Wednesday, September 16, 2015

American Ninja Warrior: Adversity and Heroism

On Monday night's broadcast, for the first time since the series began in 2009, a competitor has won American Ninja Warrior (ANW).  For those unfortunate souls unfamiliar with the sport (and it is a sport), American Ninja Warrior is an adaptation of a Japanese game show in which contestants face an incredibly challenging obstacle course.  In the American version, men and women compete at city courses across the country.  Contestants who successfully compete the city course then head to Las Vegas to encounter a four-part finals course, which culminates with a climb up Mount Midoriyama.  This season had a very successful run over the summer, often becoming the top show for Monday nights and usually one of the top shows of the week.

Until this week's finale, no one had ever made it past the third part of the finals course.  This year, two men successfully scaled Mount Midoriyama: Geoff Britten and Isaac Caldiero. Because Caldiero reached the top of Mount Midoriyama a bit faster than Britten, he won the grand prize of $1 million.

A few points about ANW:

It embodies that classic American theme of assimilation and adaptation.  Not only is it an import from Japan, but competitors in ANW come from all walks of life.  A middle-aged immigrant from Cambodia (Sam Sann) competes on an equal playing field with a sprightly 25-year-old (Kacy Catanzaro).  Veterans, stay-at-home moms, stock brokers, busboys, and carpenters are all alike on the course.

It casts light on the heroism of day-to-day lives.  While navigating an upside-down climbing wall is pretty cool, the contestants of ANW demonstrate that heroism is not just for the cameras.  For instance, Houston's Abel Gonzalez adopted his brothers and helped raise them.  Utah's Michael Stanger began physical training to help care for his wife, who has a rare and debilitating physical condition.  The broadcasts of ANW remind us of our profound capacity for resilience in the face of obstacles.

It shows how challenges can help us rise above ourselves.  The biggest competition an ANW contestant faces is not others but himself or herself.  Every person who completes a given stage is guaranteed to go on to the next one, so the emphasis is not on beating the other contestants but on beating the course.  Again, until this year, no one had ever won the title of "American Ninja Warrior" or the cash prize because no one had been able to complete the whole course sequence.  The difficulty of the courses encouraged the top competitors to train throughout the year in order to master the likely obstacles.  These Americans did not wilt in the face of adversity but instead worked harder and rose to the occasion.

Especially in today's outrage culture, cultural criticism tends to emphasize things that upset, alienate, or depress us.  But we should also take a minute to celebrate cultural forms that affirm what is good and noble.  American Ninja Warrior is not slash-and-burn reality TV but focuses on ordinary people who do things that might cause a dislocated shoulder but that also are kind of amazing.

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