Is Ultimate Beastmaster a worthy opponent to American Ninja Warrior?
For those of you who weren’t aware, American Ninja Warrior is kind of a big deal. It is such a big of a deal that it is now spawning a new wave of obstacle course shows, from the now defunct “Wipeout” to the “Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge” that has been gaining in popularity (especially since getting the Reebok treatment). It was only a matter of time before other networks took notice and tried their hand at the Obstacle Course craze. Enter Netflix and their new show “Ultimate Beastmaster.”
Before I continue, I want to warn the readers that the first part of the article will be SPOILER FREE, so as to acquaint the uninitiated with the concept of the show and why you should or should not watch it. However, there will come a time where I will discuss the results of the show and I will give you ample warning as to when that comes. With that, let’s begin!
Ultimate Beastmaster (UBM) is Netflix’s take on the obstacle course craze; created by Sylvester Stallone and filmed over the course of 8 nights in California. It is a 10 Episode series, each episode running about 60 minutes, and each of the first nine episodes has 12 competitors running the course. The first twist of UBM is the inclusion of five additional countries, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, South Korea and Japan, besides the standard United States; and let me say right away that this is far and away one of the greatest strengths of the show, but more on that later. Each country has two competitors running the course every episode, sometimes two male contestants and other times a mix of male and female athletes. The athletes are then tasked to run various staged of the titular “Beast;” a monstrously sized obstacle course with four stages. The Beast is an utterly massive course that is designed to look like a hybrid between a Dragon and a Lizard, with all of the obstacles aptly named for whichever body part the contestants are in at the time; obstacles such as “Spinal Assent” and the “Stomach Churn” complete the shtick. The competitors of the show and the hosts treat the Beast as a living antagonist to the competitors and hearing contestants such as those from Mexico bemoan “la Bestia” is a nice touch. This brings us to the hosts.
UBM’s next twist is the result of having six different countries. We now have six pairs of hosts, two from each country. The American hosts are the fantastic actor Terry Crews partnered with television host Charissa Thompson, but the real stars of the show are the hosting teams from the other five countries. They range from actors and comedians to sports stars and musicians, and they provide a level of entrainment and chemistry to the show that rivals the competition itself. In particular, the pair from Korea is utterly hilarious, with them breaking out into a K-pop dance routine or singing a theme song for their individual contestants nearly every episode, they are a treat. Additionally, the host teams work really well with one another, often migrating into one another’s booth to encourage or heckle. The Hosts are far and away the best addition on the show, not to say that the competition isn’t compelling or enjoyable, which it wholeheartedly is, but you can only see so many attempts at the same obstacles without it going slightly stale, and the hosts are what keep the show fresh, and entertaining when watching the course becomes rote.
Finally, we have the course itself; four stages of various obstacles and optional bonus objectives called “Point Thrusters” (which is hilarious sounding in every language) with a very liberal time limit. Unlike ANW, contestants in UBM rarely make it to the end of the course, and how well you do or don’t do carries over from one round to the next; every obstacle completed or Thruster activated grants the competitor points depending on the stage (10 for stage one, 20 for stage two and so on). In stage one, the top eight scorers advance and carrying their points over to stage two; the top five from stage two then advance to stage three, and ultimately the top two from stage three advance to the final winner-take-all stage four. Each stage has a different feel to it. Stage one is a diverse stage with obstacles testing all muscle groups both upper and lower, as well as balance and coordination. Stage two begins with a grueling set of lower body jumping and balance based obstacles, before finishing with a set of upper body challenges. Stage three presents a unique choice after the first set of obstacles: proceed to the end of course for a few points, or risk it and travel down a bonus route with some really interesting obstacles granting you huge point totals (40 each) for completing the obstacles, but negative points for failing. The final stage is a winner take all race up an 80-foot tower with various climbing holds and problems, where the competitors press buttons throughout the stage granting them points. At the end, the individual with the most points after three minutes, or in the event of a tie, the one who is the highest up wins the $10,000 for the episode, the title of Beastmaster, and is given the opportunity to return to the final episode to compete for the title of Ultimate Beastmaster and a $25,000 prize.
