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.