You have seen American Ninja Warrior, maybe: Muscled amateurs race through obstacle courses to showcase the triumph of the human spirit. (Key audience prompt: Awww!) Or Wipeout: Less-muscled amateurs race through obstacle courses to showcase the entertainment potential of being clobbered by foam pillars. (Key audience prompt: Boing!) Or Ultimate Beastmaster: Middling international celebrities race through obstacle courses in the name of national pride. (Key audience prompt: USA! USA!) But The Titan Games, NBC’s new entry in the televised obstacle course wars, has something its fellow shows do not: Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson. (Key audience prompt: Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson!)
When it comes to The Titan Games, which debuted Thursday with a double episode, the Rock is basically the point. To wit, the tagline: “Dwayne Johnson inspires everyday people to push themselves to achieve the impossible.” Which is to say that the contestants are there (a) because of the Rock’s greatness and muscles and (b) to develop greatness and muscles increasingly more in line with those of the Rock.
Here are the Rock’s quadriceps propelling him into a room of spandex-clad competitors-to-be so he can deliver a pep talk. Here are the Rock’s biceps helping remove an exhausted contestant’s helmet. Here is the Rock’s frontalis muscle raising, yes, just one eyebrow. Here are the Rock’s jaw muscles working as he explains, “Sometimes life can feel like an uphill battle, which is why I designed this next challenge to represent that both figuratively and literally.”
The basic construct is that in each episode, four men and four women face off in one-on-one races. First they do this in a single-obstacle competition, with the winner going on to face the other winning man or woman in a race on the multi-obstacle “Mount Olympus” in front of a ravenously cheery studio audience; at the end of the season, the Mount Olympus victors will face off to anoint a male and a female champion.
As for the obstacles, the theme is Nightmare CrossFit. Whereas at your local studio you might be battle-roping or tire-flipping in search of rugged, whole-body je ne sais quoi, here contestants drag 250-pound balls-and-chains, hoist several other hundreds of pounds of chains up improvised slopes, and use honest-to-god battering rams to break down giant doors. This is, nominally, done with fitness in mind: A demented pole vault challenges “lower-body power and forearm grip strength,” for instance. “All back and biceps!” one of the play-by-play hosts says delightedly; the weight of one obstacle is assessed to be “like reeling in a full-grown grizzly bear.” It is enough to put you off the gym for life.
You will note the use of first person in the earlier quote: “I designed the next challenge,” quoth Mr. Johnson. You will wonder if it was really the Rock who sat around thinking about pulley systems and mechanical ball-and-socket joints and walls of the right thickness and integrity such that handholds might be punched through them and then used to support a climb to the top. As the show goes on, you will notice that the Rock does a great deal less talking than the program’s extremely excitable play-by-play guys, Alex Mendez (a.k.a. Goldenboy) and Liam McHugh, and in fact is so detached from the actual races that you will wonder at times whether he’s standing in front of a green screen. Then the Rock will reference beating Jason Statham in a prison race, and you will shrug.
That the contestants are, in fact, “everyday people” is, let’s say, somewhat suspect. Much is made of their various wholesome backgrounds: A metalworker! A massage therapist! A volunteer firefighter! A paid firefighter! A Budweiser delivery guy! But their introductory montages show them nearly exclusively in the gym, where they quickly out themselves as the sort of hyper-fit go-getters who probably regret having eaten cake at their fifth birthday parties. The virtue of waking up at 4 in the morning is extolled by more than one.
As on American Ninja Warrior, much is made of the hardships competitors have overcome en route to being swole. One was arrested, we learn, while another has a heart condition. A third tells the camera that he visits his mother’s grave every time he leaves the gym in order to keep her memory alive. One, heaven forfend, is 50 years old.
“This comes down to who wants it more,” the Rock tells the camera as two women audibly attempt to give themselves hernias.
I would like to say that I was immune to the show’s charms. But, well, then a winner—dubbed “the Haitian sensation” by the Rock, naturally—rushed into the crowd and grabbed his young son, whom we’d been told was His Everything, and the kid teared up from either love or terror of cameras or the warm stench of his very strong dad, and, ugh, I don’t know, it got dusty for a second.
I suppose you can take the Rock’s word for it: “No one controls your fate but you.”