As someone who watches a fair amount of TV, I have been aware of the existence of American Ninja Warrior for some time, but it never particularly appealed to me. Without ever actually watching it, it seemed … silly. But then, a friend of mine, a former student named Lindsay Eskildsen, got on the show this season, and I decided to give it a chance. It didn’t take even one complete episode for me and my whole family to get hooked.
There’s really one big thing that separates Ninja Warrior from all of the other “regular people competing for $1M” reality shows out there. And that is the thing that I love about it. It’s really quite simple.
American Ninja Warrior is, simply put, the most aggressively positive reality show on the air. It might just be the most positive show on TV, period.
Like every other reality show, you have to audition for Ninja. And that means that the producers have hour after hour of video of people making fools of themselves on the course. It’d be so easy for them to extend their season by several episodes and do what American Idol did: start off with shows that are essentially built around mocking people. But Ninja‘s producers decided not to do that.
Even with the auditions, there are still those who don’t do well on the course, who fail on the first obstacle. But Ninja decided not to employ a panel of caustic “judges” who ridicule their contestants. Instead, they handed to microphone to comedian Matt Iseman and former NFL player Akbar Gbaja-Biamila, along with “sideline” reporter Kristine Leahy. While I’ll admit that I’ve only watched most of one season so far, I have yet to hear any of the three of them utter anything at all negative about the contestants. They’ll provide critiques along the lines of “he should have slowed down a bit on that one” or “she got way off balance there”, but it’s never mean-spirited in the vein of Simon Cowell.
Ninja’s contestants are athletes who train for years to get on the show. Be definition, they are going to be intense competitors. The simple reality is that there have to be competitors who don’t like each other. There have to be hurt feelings when one competitor does ever-slightly better than another, sending one on to the next level and the other home. And here again, the producers could choose to play that angle. They could have Leahy stand with the person who is about to be eliminated and have her stick the microphone in their face and ask them what they’re feeling as the thing they’ve trained and hoped for slips away. But instead, they take the exact opposite approach. They never show Leahy at all while someone is running the course, instead focusing the camera on the current competitor’s friends and family as they cheer them on. Then, they send Leahy over to talk to those who succeed. More often than not, it’s her job to let someone know that they have just qualified for the next level. This is an obvious editorial choice: show the victors. Show that moment of triumph.
The only tears in American Ninja Warrior are tears of joy.
It’s also important to note that they do frequently show other competitors while someone is running the course, but again, it’s always from only one perspective: they are cheering each other on. It’s clear that many of the competitors know each other–the number of people who succeed in the show is pretty small–and they will often travel from one city to the next to be there to cheer on their friends. While, as I mentioned before, simple logic dictates that not all of these people get along, you’d never know that from watching. It seems that the easiest way to be in the crowd watching Ninja live and ensure that you will never be seen in an episode is to root against anyone.
In every other reality show I’ve watched, there’s always a villain. In my house, we’re big fans of The Amazing Race and most of the competition shows on the Food Network. My daughter is absolutely obsessed with Survivor. And in each of those shows, there’s someone to dislike. Someone that the editors have decided to make look bad. And make no mistake: it’s an intentional choice on the part of the editors to show a person in a positive or negative light. Because again, conflict creates drama.
But Ninja’s producers have realized that the only villain they need is the course itself. One of the most surprising things about watching the show is how you will end up rooting for each and every competitor. I continue to surprise myself at how intensely I’ll sit and hope that this person who I didn’t know existed only a few minutes earlier will somehow overcome this obstacle that has taken out everyone else.
Beginning this week, Ninja is airing its national finals, which were held back in June in Las Vegas. Even though I do personally know one of the women competing in those finals, and obviously I hope Lindsay does spectacularly well, I also know that I will be cheering on all eleven other women. Because of the way the show is put together, I just can’t help it.
I’ll be watching tonight to cheer on Lindsay, but I’ve been watching all of the episodes she isn’t on, and will continue to watch the show down the road, because Ninja is just plain fun. And I’ll be watching with my kids. It’s a show that I know I can absolutely watch safely with my kids with no fear at all that there will be anything I don’t want them to see.
It’s also a show that I want to watch with my kids. By watching, they will gain a far better appreciation for sportsmanship than they’ll ever get from watching any professional sport, where commentators will rail against the officials, will say that players should be allowed to break the rules, or that fighting is just “part of the sport”. They will learn that it’s possible to compete, to put your all into something, without having to tear down others. And, especially today, there are few lessons that I want my kids to learn that are more important than that.