Summer is the season for good, clean fun, and summertime TV show American Ninja Warrior takes the clean part literally: its losing contestants end their runs by helplessly splashing down into giant pools of water.
American Ninja Warrior is a spin-off of a Japanese television show, Sasuke. On old-school American game shows, like Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, or The Price Is Right, neatly dressed suburbanites solve puzzles and guess at trivia questions in the hope of going home with the sort of check that will make their next April tax bill shockingly large. On American Ninja Warrior, people who have spent hundreds of hours getting ready for the show hurl their bodies through a series of sadistically difficult obstacles, most of which require orangutan-like levels of forearm strength and cat-like levels of balance. It’s the sort of show where you can tell someone is about to lose simply by how long they’ve been on the course: humans don’t have the muscular ability to hang from their fingertips for more than just a few minutes, and if it takes you longer than those few minutes to get to the end, well. . . you’re not getting to the end.
And most contestants don’t.There’s a different kind of reality show, though, and that’s the kind that invites us to admire virtue rather than to wallow deliciously in vice.
But far more interesting than the constant threat of a literal and physical bath is the show’s figurative cleanliness: unlike most reality shows or game shows, it insists on presenting almost all of its contestants as moral heroes. The intensely watchable obstacle course portions of the show are regularly preceded with inspirational narrative packages that both lionize the competitors’ grit and at the same time declare that they are just ordinary folks, like the viewers.
That last tenet is the most unbelievable part of the show. A cross-section of your neighbors or of mine would not look like a cross-section of the competitors on American Ninja Warrior. These people are uniformly physically fit. Their muscles bunch and bulge under glowingly healthy skin, and even when they’re standing still, they seem to radiate energy. When they finally do move, it’s with the unconscious grace that only comes from hours and hours of conscious (and difficult, and painful) training.
Yet the voice-overs on the contestants’ profile packages delight in highlighting how many of the contestants really were just like you before they caught the vision and started training. The show sees itself as inspirational and is careful to include within itself proof that the inspiration has borne fruit: the newer seasons are made up of the stories of people who were inspired by the older seasons. This highlighting of successful inspiration and transformation is not dissimilar to testimony night at an evangelical church, and it’s also a striking portrait of the sort of human change that theologian Dallas Willard wrote of regarding Christian discipleship. Willard often carefully points out that Christian transformation follows the same steps any sort of human improvement would—only, infused with grace. As he said in his speech “Beyond Pornography” (collected in Renewing the Christian Mind, Gary Black Jr., ed.):
Spiritual transformation into Christlikeness results from getting the right vision of reality and goodness, the right intention and decision (to actually become like Christ), and adequate means to carry out the intention. The same principle is involved whether one wants to lose weight, develop their muscles, save money, learn to speak French, or whatever. Personal change works through vision, intention, and means. If we have someone who is oriented toward something, has a vision of its goodness, has decided to do it, and gets the means, then we will see them be successful.
Of course, American Ninja Warrior does not highlight the people who had only one or two pieces of that Vision-Intention-Means triangle. It’s not about the people who were inspired by the vision, but never decided to do anything about it. Or the people who decided to do something about it, but didn’t have the means to spend hours in training—or even a safe and adequate venue wherein to train.
Those people never became contestants.
The Contestant as a Character
Those who do become contestants on American Ninja Warrior have to be resigned to one thing: they are going to become characters. Contestants on the show often choose one part of their lives to emphasize so that the audience knows who they’re cheering for. One contestant is “The Pizza Ninja,” because of the pizza shop his family owns. Another is “The Cowboy Ninja.” There has even been, memorably, a “Papal Ninja,” who had explored a calling to the priesthood and still lived and worked with a community of Roman Catholic monks.
Friends and family members of the contestants stand on the sidelines, wearing identical T-shirts with the chosen moniker of their beloved contestant, cheering as their loved one tries to conquer the course, and clutching their hair in dismay when their loved one falls. Sometimes, when a contestant is very successful, and thus is profiled in more than one episode, the viewers learn more about the contestant than the inspiration for the ninja nickname. But usually, to the viewers, a contestant is “New World Ninja” or “Flight Test Ninja” forever.
No TV show about real people can show every nuance of that real person—even books about real people don’t have the space to do that. Editors, in both books and television, have to decide what’s interesting enough to make the cut and what isn’t.
And what’s most interesting, usually, is conflict.
Reality TV is famous for inviting its viewers to enjoy bad behavior. By filming cat-fights, snobbery, lustful seductions, and the greedy accumulation of wealth—and then smoothly editing all that bickering and sneering into impeccably paced video packages—producers and editors invite us into an extremely easy and comfortable kind of voyeurism. Living through all that racket in real-time would be exhausting, but the editing makes it interesting and enjoyable, as easy to swallow down as a well-strained mint julep.
There’s a different kind of reality show, though, and that’s the kind that invites us to admire virtue rather than to wallow deliciously in vice. This kind of show includes hits like Top Chef and Project Runway. Though contestant fights and foibles are still a part of the plot, the real joy of these shows comes from the simple delight of watching people who are good at something do the something they are good at.
American Ninja Warrior might not quite be reality TV. But it’s not quite a sports broadcast either: you can sit down and watch an entire football game, but you can’t sit down and watch an entire American Ninja Warrior competition, because some runs over the obstacle course are skipped, some are condensed, and even the ones that are shown in their entirety are interspersed with prepackaged video profiles of the competitors.
