Such is the international fame of Ninja Warrior, which first aired as Sasuke in Japan in 1997, that Nine received 2000 registrations the day auditions were announced. This is a brand with a reputation.
In the 5 heats that will screen as part of the three week series, competitors will include Olympians & Commonwealth Games athletes, The Bachelor‘s Tim Robards, Footy Show‘s Beau Ryan, Justice Crew performers, and ex-AFL star Adam Cooney.
There are 50 competitors in every heat (not all will make it to screen, some will splash-out in a montage), with a lucky 18 proceeding to semi-finals.
It’s hard not to see Australian Ninja Warrior as Gladiators / It’s a Knockout / Wipeout for the new millennium -not that there’s anything wrong with that. No question, it is a supersized battle. On the mammoth 136m long obstacle course built on Cockatoo Island, all of the contenders get just one shot -and no rehearsal- at completing the course.
Only 6 men -and no women- have been crowned Ninja Warrior globally (four in Japan, two in the US). But this course is gender agnostic, women will face the Quintuple Steps, the Bridge of Blades
and the Warped Wall with the same degree of difficulty as men. “It’s the ultimate equaliser,” says co-host Rebecca Maddern.
In fact one of the best features of the show is how it embraces genders, ethnicity, ages & even disabilities. The first episode includes an acrobat, a mother of three, a woman who broke her back, an Olympic triathlete, an Indigenous marathon runner, a stripper and YouTube’s impressive Pawson twins, Dylan and Brodie.
Unlike Wipeout, it’s serious stuff. These contenders are putting pride and reputation on the line. You can’t predict who will succeed and who will fall, some even at the first hurdle. Like the strongman hammer swing at the sideshow, it is a case of ‘step right up and try your luck.’
To vary the drama there are backstories, fervent families and a grandstand of spectators who cheer with Voice-like audio sweetening.
On the sidelines is Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff to nab obligatory reactions, while Maddern and Ben Fordham are in a high-tower commentating the action. The production is deliberately more sport than light entertainment, right down to the sponsor branding around the course and scoreboard. That means there is the odd sporting cliche “It’s a jungle out there!” and Fordham has a habit of commentating everything in CAPS.
But it’s the (very) buff athletes we are here to see, and they deliver with hard core grunt. Move over singers and cooks, the gyms of Australia are ready to show off their best. The eye candy is unavoidable, folks. 6 packs, rippling biceps, glistening torsos -who’s complaining? Some arrive with ready-made themes, built around Tarzan, bunny ears (apologies to Sara-Marie) and superheroes. There are budgie-smugglers, an arborist who hates heights, and a girl who taught herself nunchucks by watching Bruce Lee videos.
Visually, Nine’s production lives up to the international brand. It’s been pumped-up so hard it’s like the Iron Chef of athleticism and is in danger of bursting a blood vessel. But I will be curious to see whether this works as stripped television… It feels like a weekly event rather than 3 nights a week, and I suspect we won’t see favourite competitors again until heats are over. These kinds of shows work well as sugar-hits, so at least it will all be over in 3 weeks and yes, the obstacles will change from night.
You have to take your hat, or your shirt, off to these men and women. They may not know how to renovate, sing or throw a reality tantrum but they are happy to step onto the mat and show what they are made of. Do not attempt at home.
Australian Ninja Warrior begins 7pm Sunday on Nine.