Stay Tuned: ‘Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge’ mostly inspirational
“Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge” is from the producers of “American Ninja Warrior” and like that show, contestants push themselves through a challenging obstacle course that tests their endurance, strength, pain threshold and mental toughness. The implicit message of the show is that the ability to complete a physically grueling race means you’re a winner in life. It’s meant to be inspirational to all of us who are watching those winners in life, probably from our couches while eating a snack. And it is, mostly.
Watching people who have no special athletic training run, crawl, swing, swim and drag themselves across a course meant to break them is impressive because, really why do that to yourself? The answer is the cornerstone of every race/obstacle course show: In completing the challenge, the contestants are justifying a deep belief. They knew they could do it. And they did. And they just showed a national TV audience. For those who participate in “Spartan” on television, it’s that last part that really counts. In our selfie, self-promotion culture, finishing a race is one thing, finishing it on TV is something else.
Mainly, it’s social validation on a large scale. Maybe the contestants’ friends and families and Facebook are thrilled they ran a Spartan Race in their hometown (the show is based on the brand’s obstacle course races held throughout the U.S.) but they are ecstatic they did it on TV. At least those on the sidelines of a recent episode were. Their level of enthusiasm was off the charts for the competitors coming across the finish line — like you-just-cured-cancer level excitement.
The difference between “Spartan” and “American Ninja” is in the name. On “Spartan,” it is a team challenge and these groups are ultra-supportive which is a nice change from other shows where bickering can turn into bitterness once someone is perceived not to be doing their part. In fact, working as a team is a constant theme of the series. “This is a team. This is a family,” one racer solemnly proclaims. “We’ve got to pull each other’s weight, together,” says another. “Most importantly, they are teammates,” says the announcer. “No one triumphs alone,” says the host. The team concept is over-the-top but appealing because it is sincere.
In a race show, narratives are necessary and mostly they are familiar here: The team that lost weight, the blue-collar team, the team of second-generation Americans. In an unexpected twist, there was a nod to feminism from a male contestant to his female teammates, “Here are women who are strong and confident. They recognize that and it doesn’t diminish their femininity at all. It enhances it,” he said. And in a more expected theme, there was a shout out by one racer to a national ethos, “I’m blessed with my team. They truly will define the American dream.”
But the most compelling came from Mark, a father who was racing for his young daughter who has cerebral palsy and epilepsy, “She’s never going to say “I love you” back but I know that she does and that’s special.” Her name is Ruby and the team was Ruby’s Racers. Mark said all he had to do to get through the race was think about Ruby’s struggles everyday. The host said, “This is about heart. This is about will.” In Mark’s case it is, and for someone outside himself. That’s a good reason to watch and be inspired.
The season finale of “Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge” is on Thursday, July 21 at 8 p.m. EDT on NBC.
— Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.