A single television episode can exemplify the spirit of its time. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.

In 1987, when the NFL players went on strike, Dan Clark briefly became a Los Angeles Ram, following through on a football dream that had carried him through college ball and the European pro leagues. The job didn’t last, but roughly a year later Clark was back on a football field, as a featured extra on the HBO series 1st & Ten. Not long after that, he got an agent, Joe Kolkowitz, who specialized in finding bit parts for jocks and hunks. After a few months of making pennies as background beefcake on various TV shows, Clark was about to quit when he answered a casting-call ad in Backstage West, looking for athletes to take part in a new game show shooting at Universal Studios in Hollywood. That’s how Dan Clark became “Nitro”—one of the first American Gladiators.

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The concept behind American Gladiators was simple: Take the big bodies, colorful characters, and hard hits of professional wrestling, but put them into an actual competition. The contestants—also pre-selected for their physical fitness—competed in a series of challenges against the show’s cast of flashily attired, bulked-up Gladiators, hoping to score more points than opponents playing the same games against the same crew. Contestants and gladiators squared off in an oversized, futuristic arena, where they tried to knock each other down in elaborate obstacle courses. On TV this played a lot like the ABC’s 1970s “junk sports” series Superstars, crossed with Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.

Clark and the other Gladiators shot 13 first-season episodes in 1989, before anyone on the production team really knew whether this concept would work on TV. According to Clark’s memoir Gladiator: A True Story Of ‘Roids, Rage, And Redemption—and in the commentary track by Clark, Raye “Zap” Hollitt, and Jim “Laser” Starr on Shout! Factory’s American Gladiators: The Battle Begins DVD set—at first they didn’t play whole matches straight through. Instead, they taped all the footage they needed from each event, sometimes spending hours doing them over and over while waiting out the technical snafus common to a fledgling television production.

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Beyond the physical exhaustion of the Gladiators—who had to endure a procession of fresh contestants—the main problem with this setup was that the studio audience was drawn from tourists who’d paid good money to come to Universal Studios and then found themselves stuck at a taping of a show they didn’t know, watching a game that didn’t make any sense. (At a certain point, the staff stopped trying to fill all the seats and started painting faces on plywood to fool the camera.) In the conception stage, American Gladiators was much more fantastical, with the Gladiators themselves drawn as full-on, cartoony “characters,” and the arena presented as some kind of extra-dimensional realm, complete with an ominous hooded referee. The live audience found it all confusing.

But as the producers started shaping the footage, they discovered that the tournament itself was exciting, even without all the extra trappings. Beginning with the second half of season one—which featured an entirely new set of contestants—American Gladiators started playing up the sports angle and focusing less on the sword-and-sorcery. By the time the show was ready to start shooting the second half of its first season, a lot of the kinks had been ironed out and the weaker elements eliminated. All of which means that the mid-season “recap” show—a sort of greatest hits from the first tournament—stands now as a document of American Gladiators in its nascent form, before anyone involved knew that they were making one of the biggest syndicated TV hits of the 1990s.

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One indicator that this recap’s a relic is the presence of Joe Theismann, who was the play-by-play man and announcer for the first half of the season, before his color commentator Mike Adamle took over. In the DVD commentary, the Gladiators don’t have much to say about Theismann—it’s a pointed “no comment” all around—but they love Adamle, whom Nitro calls not just the voice but “the conscience” of the show. That dynamic is evident even here in Theismann’s final American Gladiators appearance, where he talks about personalities and body-slams while Adamle evaluates the contestants’ technique and guts. Hailing the tournament’s first champions, Adamle describes them as being Walter Mitty-like: just everyday weekend warriors, treating a made-up TV competition as though it were the Super Bowl.

This retrospective proceeds doggedly through each round, showing a few pivotal and/or awesome moments before noting the eventual winner and moving on. Each episode sent two men and two women through a series of events, all showcased again here: Powerball (a kind of full-contact basketball, but with the cylinder at waist-height), Breakthrough & Conquer (a combination of one-on-one football and Olympic wrestling), Joust (with players beating each other with padded sticks on a narrow, elevated walkway), Assault (a target-shooting course, with the contestant under heavy fire from a Gladiator), Human Cannonball (where the contestant swung across a pit and tried to knock the Gladiator into it), and The Eliminator (an especially perilous obstacle course). In the highlight show, these are linked by Theismann and Adamle’s commentary, and by the naggingly catchy, triumphant American Gladiators theme music—which on the DVD Nitro says he used to hear in his head when he was having sex with groupies.

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The eroticism of American Gladiators isn’t overpowering, but it’s not downplayed either. Just look at the way the intro describes Marisa “Lace” Pare, as “feminine, sexy, but always a lady,” as though those were all contrasting attributes. The video quality and the overall framing/styling of the character had a lot in common with the pornography of the time. The women on the show were dressed either in form-fitting, jiggle-enhancing leotards, or in glittery outfits that left a lot of skin exposed. (According to Zap, contestants used the skimpiness of the Gladiators’ costumes against them by trying to pull their tops down.) The men, meanwhile, were beefed-up and hyper-aggressive. Announcers and audience aside, each grappling match looked about one or two gyrations away from turning into screwing.

