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.