How "American Ninja Warrior" Redefined Reality TV
In the beginning, American Ninja Warrior was little more than an amusing cable oddity. The now-defunct G4 aired only 12 hours of the program in its first year, and contestants for the seasons that followed were more or less recruited from the Venice Beach boardwalk. Before his run, one competitor folded a frying pan in half; another chipped a golf ball into the water surrounding the Quintuple Steps obstacle. Others dressed up as Santa Claus, a boxing kangaroo, and Elvis.
Beyond the theatricality of its contestants and the spectacle of its obstacle course, the show—which ends its eighth season (and fourth on NBC) on September 12—has always had a narrative dilemma: It’s both predictable and unpredictable. The structure of the course rarely varies, and the cast of characters constantly turns over. American Ninja Warrior’s solution to this dilemma not only contributed to the series’ popularity, but it also redefined the reality television genre and the meaning of “success.” To survive after the novelty wore off, the series needed to outgrow its humble origins as a basic-cable adaptation of a popular Japanese format. It needed continuity. It needed the “Every Ninja.”
For a series based on athletes attempting to conquer almost-unconquerable obstacles, though, this is a tricky proposition. Uniformity ensures fairness, so every American Ninja Warrior competitor must face similar challenges. When producers added three more qualifying courses in season four, they all followed the same pattern: the Quintuple Steps to start, an obstacle that “jolts,” one that tests balance, two for the upper body, and the Warped Wall. The Salmon Ladder always appears for the City Finals, which end with either the Spider Climb or the Invisible Ladder. Every year, new, more elaborate obstacles are added, but the differences are in degree, not type.
While the series as a whole and each individual episode might lack the element of surprise, the opposite is true for American Ninja Warrior’s contestants. There’s almost no character continuity. Six cities now host qualifying courses, meaning roughly 600 ninjas compete each year (almost 100 times that number submitted audition tapes this season), and the vast majority are either fresh faces or weren’t broadcast the previous year. To further complicate the issue, the ninja celebrities who qualify year in and year out have one giant problem: They keep falling. In 2014, Flip Rodriguez, then a four-time American Ninja Warrior veteran, blew through the first three obstacles at the Miami City Qualifier, and as the hosts predicted that the parkour instructor would post the fastest time of the night, his toe slipped off the cargo net. “Unbelievable,” one of the hosts cries. “The unthinkable! Flip Rodriguez, the face of Miami, hits the water.”
American Ninja Warrior’s rules favor upsets. Athletes don’t know the obstacles before they compete and are prohibited from taking test runs, which is like Russell Wilson showing up to Safeco Field not knowing whether he’s going to play football or rugby. Any mistake, even one as minor as an errant toe, ends the run, and almost every big-name ninja—Brent Steffensen, Kacy Catanzaro, Meagan Martin—has failed an early stage. Until last season, the seventh, no one had cleared even the penultimate stage in the Vegas finals. The producers can wildcard a dozen or so ninjas through to Vegas every season, but most fade away until the following year.
Needing a recurring character whose toes would never slip, American Ninja Warrior turned to a stock type for which there’d always be an endless supply. The Every Ninja is an otherwise normal person who was inspired by the show and decided to make a change. They are the show’s most frequently recurring character, more so than rock climbers or parkour coaches or personal trainers. Take Daniela Bright, for example. Bright competed last year in Houston’s City Qualifier, a few months after her last round of chemotherapy for stage 3 breast cancer. She watched American Ninja Warrior in the hospital, and during her interview, she remembers the promise she made herself then: “When the treatment’s finished, I’m gonna apply for that show.” Ultimately, she fell on the first obstacle.
In a New Yorker piece about the show, Leslie Jamison uses Bright as evidence of American Ninja Warrior’s inescapable humility:
“There was … something bracing and necessary about the way an inflated narrative of triumph had been replaced with an actual one. We had to recognize that Daniela’s victory had been constrained and contoured by what her body had gone through, that the sentimental story line was still held accountable, in the end, to the gravity of her body.”
But Jamison is judging Bright using the traditional reality TV script. When we tune into a seemingly similar show—say The Biggest Loser—we expect to see the contestants transform themselves over the course of the season. We watch the workouts and the challenges and the breakdowns in anticipation of the payout at the end, that moment when the winner will be crowned. For Bright, however, the obstacle course is not the dramatic climax. It’s the epilogue. Her 14-second appearance on the show is validation of her struggle, which gets significantly more screentime.
And if we look at the rest of Bright’s episode, the other backstories follow a similar pattern: Cassandra Dortch watched her husband compete and vowed to become the first mom to make it up the Warped Wall. She falls on the second obstacle. Artis Thompson III lost his leg in a motorcycle accident and saw American Ninja Warrior “as an opportunity… to show others that there’s nothing you can’t do.” He falls on the third obstacle. A few months after Ashley Hajek started ninja workouts, a man attacked her. “Had I not been training,” she says in her interview, “I wouldn’t have had the strength” to fight him off. She falls on the fifth obstacle.
The impetus for change doesn’t have to be traumatic. When I competed on the show, a fellow ninja had overcome dyslexia; another, stuttering. What unifies these stories is that the contestant was inspired, trained, and appeared on the show, thereby inspiring others in the process. While this may seem like the quintessential underdog story, it isn’t. Underdogs have to win (or at least come close), which Bright and company never do. But getting as far as they do counts as success nonetheless.
By prioritizing competitors’ backstories over their performances, American Ninja Warrior became the most real reality show, real here meaning that the transformative work is done outside the scope of the series. Let’s look again at The Biggest Loser, where contestants live in a mansion outside of Los Angeles and, as one former contestant told The A.V. Club, have a singular purpose:
“You don’t have work, you don’t have family, you don’t have another commitment. All you have to do is eat really good food that’s provided for you and work out.”
When the Every Ninja decided to make a change, she had to drive to the parkour gym after work, approach the shirtless dude working the front desk, and tell him that she’s here for the 8 o’clock ninja class and no, she’s never been before. No customized workouts, no personal chefs, no guarantee that she’d be the one in a hundred chosen to compete. Bright overcame obstacles outside the sanitized confines of a reality show and dared to jump on that first Quintuple Step—“that’s a win in my book,” one of the hosts says after she tumbles into the water—making her “narrative of triumph” all the more inflated because of her failure. There she is, just like us, only a little stronger and a little braver.