The Titan Games Isn’t About Bodies—It’s About Minds

Dwayne Johnson’s new athletic competition understands that facts, in this time of anxiety, offer their own kind of escapism.

Nikkie Neal competes in the Cyclone portion of the premiere of The Titan Games. (NBC)

“This. Is. Awesome.”

A commentator on The Titan Games, watching Spandex-clad humans engaged in feats of superhuman strength, channeled the same, simple thing I’d been thinking while viewing the premiere of the show on Thursday evening: It was awesome. And NBC’s latest entry in the expanding category of televised muscletainment was especially compelling the way I’d happened to experience it. Earlier in the evening, flipping around the channels, I’d settled, as I do so often by default and habit, on an athletic competition of a different sort: a collection of disembodied heads, battling each other on CNN. The Titan Games may be a show in which every production element is aimed at making the momentary suffering of its contestants, as they struggle and sweat and grunt through challenges such as the Herculean Pull and the Cyclone, vicariously palpable for viewers. But given the quiet despair of the skirmishes on offer on the news channels, watching all this purposeful pain was, in its context, a massive relief.

The Titan Games is a little bit American Ninja Warrior, a little bit American Gladiators, a little bit American Grit—with added elements, thrown in for good measure, of the Olympics and the CrossFit Games and The Hunger Games and The Wall and Iron Chef and Legends of the Hidden Temple. (That last one enters the proceedings through the ultimate objective of the game: defeating the vertical obstacle course the show has dubbed “Mount Olympus”—a process that requires contestants to extract a massive Titan Games logo, an unwieldy object the show calls “The Relic,” from a cement-covered enclosure called the “Titan Tomb.”)

The show’s premise, despite an approach to ancient Greek symbology so chaotically insouciant that even Robert Langdon would cower before it, is straightforward: Contestants face off against each other in pairs, women against women and men against men, competing in challenges involving things such as the hammering of cement, the scaling of walls, and the dragging of assorted heavy objects. The winner of each pairing—typically, the first person to complete the assigned activity or series of activities—advances to compete against another winner, the two of them racing through the assorted obstacles of Mount Olympus. (The obstacles involve scaling revolving cylinders on a steep incline, and cranking weights, and punching holes in a faux-brick wall. Taken together, one of the show’s commentators says, they “will test your heart and challenge your spirit.”) Win that ultimate contest, and the players become Titans.

It’s a process—pairings, victors, more pairings, more victors—that occurs several times during each episode, with the repetition made fresh, Olympics-style, by the backstories the show highlights from each athlete. At the end of the season, The Titan Games will name one woman and one man as its champions: everyday people elevated to membership in the show’s “Team of Titans” through hard work, determination, and the god-making capabilities of reality television.

If that sounds, in its contours, extremely familiar, it is because approximately 5,000 other shows like The Titan Games are already in existence, on American television and far beyond. And it is also because The Titan Games is unapologetically derivative of every last one of them. (Mount Olympus, the heart-tester and spirit-challenger that, a show announcer avers, “has been specially designed to test all aspects of athleticism,” has its counterpart in the Endurance Platform of Fox’s American Grit. And in the Elimination Tower of NBC’s STRONG. And in the Mount Midoriyama of NBC’s American Ninja Warrioritself a spin-off of the Japanese show Sasuke.)

What makes The Titan Games meaningfully different from its wide collection of predecessors and competitors, however, is its central god-maker: The show is hosted by Dwayne Johnson, The Rock—“DJ,” the show’s co-hosts call him—who functions at once as a master of ceremonies, a mentor to the contestants, and a behind-the-scenes executive producer. The show’s Thursday premiere repeatedly emphasized the idea that Johnson designed the Titan challenges himself, based on his own intensive workouts: The path to Titanhood, here, is to follow in the footsteps of the original deity.

