightly irresponsible Aussie air to it, and a curiously addictive quality which is hard to pin down.
One appeal is the glorious 80s throwback commentary box pairing of sports journos Rebecca Maddern and Ben Fordham. They dress as if it’s 1985, all bold suits, power hair and shoulderpads, and talk like they’re calling the Ashes in a style long parodied by films like Dodgeball but here brought back into serious fashion. The perfect foil is their sideline eye, former cricketer Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff, who blusters semi-coherently in his broad Lancastrian accent and confuses the competitors.
Another is the delight of seeing the way the competitors confound expectations. There’s a pleasing buzz of schadenfreude as the big, muscly Crossfitters tend to get an early bath when their bulging biceps burn out quickly, while the lithe, lean rock climbers, stuntmen and dancers don’t have the latest lululemon but conquer the course nonetheless.
A particularly pleasing moment was when a ‘social media influencer’ specialising in male fashion found his six pack no use in preventing an early flame out. We were told history was in the making when Andrea Hah became the first woman competitor – the show is somewhat skewed against them – to beat the upward-sloping ‘warped wall’.
The giant set on Sydney Harbour’s Cockatoo Island contains what resembles a long, World War Two-style trench which the punters must make their approach along (after we first see a pre-recorded track spruiking how amazingly fit they are and how they are certain to win), flexing their muscles and gurning for the camera before they arrive in the arena.
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That has a pleasingly half-finished look, with scaffolding and gym crash mats everywhere, and open bleachers housing the hyped-up crowd. Maddern and Fordham begin their peanut-butter-smooth patter, and the contestant takes on a changing course of seven to nine obstacles, most of them depending on massive upper body strength as they swing and hang off ropes, rings and shelves. Fail on an obstacle, and you drop into a tank of water and have Flintoff’s microphone in your face before you’ve even shaken the water off your face.
The heats are done, the semi-finals are on now and apparently, the best 21 of them will head to Mount Midoriyama for Thursday night’s final (7.30pm on TV3), a place often referred to, but never really explained but which looms as some sort of valhalla for the fitness freak, supplied with unlimited protein powder and chin-up bars. Season two has already been commissioned. I’d love to see a Kiwi version. I’m sure the council wouldn’t mind if they used the swings down the road.