Say what you will about American Gladiators. It was a product of its time; a campy display of athletic prowess born in the decade of excess; a goofy, over-the-top game show laced with spandex and steroids. Even so, you can't deny its sheer entertainment value and lasting popularity: after becoming an overnight success during its debut season in 1989, AG stuck around for six more years before finally fading away. In the meantime, the series spawned one official spin-off (Gladiators 2000, a kid-friendly series hosted by Ryan Seacrest) and a 2008 "remake" (co-hosted by Hulk Hogan, currently in limbo after two seasons), but make no mistake about it: when most people think "American Gladiators", it's the original series that comes to mind.
Viewers of any age during the late 1980s and early 1990s will undoubtedly remember this curious mixture of sports-related competition. American Gladiators pitted regular contestants against one another, tournament-style, in a series of athletic competitions; points were at stake, rules were set and injuries were always a possibility. Of course, these average joes weren't the only people involved: also on hand were a group of hulked-up Gladiators that stood in their path. Though the Gladiators didn't actually compete for points, they were engaged in the contest as obstacles to overcome or opponents to defeat. Their different builds and personalities usually kept things interesting: sometimes smaller, quicker contestants held an advantage, but sometimes power was a more practical approach.
The first season's format, which would eventually become the template for future seasons, went something like this: each half-season marked a mini-tournament spanning a dozen or so episodes. The winner of each half---male and female, with four finalists in all---would face one another during the season finale (dubbed "The Grand Championship"). This first season was a bit unusual in one regard, though: the original Roman-themed production design was changed entirely at the halfway point, along with several new Gladiators (including "Blaze", "Titan" and "Laser", among others), at least one new event ("The Wall") and a new co-host (Todd Christensen, replacing Joe Theismann). Much had changed, but the spirit was more or less the same: American Gladiators was all about competition, entertainment and action. Former WWE employee and sports announcer Mike Adamle remained the host, holding that position for the show's duration.
Shout Factory's new three-disc set commemorates the debut year of American Gladiators, but there's a reason this isn't called "The Complete First Season": it omits the first half but does include a full-length recap episode to bring us up to speed. This "highlight reel" offers a unique crash course for those new to the series, but the fragmented format may be a bit confusing at first. The remaining 13 episodes represent the complete second mini-tournament from the first season---and on its own, it represents a hugely popular series just beginning to find its rhythm. Here's the disc-by-disc breakdown:
Complete Episode Listing
(14 episodes, 45 minutes each, on 3 single-sided discs)
* - Includes Additional Bonus Feature
First-Half Highlight Show ^
Preliminaries Round 1 ^
Preliminaries Round 2
Preliminaries Round 3
Preliminaries Round 4
Preliminaries Round 5
Quarterfinals Round 1
Quarterfinals Round 2
Quarterfinals Round 3
Quarterfinals Round 4 ^
Disc Three *
Semifinals Round 1
Semifinals Round 2
The Finals ^
The Grand Championship
^ - Includes Optional Audio Commentary
Even those passively familiar with American Gladiators---or those who understand how sports-related tournament brackets work---should have a general idea of how this collection of episodes goes down: only the strong survive and all that. Each 45-minute episode features a collection of events (including "The Wall", "Human Cannonball" [seen at top], "Breakthrough and Conquer", "Joust" [above left], "Assault" [above right], "Powerball" and "The Eliminator") which the men and women attempt in random order---save for "The Eliminator", an obstacle course which always serves as the finale. Each event is explained in layman's terms beforehand, which works fine for broadcast purposes but can get repetitive quickly. Before and after each event, contestants and Gladiators are often interviewed about their strategies or performances. Sometimes skill is the name of the game, but other times luck is purely a factor.
