Discovery Channel’s One Man Army promises viewers testosterone-laden, masculinity-challenging tests of strength, speed, and intelligence performed by elite warfighters, military contractors, law enforcement, and extreme sportsmen – and it delivers. The challenges seem drawn from action films as much as real military scenarios: Breach a series of reinforced barriers to reach hostages! While hanging upside down, break into locked safes, assemble a handgun, and shoot your way out!
Surprisingly – especially when compared with others in the reality TV universe (I’m looking at you, Real Housewives) – there is a tone of respectful collegiality infusing the otherwise very intense all-male competition. Action matters here, not personality or gossip. Contestants congratulate each other on wins, encouraging their “brothers.” They battle circumstances and time rather than each other. They push themselves to physical and mental limits at the whim of the producers/controllers, and can be eliminated by uncontrollable variables. Non-winners are neither banished nor voted out; they’re picked up by an “extraction van,” as any mission would end, regardless of success or failure. Host Mykel Hawke’s farewell is often: “You are a tough competitor, but today was not your day.”
One Man Army groups these elite warfighters on a pedestal for their skills and determination, to be isolated and admired by audiences separated from their struggles. They have trained broadly and incessantly, and willingly take on extreme challenges, demonstrating mastery over bodies and technology. They do things the audience wants to watch but can’t imagine doing – all for $10,000. These guys are not celebrities, and this show will not make them famous. Anonymity and interchangeability of contestants is reinforced; identified only by first name, initial, and job title, this week’s Navy Seal will be replaced by next week’s Green Beret, and the challenges all repeat as variations on a theme. Four new contestants arrive each week, so viewers can’t (and don’t) get attached.
Indeed, One Man Army replicates the distance between warfighters in the idealized "leaner, faster, smarter" modern military and wider American society. As in real battles faced by non-televised warriors, contestants drop out of wars unpredictably, changing the composition of the force but not the challenges ahead. There is recognition of the temporary sacrifices of extreme challenges without an acknowledgement of the aftereffects of challenges. In effect, the collective interchangeability of the impressive individual contestants positions the viewer to celebrate the idea of anonymous elite warfighting rather than celebrating any individual warfighter.
Lions at the Colosseum
Excellent post! Your observations reflect the concept of the real military: soldiers fighting without specific identity (unless you happen to personally know him or her.) This anonymity of life (and death) is what makes people more accepting of wars in the name of patrioism and why drafts are dangerous politically.
The anonymity also makes this show watchable (if it is.) The "task" featured in the video seems ridiculously dangerous. If we cared about the person, it might lead to a loss of viewers. In turning them into real-life G.I. Joe dolls, the risk seems less significant than it is.
Ultimately, this is sad but timeless. A modern case of being fed to lions at the Colosseum.
How Interchangeable Are They?
What a fascinating reality series--I'll definitely have to make a point to catch it. What I'm wondering from reading your description is whether this show has any legitimate connection to the actual army. Do you know if it's received any funding or promotion from the US military? It seems in line with other marketing ventures in video games and ad space that try to hook regular consumers on a military ethos as encourgement for enlisting, and it would be interesting to see if military recruiters have maybe now moved into the space of reality TV.
Along those lines, I'm also curious what the boundaries of inclusiveness are on this show, considering they've been somewhat limited in the real life military. It sounds like there's not much of a change to get to know these soldier-contestants on screen, or identify them by sexual orientation, religion, etc. But have you gotten any sense for how a contestant out of the mainstream in terms of identity would be treated by his fellow "brothers"?
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