Seeing the same events and same Gladiators over and over exposes some of the show’s weaknesses, from the inadequacy of certain challenges (The Eliminator is too short and has too much of a chance element in its final “pick the door with no Gladiator” stretch) to a general flimsiness. In the early days, props collapsed, competitors took unnecessary falls off dangerously high platforms, and skinny-legged pretty boy Deron “Malibu” McBee got knocked down over and over because he didn’t understand the principles of Newtonian physics. In one of the most famous clips from the show, Malibu goes flying hilariously off the Human Cannonball dais because he doesn’t meet force with force.

During this first run of episodes, contestants and Gladiators alike worked themselves to exhaustion, sustaining painful injuries because the challenges hadn’t been properly tested—and also because they were being asked to compress a season’s worth of games into a couple of weeks of shooting. Zap describes the stress of standing at the end of an Eliminator “pick a door” corridor, hearing the pitter-patter of contestants’ feet and not knowing whether she was about to be hit. For their part, the players formed a bunker mentality, supporting each other as by turn they were beaten into submission by the events and by the Gladiators.

The most popular of the first slate of contestants was actor/screenwriter Billy Wirth, whom Theismann says “set himself apart” with his bad-boy attitude and long hair. But as Adamle notes, Wirth’s success was due largely to his ability to strategize. He’d find advantageous angles and try to beat the game rather than relying on brute strength alone. As a result, he rubbed some Gladiators the wrong way, and they started teaming up to punish him—until in his final episode he snapped and took a swing at Michael “Gemini” Horton. In an interview on the American Gladiators DVD, Wirth says that he was asked to come back on the show, but he declined because, “It was more dangerous than it looked.”

One big reason for that danger was because the Gladiators took their jobs seriously. Clark used to pump his co-stars up, football-style, by telling them that this arena was “their house,” and that no one should be able to push them around. Clark in particular bought into his role on the show, even when that meant injecting himself with dangerous levels of steroids to remain game-ready.

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In his memoir, Clark writes:

This is my refuge, the reason that I compete. It is all about the rush—the hits, the legal acts of physical violence that make the crowd roar and make me grin from ear to ear. The rush lasts for only an infinitesimal period of time, but while it is happening, I revel in a make-believe world where normal rules do not apply. I know that when it is over and the cruel reality of life sets in, the joke will be on me, but I don’t care. Everybody craves the incomparable power of being a Gladiator—the potent experience of rising to the heavens, however briefly, igniting and blowing up any dark, hidden places within.

On the Shout! Factory commentary tracks, the Gladiators make the claim that theirs was the first reality competition show, but that’s a stretch. The series didn’t really reveal any more about its competitors—Gladiator or civilian—than a typical American game show. And even the fantasy/arena elements of American Gladiators weren’t completely original. The Japanese variety/game show Takeshi’s Castle featured extreme physical challenges in the late 1980s, as did Nickelodeon’s Double Dare (on a milder scale). In the 1970s, the likes of Whew! and The Magnificent Marble Machine had oversized sets and high concepts; and as mentioned, American Gladiators likely wouldn’t have existed without the popularity of pro wrestling.

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Still, for all the American Gladiators elements that are of their time—from the massive hair to the show becoming a household name via the now largely outdated syndication model—it represented at least the rumblings of something new. Clark pretty well pegged what was afoot in his memoir, recalling, “Critics think it’s another signpost on the road to the apocalypse. They think Gladiators is a watershed for everything that is bad about TV, the media, and our obsession with fame.” And while those 1990s critics that Clark’s referring to were being overly alarmist, American Gladiators did sketch out a blueprint for the reality TV to come. One of the great not-so-thinly veiled illusions of reality series is that the people in front of the camera are just ordinary folks who’ve been recruited to be on television, when actually a lot of them are actors who were sent to the job by their agents. Clark writes in his book that he became Nitro in order to keep his Hollywood hopes afloat for a few more months, while many of the contestants were ex-athletes like himself, looking to prove themselves one more time. So American Gladiators—like so many reality competitions that followed—became a way to bypass a system that some would-be stars had already tried and failed to navigate.

Meanwhile, the show itself discovered something about television and the television audience that would serve the reality genre well in the decades to come. Around the same time that American Gladiators debuted, ABC started airing America’s Funniest Home Videos, and when it depleted its viewers’ supply of family bloopers, it shifted to clips that had been clearly staged—and in some cases even commissioned by the AFHV producers. The point was to maintain a steady stream of outrageousness, with no lulls. Similarly, American Gladiators served up the highlights of an actual sporting event without the slow grind between moments of hard-hitting action. Because it was pre-taped and edited—and because of the way its events were designed—the show could guarantee unceasing violence. (Or, in AG’s own lingo, it promised something “visually interesting, action-oriented.”)

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The mid-season recap episode then was, in a way, American Gladiators at its purest: just one bone-rattling hit after another, repeated multiple times, in slow motion. This too was something the reality shows of today have picked up on, not just with their reunion specials and best-of episodes but even in the regular installments, which try to make the most of the juiciest moments. Episodes build to a shocker, then show the lead-up again after a commercial break, then cut to confessional interviews that reflect on what we’ve just watched. Nothing’s wasted. Everything’s recycled.

Next time… on A Very Special Episode: Happy Days, “Hollywood”