The show’s infusive reliance on Johnson, a polymathic performer whose legendary charisma seems always to be in beast mode, makes The Titan Games compelling almost in spite of itself. His presence on the show strikes a balance between winking camp—in the premiere, as Johnson strides out into the arena that has been Titan-ized for the occasion, fireworks shoot from the ground as if the set itself is unable to contain its giddiness at his arrival—and extreme earnestness. “Who’s gonna work harder, run faster, dig deeper?” Johnson asks at one point. “Heroes aren’t born, they’re made, here on The Titan Games,” he says at another.

Johnson talks a lot about strength—bodily fortitude, on shows like The Titan Games, always doubles as a metaphor for power of a more figurative strain—and also about respect, and hard work, and deep dedication, and self-actualization. The contestants’ abbreviated backstories function as fables of perseverance: There’s a woman whose sister defeated cancer, who built her body in honor of the sibling who fought for hers. And a father who has worked to become stronger and faster in the hopes of serving as a role model for his young son. And a grandmother who wants to prove to the world—and to herself—that age can confer strength rather than deplete it.

Willpower, as both cause and effect, is a constant theme of the show. Look into the massive, quasi-Olympian goblets of flame that surround the Titan Games set, and you might see, swirling in the fire, ideas—many inspiring ideas, some uncomfortable ideas—about the brute capabilities of human desire. “This comes down to who wants it more,” Johnson says solemnly to the camera, as Ayonna, a physical therapist, and Emily, a mixed martial artist and masseuse, battle it out in a kind of aerial tug-of-war in the center of the Titan arena.

It’s an intoxicating promise—wanting, after all, is one muscle Americans are typically happy to exercise—and it helps to explain why The Titan Games has joined so many other profoundly similar shows on the American television screen. (It also helps to explain why there will be more to come: Last year, MGM Television announced that it will be bringing back American Gladiators, the original pageant of the muscle industrial complex, for the 2019–2020 season.)

But The Titan Games is appealing for other reasons, as well: It offers, for one thing, a display of strength during a time that has made many people feel weak. It implies the promise of control in a moment that has manifested, in so many ways, as its own wide-scale tug-of-war. It taps into the rise of ideas that conflate the notion of bodily wellness with an assumption of moral goodness: the Prosperity Gospel, essentially, rewritten for the age of Planet Fitness. The Titan Games and its fellow shows, which are self-conscious celebrations of the capabilities of the human body, offer a marked shift from earlier shows that, under the guise of self-improvement, ultimately reveled in the shaming of bodies. (The Biggest Loser, that other NBC product, hovers smokelike over the fiery pageantry of The Titan Games.)

Yet The Titan Games and its fellow shows serve not merely as timely revisions of earlier failures. They also work as a broader kind of corrective to the shows that, night after night, offer competitions of a much different variety: the talk shows, on CNN and other networks, that call themselves “news” but render, much more often, simply as talking heads butting heads. The Titan Games, for all its absurdist pageantry—I cannot stress enough how many controlled explosions have been involved in the making of this show—is in the end extremely unambiguous: Its rules are clear, its premises are simple, and its victories are refreshingly incontrovertible. Ready, set, go: There’s struggle and there’s sweat, and one person goes a little faster and pulls a little more weight, and that person is crowned the winner. The end. There may be an excess of fireworks in the Titan arena, but there is no room for argument within its walls—no space for lies or alternative facts or fake news or actuallys—because bodies, used in this way, do not allow for excuses or explanations. They simply do, and some do a little more than others, and that is the difference between a Titan and everyone else.

The body, The Titan Games and its fellow shows understand, is a fact unto itself. And that, in this time of anxiety about truth and its depleting strength, is its own kind of argument. “Prove that you can conquer my mountain,” Johnson tells his competitors, “and you join my team of Titans.” In a cultural moment that is so wearying—so unrelenting—in its ambiguities, the athletic competition, with all its pomp and camp and spectacle, does the thing so many other entertainments will not, or cannot, do: It offers viewers an escape into certainty.