For the most part, these 14 episodes are largely entertaining from start to finish. The typically smaller contestants often give the Gladiators a run for their money, but the colorful personalities of these often larger athletes makes for great TV. Gladiators for the second half of this first season include Dan "Nitro" Clark (cocky and aggressive), Michael "Gemini" Horton (the gentle giant), Tonya "Gold" Knight (a statuesque blonde) and Marisa "Lace" Pare (small but tough), among others. Some would leave due to injury in later seasons, and at least one got fired for disorderly conduct. Adrenaline was undoubtedly running high during these stiff competitions, but American Gladiators typically played it safe: athletes congratulated each other and there was a bare minimum of trash talking. Additionally, the separate but equal male and female divisions were practically a television landmark; these were tough athletes, regardless of gender.
Though it's undoubtedly best viewed over the period of a week or two (as opposed to one long marathon, due to its familiar format), new and old fans alike will certainly enjoy this truncated first season of American Gladiators on DVD. Dubbed "The Battle Begins", this three-disc set offers well over 10 hours of entertainment for a reasonable price, and even manages to throw in a few retrospective bonus features. Though the technical presentation isn't anything to write home about, the show's modest origins are undoubtedly the culprit. By and large, it's a crowd-pleasing effort that will hopefully pave the way for future collections. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios, these episodes are roughly one step up from broadcast quality; considering they're 20 years old, that's relatively good news. Though colors aren't especially vivid, black levels are inconsistent and a few digital problems pop up along the way (mild pixellation, for example), most of this content is in decent shape overall. The first-half highlight show looks the least impressive, but that's undoubtedly due to the lower budget and limited production design.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo tracks are equally basic but serviceable, offering clear dialogue, music and sound effects. Unfortunately, optional subtitles or Closed Captions have not been provided during the episodes or bonus features. It's a shame such a detail was overlooked...but it's not surprising, given the circumstances.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the animated menus include episode selection and a handy "Play All" option. Each 44-minute episode has been presented with a handful of chapter stops (one per event, thankfully enough), while no layer changes were detected during playback. This thee-disc release is housed in a pair of slim keepcases, which are tucked inside a colorful slipcover. Also included is a handy booklet with Gladiator profiles, production credits and a Q&A with AG alumni champion Cheryl Ann Silch. There's also an advertisement for a new book by Dan "Nitro" Clark, available at this very moment.
Not a great deal of extra material here, but it's nice to see an effort by Shout Factory. The main attraction is a series of four Audio Commentaries (during the First-Half Highlight Show, Round 1 of the Preliminaries, Round 4 of the Quarterfinals, and The Finals) with Raye "Zap" Hollitt, Dan "Nitro" Clark and Jim "Laser" Starr. These are very entertaining and candid tracks---and their comments are especially helpful during the highlight show, which otherwise feels a bit disjointed at times. These three Gladiators are obviously in good spirits and seem to get along well, aside from a handful of interruptions. Their amusing stories about the show's production, contestants, and fellow Gladiators (including what some are doing now) are certainly appreciated.
Disc 3 also includes a Bonus Interview with the infamous Billy Wirth, an actor/producer who competed on the show several times (he can be seen during the first-half highlights). Wirth comes across as cocky and more than a little neurotic during this session, but it's still interesting and worth a look. Like the episodes themselves, the interview is presented in 1.33:1 format and does not include optional subtitles or Closed Captions. NOTE: A press release also mentioned the inclusion of original promos, but they're nowhere to be found.
Like the original series itself, American Gladiators: The Battle Begins is a lightweight but highly entertaining affair. These 13 episodes (plus a recap of the debut season's first half) are presented in their original broadcast format and show their age with pride. Even though lower production levels---not to mention that the show was still finding its legs---are a mild hindrance at times, there's plenty of action, suspense and good times here. Long story short: if you remember American Gladiators fondly, chances are you'll still enjoy it 20 years later. Shout Factory's three-disc set manages to get the job done, pairing a basic technical presentation with a small assortment of well-intentioned bonus features. Combine that with a relatively low asking price, and you've got a no-brainer for fans of this pop culture phenomenon. Overall, American Gladiators: The Battle Begins is firmly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.