Mel Brooks used to say of the late Sid Caesar that he was powerful enough to “kill a Buick” with a single punch to the grill. The professional arm wrestlers who populate AMC’s newest reality-subculture show do just about everything but pummel Buicks to death. They hoist weights and do pull-ups and drag tractors around, while grunting and screaming and making kabuki-demon faces. They belong to teams with names like the Sacramento Arm Benders and the Baton Rouge Roughnecks—at least, I assume that these words, which flash onscreen when they appear, are team names—and they do these things in order to prepare for those special days when they can all get together inside an abandoned repair shop and arm-wrestle, pairing off in a series of “best three out of five” bouts, for a grand purse of $1,000, which the winning team splits five ways. (There are also prizes of $250 each to the winners of the individual contests.) The show offers plenty of evidence that these people, in addition to whatever other likable and admirable qualities each of them may possess, are nuts, but it would still be fun to turn them loose on the cast of Comic Book Men.
The premiere episode centers on a long-standing rivalry between Mike Selearis, the star of New York City Arms Control, and Kenny Hughes, of Sacramento. With his bad head and intense glare, Selearis resembles the X-Files and Sons of Anarchy actor Mitch Pileggi, except younger, smaller, and with a mild case of rabies. Selearis, who says that arm wrestling is not a sport so much as “a way of life,” is surrounded by a group that includes a firefighter named Mike Ayello, a vegan art director named Rob Bigwood, and Kevin Nelson, a graphic artist whom the narrator calls “a savant,” which may just mean that he wears eyeglasses.
Kenny Hughes’ teammates include Mike MacGraw, who lost a leg in an argument with a train when he was 10, and Allen Fisher, a 57-year-old, 26-time world champion who also wins this episode’s battle of the job descriptions when a subtitle identifies him as a minister and supplement salesman. There’s some impressive footage of Fisher outdoors in the snow, working out in God’s gymnasium, but in the end, his repeated boast that “God made me a champion!” pays off to the same extent as the claims made by some family-values political candidates that they’re running for president only because God personally assured them that they’d have His vote.
Despite his fearsome size, Kenny Hughes is depicted as the underdog. Much of Game Of Arms consists of very tight close-ups of the contestants’ faces, often in slow motion, so we can really savor every sweaty, eye-popping detail of their game faces, and Hughes is first seen holding a beer upside-down so that the refreshing beverage languorously drizzles into his open mouth. Members of Hughes’ own family express concern that he drinks too much, and when Selearis and his posse talk about Hughes, it is ominously noted that he does have “one weakness.” Hughes agrees that he has one weakness but may not be on board with the general consensus as to what it is: “I have the flu,” he moans, lamenting that, as the match approaches, he feels like shit. Psyching himself up, he visits his father, who first trained him in the sport, and participates in what the narrator calls “a strange pre-match ritual”: They release the father’s trained pigeons from their coop and watch them fly high above their heads, chasing about and making patterns in the air. It’s arguable whether this is more or less strange than anything else the arm wrestlers get up to, but it’s easy to see why Kenny, as he says, finds it “soothing.” Watching some of the pigeons dive-bomb toward the earth and then jerk themselves back up toward the sky, Kenny’s father tells the camera, “Obviously, they’ll kill themselves if they hit the ground too hard.” Then he winces, as if wondering if he’s just accidentally minted a metaphor.
In the second half of the show, the teammates and their rooting sections come together in that abandoned repair shop, where the competitors take turns setting their arms down on a small table, under the supervision of a huge man wearing sunglasses, a ponytail, and a white-and-black striped shirt. A visitor just arrived from Mars who knew nothing of our Earth ways would take one look at him and think, “Shit, that dude looks like the referee at a professional arm-wrestling match!” By the time Hughes and Selearis are ready to have a go at one another, the score is evenly tied. The narrator is especially impressed, or maybe just freaked out that Rob Bigwood, vegan arm wrestler, has been victorious. When Bigwood wins his opening round, the narrator sputters, “The vegan draws first blood!” Soon he’s braying that “the vegan” is victorious. He sounds as if he’s using the word “vegan” as a club, but he is wielding it against Bigwood, or the guy who got beaten by him?
The Hughes-Selearis match proves to be suitably dramatic, in a way that later episodes may be hard-pressed to live up to. With the two men tied two-for-two, Hughes, who looks as if he’s come straight from the Bataan death march, slams Selearis’ arm down a third time and appears to be victorious. But after a lot of celebrating from the Californians and a lot of bitching and moaning from the New Yorkers, the referee up and reverses himself, deciding that Hughes has been the beneficiary of a “slip.” All hell breaks loose. Selearis and a member of Hughes’ team actually get into a brawl, buying Hughes a little time with which to wheeze that he’s done, he’s spent, he’s exhausted, he doesn’t have it in him anymore, he just wants to die and go to the hospital, preferably in that order.
When he and Selearis finally set their arms on the table for one final, deciding grapple, Hughes proves himself a prophet, and Selearis delivers a tirade against all the “losers” he predicts will accuse him of having stolen the match. Those losers would originally have consisted of a couple dozen people who were all in that abandoned repair shop, but thanks to AMC, the number of people likely to be saying that has just gone up considerably. Game Of Arms doesn’t give the viewer enough aesthetic distance to have the option of believing that the final result doesn’t matter much; it’s an in-your-face show about in-your-face people, both a record and an example of testosterone overload. It makes The Wolf Of Wall Street look like Sense And Sensibility.