Pop Culture Decoder: American Ninja Warrior

Misty Harris breaks down the appeal of TV’s best competition show that’s basically the sports equivalent of dating George Clooney between 1994 and 2013

By Misty Harris

American Ninja Warrior is summer’s best competition show that sounds like it was named by a six-year-old who just watched his first Chuck Norris movie. The series features increasingly grueling obstacle courses designed to test the mettle of America’s top athletes, and to shame everyone watching from their couch at home (those who can’t do, watch).


A part of me, childishly, wants to hate ANW for its hyperventilating celebration of all the people who would’ve picked me last in gym class. But as much as I’m a bitter old wannabe who can’t touch her toes, I find myself impervious to the charms of this show – the seventh season of which premieres May 25.


Contestants train like fiends year-round, will often wait days to audition, and have less fat in their entire bodies than I have in my big toe. And the kicker? For all this boning up, not one American has completed the final stage to claim “total victory.” The show is basically the sports equivalent of dating George Clooney between 1994 and 2013.


So why tune into a contest with no probable winner? Let’s decode.


The chance to see the superhuman: I watch ANW for the same reason people buy the Kama Sutra: to see just what crazy shit the human body can do. From scaling 14-foot barriers to launching from a trampoline and wedging their legs between two four-foot wide walls, these “ninjas” – plucked from a pool of thousands – are so herculean in their abilities, you’d think they were grown in a secret lab in the basement of GoodLife Fitness. The only people in the world with more endurance are the ones who line up for Apple products.


Meagan Martin performs the “jumping spider” obstacle. (NBC)

Insane obstacles: Designed by professional sadists, ANW’s circuits are made up of obstacles so punishing as to make dating Chris Brown look fun by comparison. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve declared a particular challenge impossible, only to see it conquered minutes later by one of the show’s elite athletes. It’s breathtaking. After witnessing these feats firsthand, you’ll feel there’s no dream too big to be realized – save, perhaps, reading articles about the state of journalism without weeping.


Kacy Catanzaro: In 2014, Catanzaro became the first woman in ANW history to conquer the Warped Wall obstacle in order to qualify for the finals. Fans rallied around the pocket-sized gymnast as if she were a cure for Bieber fever, and were universally crushed when her diminutive size proved her undoing in the controversial Jumping Spider. Catanzaro’s physical strength, psychological fortitude and grace in defeat are all traits for which most of us can only aspire. With Scandal’s Olivia Pope on a time-out until September, my TV could use a good shot of heroine.


Ninjas Brent Steffensen and Kacy Catanzaro at L.A. Fitness Expo. (INSTAGRAM)

The triumph of the human spirit: I get emotional about television. I grieved harder over the cancellation of My So-Called Life than I did over the end of real-life relationships. So give me ninjas who’ve overcome incredible hardships – learning to walk again after an accident, the recent loss of a romantic partner, completely eliminating carbs – and I’m a puddle. Truly, you can’t watch ANW without being moved to make a change in your life (and I say this as someone whose idea of cardio is having a panic attack when her DVR cuts off the last five minutes of The Bachelorette). Check all cynicism at the door.


Figuring out why ANW is a hit doesn’t take a genius; I’m proof of that. The real question is how to beat the Jumping Spider when you’re only five feet tall. A question I hope Cataznzaro will soon be able to answer.



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