Gladiators Is the Last Feel-Good TV Show Standing

Complexity is fine. Pugil sticks are better.

Apollo holding a padded pole in the Gauntlet of BBC One's Gladiators
Photo: © Hungry Bear Media Ltd

Has anything truly bad ever happened in the same room as an oversized foam finger? How could it have? The oversized foam finger is a container of dreams. And smaller fingers.

Morally complex TV that confronts the issues of the day, or wades into the human experience like a police diver searching for old bones, should be celebrated. And it is celebrated. In reviews, at awards shows, during a contact lens appointment when the optometrist asks if you’ve watched anything good lately.

Yes, you’ve watched something good lately. You’ve watched the one about the post office. The one about the killer who preyed on the elderly and vulnerable, the one about the Russian poisoning, and the urgent need for revolution, and the Covid-19 NHS crisis. You watched the Netflix rom-com that left you in tears.

That’s without having gone to the cinema to watch all the Oscar-nominated somethings good about the atomic bomb, the patriarchy, the murder trial, racism and Auschwitz.

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You’ve watched all that good, good stuff and chances are, it’s left you heavy-hearted. Your emotional reserves are depleted. You need a feel-good boost but the problem is, outside of another go-around of The Office, where to find it?

All of the previously reliable feel-good shows are now vying to make us cry. People use Strictly as glitter-based therapy to get over their husband leaving them, or the death of a loved one. On the last episode of The Great Pottery Throw Down, contestants were asked – no kidding – to make ceramic lamps themed around their own depression. Even the sight of Ant and Dec can’t be separated from a weird feeling of guilt about enabling the drinky one. Where is a TV viewer’s uncomplicated fun?

I’ll tell you where: the Utilita Arena, Sheffield, and every Saturday night on BBC One.

The Gladiators reboot gets it. This is TV that lives, like a Buddhist monk, exclusively in the now. And that now is loud and bright and non-stop excitement. It’s TV in the imperative form – Run! Jump! Hit! Duck! In Gladiators, everything is beautiful and nothing hurts – except for the knee injuries, but like shame, if you wrap enough brightly coloured Kinesio Tape around something, it just goes away.

Gladiators may be the only TV show around that’s not trying to make us feel anything but entertained. Yes, occasionally, it will feature competitors who’ve survived cancer, but instead of a moving VT and a lingering, wet-eyed hug from the presenters, they simply make a thundering giant chase them up a wall. Good luck worrying about any of life’s problems when a thundering giant is chasing you up a wall.

The sweat and stupidity of Gladiators is soul-cleansing. Who can entertain a sad thought while watching a walking side of beef in a shiny metallic leotard hump a hopeful off the Hang Tough rings? Who remembers their bad week at work when an HR manager in a mouthguard and helmet is running full pelt down a foam alley at three spray-tanned glamazons holding massive cushions?

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It’s a blessed relief to have your every woe eclipsed by the question of whether the regionally accented kneepad-wearer in blue will get to the top of the travelator before the regionally accented kneepad-wearer in red. Is there another reason that people watch sport?

Granted, the Gladiators arena is what the inside of Donald Trump’s brain looks and sounds like, but don’t hold that against it. It’s an innocent protein-shake panto filled with simple heroics, boo-hiss villains, crash mats and Queen songs.

Of course TV should deal in politics and suffering and remember and reflect, but it’s also allowed the odd break. Praise be to Gladiators for hanging tough and providing one.

The Gladiators semi-final airs on Saturday February 24 at 7.10 pm on BBC One and iPlayer.