by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & American Gladiator & r & & r & (Mondays, 8pm, NBC) & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & hough it gets its name from a Roman blood sport, American Gladiators takes most of its thematic 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 30-foot tall rope ladder that's also 30 feet tall!) and God-like guardians with supernatural strength and agility. And though they be mortals (engineers and garbage men and whatnot), the contestants are in excellent shape and are possessed, Hulk Hogan assures us, of incredible fortitude and courage.
These aren't men and women battling each other. Basically, this is humans out-witting titans (including one impossibly Aryan-looking fellow actually named Titan) and besting 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 its 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 making the audience believe the sham for as long as they're watching it. 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 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, though, is my boy Hulk Hogan. He has a certain macho elegance on his reality show when trying to explain to his jail-bait 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?
Brian Cranston (Malcolm in the Middle) plays a chemistry teacher who, after being diagnosed with inoperable cancer, wants to leave a nest egg for his wife and child. Already working a second job to make ends meet, he decides the only way he can help family is to use his chem knowledge to cook meth. Like Weeds, with far less quirk and far more pathos. (AMC, Sundays, 10 pm)
God, it's been a long time between Wire seasons, but the fifth and final is upon us. Because it's different kind of cop show -- the first four seasons treated the drug wars, workers on the docks, politicians, and the public schools -- we're going to miss this show desperately when it's gone. This season's focus: journalists. (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)