This year, “Ninja Warrior” finale came on the heels of NBC’s Olympics coverage, and presents as almost exactly what NBC wants so desperately for the Olympics to be: Tragic backstories for everyone, a course actively working against the competitors and the ongoing soap opera of the various romantic/bromantic relationships between competitors … like the Olympics, but better.
As a first-time viewer, I remember asking, “Is this that Japanese-inspired show where they run through crazy cartoon obstacles and get hit by comically large mallets into pools of water?” and quickly learned that I was wrong, but only barely: This is the Japanese-inspired show where the most athletic humans in America run up a 17-foot wall after a series of grueling challenges created expressly to mess them up. The one that hardly anybody ever wins.
Like “The Voice,” the show’s greatest tool for heartbreak lies in the proximity of the Warriors’ loved ones, relatives and friends and children with autoimmune diseases, standing just below the course, ready to cheer on and/or tear up in disappointment. Here, as in any by the book hostage negotiation, the point is to humanize the prisoners, to see them as real people. It means even the most self-aggrandizing, front-running, privileged contestant feels like an underdog, once we meet their loved ones.
Joe “The Weatherman” Morovsky has always seemed like the season one Jason Street to everyone else’s season one Matt Saracen, but seeing him fall (and just on stage two!) was a legitimate shocker. And just like the Olympics, or really with any good sport or competition, we share the competitors’ collective desire: That somehow, improbably, everyone might win.
But any sport is also a game of chance. Previous years’ champs fell on early obstacles, fan favorites were disqualified for minute rules violations (farewell, Flip Rodriguez, you were too talented to properly touch every platform), leaving the winner anybody’s guess — and until the show’s seventh season, the correct guess would have been “Nobody,” which is perhaps the most American — à la Gatsby; that never-ending search for the ideal — aspect of it all.
Unless, of course, it’s the camaraderie. Fellow competitors cheer one another on, just as thrilled for a newcomer as for a veteran to succeed. In the Olympics, representatives from separate countries cheerily compete against one another, proud to be there. On “Ninja Warrior,” the sense is that it’s everyone together, out for the same goal: To defeat a course that is actively trying to stop them. It’s everyone against the course.
Like the well-crafted audition rounds of “The Voice,” or “So You Think You Can Dance,” each episode is paced and designed to build up to the most popular/talented Ninjas. If you love underdogs, then the greatest pleasures are to be found in the guinea pigs they send out at the beginning of each episode.
The finale’s momentum builds as newcomers like Michael Torres and Najee Richardson fall on the first and second obstacles, adding to the excitement when Adam Rayl becomes the first to attempt the third obstacle (only to fall), increasing to wild cheers as Chris Wilczewski became the first to attempt the fourth (only to fall on the fifth), and ending with outright screams of excitement as Daniel Gil and Drew Dreschel alone complete the fifth.
In the Olympics, of course, there are gender-specific versions of every event. The news, each season, makes much of the female Ninja Warriors, because of the novelty and girl-power semiotics inherent on sending women through the course, although there is a bittersweetness to the prospect: Women like Jessie Graff, who can demonstrate that bulk and brute strength are not the only ways to conquer Stage 1, are events in themselves, and by design may stay that way for a long time.
Jessie, hands-down this season’s biggest star, just happens to also have a day job as stuntwoman on “Supergirl.” Her success this season is testament to her own dedication and athleticism, of course — but as an inspiration, for both men and women, and for the same young people who admire Kara Danvers’ inner and outer strength — it reminds us that if Jessie didn’t make it to the final round, that was never the point.
Which is where this show stands apart from both the Olympics and its reality-competition peers. There is the million dollar prize on the line, for the fastest finisher of the final stage, but even the prize is entirely optional: There’s no obligatory recording contract, fashion spread in Marie Claire, not even a mirrorball trophy:
It is merely a chance at excellence, the chance to watch as someone has their absolute greatest moment, in the comforting shadow of knowing that — as hosts Matt Iseman and Akbar Gbaja-Biamila concluded this season’s finale — “Ultimately, it is the mountain that wins.”