I used to think I had good taste in television. Not for me the manufactured drama of reality shows; I preferred the manufactured drama of actual drama series. I read think pieces on Mr Robot and what the ending of The Sopranos really meant. I knew TV showrunners by name – I hoped HBO would give David Milch the chance to finish off Deadwood and Amazon would somehow let Bryan Fuller make a fourth season of Hannibal.
I was across the hot trends (half-hour rom-comedies are in!), I knew the difference between one-camera and three-camera sitcoms, I could talk for hours on the pre-Office origin of TV mockumentaries – People Like Us, I’m Alan Partridge season one or The Larry Sanders Show?
And then I watched Ninja Warrior.
It’s not up to me to argue that the international Ninja Warrior series is the best entertainment on television – watching 10 minutes of any single episode will prove that. And it’s a series you really do have to watch to understand, because if someone just tells you that a television show based entirely around a massively difficult obstacle course is some of the most compelling viewing out there, you’re not going to believe them. Trust me, I’ve tried. So many friends lost.
Ninja Warrior initially began in Japan, home of the televised physical challenge, and a big part of why I used to think these shows were not for me is because they’re always presented as being all about the gruelling physicality of the obstacles. That’s because the series really is all about the gruelling physicality of the obstacles – the course itself is insanely difficult, the contestants have to be at peak physical fitness to stand any kind of chance and, as viewers of the recent Australian version know, almost all the time it’s so difficult nobody makes it through to the very end to claim Total Victory.
But while the contestants’ physical condition is pretty much uniformly impressive, what kind of person watches television just to check out hot athletes? Not someone who watched all three seasons of classy Australian drama Love My Way, that’s for sure. So I had to dig deeper. I had to look down into the very core of my being and ask myself: was I just watching this show to check out hot people swinging off ropes?
What puts me off a lot of reality series is the way they focus on regular people put into challenging situations. I don’t want to watch regular people; I have a mirror at home if I want to see that. The more I tried to reconcile my love of Ninja Warrior with who I used to be, the more I realised what I want out of television is what’s known as “competency porn” – people doing a tough job who are very good at their job.
Ninja Warrior contestants may come from various backgrounds and have different backstories (though if someone happens to be a rock climber, they’re probably one to watch), but they all have in common the one ingredient that makes them interesting characters to watch – when it comes to obstacle courses, they’re really, really good at their job. Well, maybe not the people that fail early on, but even they’re still usually pretty impressive.
While the term “obstacle course” usually conjures up images of an It’s A Knockout-style flailing through a course built more to look silly than anything else, Ninja Warrior obstacles are designed to be tough. Hanging off cargo nets, jumping up to grab swinging rings, trying to move a metal bar up a series of ledges while you’re hanging from it, and running up to try and grab the top of a wall curving over you are obviously extremely hard to do. Which makes them television storytelling at its finest.
All the great television dramas are about a character or characters facing a problem and struggling to overcome it. What are the obstacles in Ninja Warrior but a problem to be overcome? Each obstacle is a story in miniature, with a character facing a problem, seeing a clear path to a satisfying ending and then trying to achieve it with only their all-too-human failings standing in their way. There’s no need for dialogue or special effects, each story only takes a few minutes at most and at the end the lead has either triumphed or failed.
Ninja Warrior is a show where interesting characters face a difficult challenge and in doing so they create a compelling story. If that’s not great television, what is?
Watch Ninja Warrior Sweden on Sundays at 8:30pm on SBS VICELAND.