Ever since Netflix’s The Last Dance and Drive to Survive became highly-rated documentary series, the platform has become a hub of sports drama documentaries in the hope of capitalizing on the newfound popularity of the genre. Muscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of American Gladiators is a Netflix Original limited documentary series about “American Gladiators,” the famous television show that ran on American networks from 1989 to 1996. Directed by Jared Hess and Tony Vainuku, it was released on June 28, 2023, and skates by on the nostalgia element and nothing else.
The entire documentary series takes the audience through the lives of the so-called ‘gladiators’ that took part in this good old television show, the journey they began, and how it changed them as individuals. This strenuous part of their lives is filled with only fame and no fortune because the ‘gladiators’ went through tough times during their eight years on this show. They were given stage names as a part of their character-building, something most of us have seen in the “WWF.” But what makes this documentary different than the others is that it portrays the show as something that came at a time when “WWF” was considered great entertainment, and “American Gladiators” just swooped in and took the limelight for a good seven seasons until it was finally shut down because of the low ratings. The documentary follows the usual road map of talking in detail about the good and bad things the participants faced as a part of it and how they eventually moved past them to make a separate identity of their own.
The setup seems interesting, but it is hard not to notice that the makers of this show bank on the nostalgia factor because there is an ample amount of footage from that decade, but sadly, it does not serve the purpose of forming a definitive narrative. Instead of talking about the motivation and apathy of the athletes, the makers ended up with all of them just trash talking each other, bordering on gossiping which makes the show kind of underwhelming.
Only if there was more importance given to the image building of the athletes, the engagement factor would have improved. It seems all of them were brought in to talk in the tone of negativity. Not that it is bad; every television show has a dark side, and talking about it only makes the discord stronger. In this case, the storytelling was flat, and it kind of made the viewing experience tiresome rather than invoking a feeling of agitation.
The redeeming quality of this documentary has to be the pop culture references of that era and how it takes us back to a time when there were only limited forms of entertainment, but there was no end to the creative process behind the kind of shows that were produced and aired. The soundtrack of this documentary is a reminder of a bygone era. The makers also repeatedly talk about how the controversial use of steroids overshadowed their popularity to the point that “American Gladiators” did not get sponsors on various occasions. Unfortunately, the writer’s beat-around-the-bush tactic does not work in favor of the documentary because the steroid topic reappears plenty of times, and the whole agenda puts you off the entire narrative it is trying to create. How about dedicating an entire episode to the topic and then moving forward with speaking about other concerns?
There is one entire episode on the live tour of the “American Gladiators” that throws light on the condition of the athletes as they were going from city to city, being treated like a circus act, and there was zero to very little care given to make sure all of them were fed and remained healthy. This episode does leave an impact on the viewers, as it shows the production company took advantage of the gladiators and gave them nothing in return. This aspect is well presented, but it could not keep the show interesting at all, sadly.
Thankfully, there is a discussion of masculinity and how men are told not to show weakness, as there are athletes who speak in detail about their mental health issues, and it was only therapy that helped them see things from a different perspective. One of the best qualities of the show is that they were an LBGTQ+ ally back then and were inclusive of people of various sexualities and accepted them for who they were. Hearing the stories of gay athletes on the show brings a smile to your face. The documentary series also spoke about the ill-treatment of the athletes, who were working hard to keep the show going but were refused an increase in their payment by the production company. It was good of them to have stood up for themselves even though they paid a heavy price for the act of rebellion. They take the producer’s decision in a stride instead of moping about it.
After a point, the documentary felt like it was glorifying the celebrity culture of loving the limelight, and the projection of fighting, opposition, combat, and dispute makes one wonder about the aggression being shown through television, which is considered a highly influential form of media, especially for kids. It seems “American Gladiators” as a television show was not groundbreaking. It was only pushing the athletes unnecessarily towards indulging in maintaining impossible standards of physique and not projecting the dedication required to retain their shape daily. In a way, the documentary justified the actions showcased in this show just to be able to gain some popularity through it. The physical strain that the athletes go through was just brushed aside by the makers. If only the show had an emotional touch, it would have made this one a whole lot more fascinating. Not that we are trying to compare, but “The Last Dance” invokes so many emotions while watching it, but sadly, this show hardly does that.
The direction of this show is disjointed and erratic because the screenplay wanted to talk about plenty of topics but ended up being messy. The makers had five episodes in hand to make the whole narrative engrossing, but it only made it slow and tedious. The editing is probably one of the worst aspects here, and that is again because of the screenplay, for each episode could have had the running time of thirty minutes instead of forty five minutes. The storytelling aspect becomes stretched because of bad editing. The entire series has an intercut of animations of the athletes, which was a bad move, in our opinion, because it royally disrupted the flow of their chronicles. The documentary does end on a positive note, where we get to see how their lives have moved on since their stint with “American Gladiators” and how they have managed to keep themselves relevant all these years.
Their success stories deserved a better execution because “American Gladiators” was aired only in the USA, and since Netflix is a global platform, the makers could have presented the story in such a manner that it would have been appealing to audiences from the world over who did not grow up watching this show. Muscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of American Gladiators would work only for American audiences because it’s fresh in the cultural consciousness, but beyond that, the documentary does not leave any genuine impact. You can skip it.