In its pursuit of the authentic, reality television has taken a dramatic turn towards the visceral – with programmes like Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers and Survivorman focusing on the many spectacular ways that nature can still punish the human body; and the ways in which that (generally masculine coded) body can overcome such punishment. My interest in this kind of hyper-masculine survivalist TV focuses on what happens when the battle shifts – from man vs. nature to man vs. man. From the kitsch of American Gladiators to colonial tourism of Last Man Standing, gladiatorial television programmes promise to strip off the trappings of modernity to get to the core of what makes a man. It is troubling and, it must be said entertaining, to follow the logic of gladiatorial television, which insists: the ultimate measure of a man is his ability to look another man in the eye and then beat the living daylights out of him.
Spike TV’s Deadliest Warrior is an illuminating example here. The premise of the show is simple: imagining what would happen if some of history’s most celebrated warriors met in battle. Who would be deadliest? A pirate or a knight? The IRA or the Taliban? Genghis Khan or Hannibal? The matter is put to the test by simulating weaponry (often using it on dead pigs) and consulting guest experts. The final verdict is delivered via a combination of computer statistics and re-enactments. In its promotional material, the show claims to offer a combination of: “history, science, battle.” This persuasive combination of violent embodied spectacle and education is how survivalist and gladiatorial shows are uniquely able to build legitimacy. Thus they can offer their audiences a way of excusing a pleasure that might otherwise be guilty – there need not be any guilt in watching violence when it becomes a delivery system for lessons on history and survival.
Extra: Check out Charlie Brooker's thoughts on the series.