But these video profiles, complete with reality-TV-style confessionals from the contestants, elide smoothly over the competitors’ faults (which they surely have), and even over the faults of those who have caused their difficulties. When a competitor’s struggle (and the show is very fond of “struggles”) is caused by a divorce, the show mentions the divorce, but doesn’t get into the deserting spouse’s vices. The show isn’t interested in that. It’s interested in the contestant’s endurance, strength, and courage in the face of sorrow and hardship. The sins of the contestants are eliminated through a steadfast desire not to look at them. It’s redemption through willful ignorance, salvation by misdirection.
It’s a consistent editorial choice throughout the show, but it’s also a rare decision for modern entertainment: that virtue is more interesting than vice.
Desires and Drive
Can you have a story with just heroes, and no villains?
Beginning novelists are often advised to start their stories with a character who wants something. Popular writing instructor James Scott Bell warns that a story shouldn’t start with “happy people in happy land.” In order to tell a compelling story, there has to be conflict. The hero must want something. That means there must be something wrong, there must be something missing.
In American Ninja Warrior, the part of the villain isn’t played by other contestants. It’s played, quite literally, by the obstacles. The Warped Wall at the end of the course is the dragon that must be slain if any particular protagonist is going to become a legend. The contestant is not a happy person in happy land, because he is not yet at the end of the course. And so he is a character who wants something.
But after controlling their stories for setting (the obstacle course) and for character (just heroes, please), the editors and producers leave one thing up to chance: Is each run going to be a tragedy, or a comedy?
The difference between tragedy and comedy, of course, is where the story ends. If it ends with wedding and celebration and victory, it’s a comedy. If it ends with the death of the hero (by his own hand or another’s—but always through some flaw in himself), then it’s a tragedy. American Ninja Warrior is very insistent that it’s telling a story about heroes—that is, it’s very insistent on who its characters are—but whether each run is a comedy or a tragedy is something that it leaves up to chance. Chance—and the ability of the contestant.
The variety that the show encourages in the contestants is what allows for a different plot with every run. They’re all virtuous, the show says, but their virtue is individual. Did they train hard enough? Do they have a particularly heart-tugging backstory—maybe they lost a limb or they’re here despite a Parkinson’s diagnosis? Is it their first time back after a bad run last year? Are they going to make the right split-second decision about how to handle a tricky obstacle? Or are all the high expectations the audience has for them going to be disappointed?
And, if they fall, will they stand up out of the water with a smile, informing the watching fans that they’re happy with their run? Or will theirs be one of the painful performances, where they shield their faces with their hands to hide their tears?
All of this variety in character stands out because it is juxtaposed so strikingly against an unvarying background. So many different people, who all have different reasons for caring, but they are all facing the same uncaring obstacles. It makes it easy to compare things that we so rarely allow ourselves to compare: personalities, physical performance, desire.
These are happy people—happy in the possession of bodies that can do things most human bodies can’t—but they are not in a happy land.
And they all want something.
The Long, Green Season
Summer is the season for good, clean fun, but summer is also the season for growth. In the traditional church calendar, it’s the long, green season, uninterrupted by major feasts and fasts. It’s the time when crops have been planted, but aren’t yet ready to harvest. It’s the time of a steady rhythm of rest and work, receiving and giving out.
It’s a good season for a show like American Ninja Warrior. It’s a show that’s designed to inspire, a show that asks, “What do you want?” and “If you want this, are you willing to work for it?” and “If you’re willing to work for it, how are you going to do that?”
Good growth, as Dallas Willard points out, has to be directed toward a desirable end. In summer, the plants drink in the light of the sun, but they don’t just drink it in, they reach for it, they extend their tendrils up, their leaves turn flat-side-up to catch more light, their flowers turn from east to west, tracking the face of their bright god across the sky.
It’s summer: what do you want? Where are your desires facing, what does your face turn toward? Which personalities have caught your attention, and what story are you telling yourself about them? Even when considering real people, or a real God, we don’t have space to take in every last nuance. We edit. We highlight certain characteristics and elide the others.
It’s summer, and people as well as plants are growing, are being watered, are turning their faces toward the sun. There are games with fixed settings, there are lives that are placed in one point in time and will never be allowed to inhabit another. This is the century we get to see, and our individual personalities are juxtaposed against a temporal background that we all share. There’s a vision that you see, and an intention that you have, and a means that you are using—whether you’ve thought it through or not. As Dallas Willard was fond of pointing out: everyone has a spiritual formation.
It’s just that not everyone has a good one.
The Kindness of the Editor
Hebrews 11 is often called “The Hall of Heroes” or “The Heroes of the Faith” because of the long list of saints who are praised there. And they’re all praised for the same thing: for their faith. It’s a list compiled with an editorial bias, if ever there was one. These are the people who ended well? These are our moral giants? Jephthah? Really?
Yes, really. Because while the editors of American Ninja Warrior control for setting and character, but not for the end, God has decided already—and even told us—that when it comes to His people, this is not a tragedy. This is a comedy, and there’s going to be a wedding at the end and everything.
The spiritual formation of the saints in Hebrews 11 was a good one, and that was because of their faith. And there is the thing that neither vision nor intention can give you: faith itself is the means, and you can’t give faith to yourself. You have to receive it, hands out and palms up.
We, all of us, have broken hearts and none of us have trained enough for this course. We’ll all fall in the water, if it’s just up to us. None of us make it to the end on our own. Instead, we step onto the course, saying, “God will save me, and swoop me up over the wall when I get there.”
God decided it was a comedy for His people, and faith steps out onto the course in the hot evening air of July, trusting in that.
This is the season of growth. There are components of this story you control, and some you don’t, and maybe our mutual setting is about to send us all spinning down to failure despite all our best preparations.
But even if it looks like you failed at the end of the game, maybe, through the kindness of the editor, you’ll get to be a hero.