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How the mighty have fallen 

American Gladiators (NBC, Mondays, 8 pm)

Though it gets its name from a Roman blood sport, American Gladiators takes most of its cues from Greek mythology. A game-show-format test of physical prowess, rudimentary problem-solving (“How do I not get pile-driven by this slab of man?”), and not much else, it aspires to the sustained drama — and even the conventions — of epic poetry, though with a contemporary American populism that’s totally annoying.

Gladiator Arena is trumpeted as a larger-than-life place, with enormous obstacles (a 30-foot foam pyramid! A rope ladder that’s also 30-feet tall!) and godlike guardians with supernatural strength and agility. And though they are but mortals (engineers and garbage men and whatnot), the contestants are in excellent shape and are possessed, Hulk Hogan assures us (and them), with incredible fortitude and courage.

These aren’t men and women battling each other; basically, American Gladiators challenges humans to outwit titans (including one impossibly Aryan-looking fellow actually named Titan) and best gods in feats of strength.

And oh, what gods we Americans worship! There’s Wolf, the Norse-looking man-beast who clearly rides a Harley when not grooming his goatee and Camaro mullet. There’s Hellga, who can stop the women contenders dead in their tracks because she’s … well, a bit chubbier than they are.

Spectacle is a part of entertainment, and NBC building a pseudo-mythos around their game-show remake isn’t any worse than P.T. Barnum writing a tragic backstory for his geek. The essential part of spectacle, though, is suspending the audience’s belief for as long as they’re watching the program.

Watching them compete, it’s clear the contestants don’t have supernatural fortitude. People walk during the Eliminator round; they just stop during the gauntlet; they get snagged by a Gladiator during the Wall and they just go limp, falling to defeat. Likewise, these Gladiators aren’t gods, they’re clumsy-ass body-builders and stuntmen. Only one has martial-arts cred.

Most quickly spoiling the show’s epic patina is my boy Hulk Hogan, who no one will ever confuse for Homer. He has a certain macho elegance on his reality show when trying to explain to his jailbait daughter why she shouldn’t date 30-year-old Hummer salesmen. Here though, he’s as brutish and clumsy with his commentary as the Gladiators are with their bodies. “You had more moves …” he says to contestant Adonis (seriously) Lockett, stretching for an apt metaphor and coming up empty, “than a bowl of jello there … dude.”

Hulk. Man. Seriously? •

See also

Breaking Bad Brian Cranston (Malcom in the Middle) plays a chemistry teacher who, after being diagnosed with cancer, cooks up a plot to manufacture meth. Like Weeds, with less quirk and much more pathos. (AMC, Sundays, 10 pm)

The Wire God it’s been a long time between Wire seasons, but the fifth and final is upon us. (HBO, Sundays, 9 pm)

Moment of Truth Easily the most abhorrent idea for a reality show — or any show, really — contestants must submit to a lie detector while being asked questions like, “Do you hate black people,” and “Would you ever cheat on your wife?” (Fox, Wednesdays, 8 pm)

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