There was a time when gods walked the earth, when warriors became heroes. Their battles and conquests became legend. And the legend lives on.
This is the opening to the iconic yet short lived Australian Gladiators reality TV show, that ran on Saturday nights from 1995 to 1996. It was referencing the overarching conceit of the show, that Gladiator – a franchise that also had a successful run in the US and UK – were the heirs of the ancient Roman gladiators. They wanted us to believe that what we were seeing was a continuation of a grand tradition that started in the coliseums of ancient Rome, and ended in the Brisbane Entertainment Centre.
However, with the show now rebooted (to mixed reviews) in 2024, (and also briefly in 2008) that introduction could in fact be referencing the original show from the 90s, which clearly had such an impact on our national psyche that it’s been raised from the dead more than 20 years later. Could the nineties-era Gladiators now be the legends whose reputations this new generation must live up to?
Two men enter – one man gets bonked by a pool noodle
There are plenty of physical competition shows around these days – Australian Ninja Warrior is clearly a descendent of the Gladiator ethos, while shows like Physical 100 share a commitment to beefy babes in spandex.
The formula was (and still is) pretty simple: very athletic people from around Australia come on to the show to compete against the Gladiators, who are kind of like the house muscle. In one episode, you got to see the diversity of a water skiing champion going up against a Gladiator named Fury by swinging across a whole roof of ropes with rings on them. In the same episode, they stuffed a suburban PE teacher into a unitard and make him fight a Gladiator named Vulcan on a pommel horse.
The original Gladiators (Australia). Image: Seven Network.
The idea of a 90s high school class turning on the TV to see Mr Howard on the screen with his ballsack defined by spandex is haunting to me.
The challenges are inherently funny – as much as it’s clear that they require great physical prowess to undertake, and there is clearly danger involved, it’s all brightly colour plastic pool toys and whack-a-mole style challenges. It makes it extremely funny when everyone takes it seriously, rather than running around laughing hysterically like a kid on a jumping castle.
In fact, it’s the commitment to treating this show seriously that makes the original Gladiators a piece of high art. From the hosts to the referee (in the second season it’s 90s personality Mike Whitney, which is camp in itself) to the Gladiators themselves, everyone does their best stern face and deep voice and pretends that this is a matter of life and death.
Everything about the show leans in, from the liberal use of thunder and lightning sounds, to the harsh 90s graphics and typesets emblazoned across the screen like one of those cool petrol station T-shirts that’s been exploded, to the very deep presenter voice that yells ‘GLADIATORS’ at random moments – it’s the same sort of camp sensibility as WWF wrestling.
There are cheerleaders, there are fireworks, there is pageantry and pomp.
But by far the campest, funniest thing in the show is the attempt at trash talking by the Gladiators. If you’ve ever wanted to watch the worst actors you’ve ever seen in you life, swollen with muscles and good intentions, try to insult each other on camera, then this is for you.
‘If you wanna know how tough I am, you’re gonna have to find out for yourself,’ says a woman named Blade, flexing to the camera. It feels like a catchphrase from the Real Housewives franchise, but if one of those housewives had donked their head recently.
‘Hang tough? It’s never beyond my grasp,’ grunts Fury, after a highly staged argument with the Mike Whitney ref.
Ultimately, the reason Gladiators left a legacy, one that is picked over by elder millennials like archaeologists through the ruins of an ancient city, is that seeing giant muscular men and women in leotards cavorting across their screens at a family-friendly time did something to us.
I cannot tell you how many people of my exact age have told me that the Gladiators were their sexual awakenings. I remember, a mere child plonked in front of the TV, watching Vulcan, weird little red padded helmet on his head, attacking someone with a giant foam cue-tip, and thinking: this is the hottest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.
I’m so excited for a new generation to have a weird thing about unitards.
Gladiators is currently showing on Channel 10 and 10 Play.