Now, before I get into my spoiler section I will answer what might be the most important question: how does it compare to ANW? Let’s start with the good:
-To be honest, after the first episode I was certain we had a huge hit and glimpse into the future on our hands. The show is fresh and new, all shiny and chrome; it has obstacles we have never seen or considered before and all with people we have never seen before! It is something entirely new and unfamiliar, and for a while, it is a lot of fun. UBM isn’t bogged down by expectations and traditions whereas ANW has to have certain obstacles at all times, and has to follow a certain format; it’s nice to see different approaches to the obstacle course game and I hope ANW can learn from it.
-I particularly like the addition of a scoring system, so that there is always a winner. ANW always seems to be an annual cocktease, “WILL WE FINALLY HAVE A WINNER? WHO WILL BE THE NEXT AMERICAN NINJA WARRIOR!?!” Odds are, no one. That can get old, and so this is a welcome change.
-The production values are awesome, with cameras everywhere giving you tons of amazing camera angles and shots that ANW cannot compete with due to the way their courses are designed and laid out.
-The addition of the five other countries is a huge and welcome change; seeing the point of view, struggles and stories from the other nation’s competitors really broaden the appeal. As I mentioned earlier, the hosts from the other nations are fantastic; they bring so much to the table that I recommend the show for them alone. Watching the German hosts and Brazilian hosts go at it with their competitive banter episode after episode never gets old (thanks, World Cup 2014!).
Now for the bad:
-The show can get old fast; I mean ANW gets super old being a two-hour special, so it isn’t a problem unique to UBM, but seeing the same obstacles over and over again, episode after episode gets rather redundant. ANW has the benefit of being in multiple locations and having a course that changes every week, so when you start an episode it feels fresh every time.
-In ANW the competitors are well-known household names, we have seen lots of them grow from year to year and they have personalities; everyone knows at least a handful of Ninjas or at least the Wolfpack. In UBM however, they don’t have any of that. They have compelling stories and people who have overcome incredible hardships, but they only get a few moments to themselves and without the several seasons of familiarity on their side, they just don’t seem as compelling. Hopefully, with another season, we might get to see a few UBM competitors return and hopefully get people to root for. Most of the competitors are just your average “I’m super fit and work out a lot, so I’m perfect for this course!” kind of people; ANW is the same way, but they hide it well with the large crop of returning favorites, and the ANW format has a hundred plus competitors at every location… UBM has 12. Just a weakness of the format.
Overall I love the show; it provided a much-needed change of pace especially in the same timeframe that ANW All-Stars came out, which was just more of the same. UBM has a lot of potentials and is absolutely worth the watch if you are a fan of ANW or other obstacle course races. It brings a fresh perspective and new challenges that any aspiring Ninja, Beastmaster, Spartan or Mudder-runner will love to try. I look forward to watching the future seasons, I hope there are many to come, and I will absolutely be applying for my chance at the Beast!
Alright, everyone, the aforementioned time for spoilers is upon you. I am going to give just a few thoughts that require you to have seen the show through to the end. SPOILERS ARE AHEAD
YOU WERE WARNED
So I just wanted to provide some personal critiques especially after 9 episodes and being introduced to 108 potential Beastmasters. As much as I love Terry Cruise, and I love Terry Crews, he and his counterpart Charissa were not the teams for this show. I understand that the show is brand spanking new, and thus no one knows what’s going on, popular strategies etc … but by the end of the show, I was so sick of them giving ‘advice’ to the contestants that were contradictory or detrimental for their progress. There were many instances of them saying contestants were foolish for not taking the risky or dramatic ‘Point Thrusters.’ Perhaps it’s due to the new format but I just felt that the weak point for the host team was the Americans.
Speaking of hosts: Dear Sylvester, please bring back the Koreans, the Germans and the Brazilians, Love John. The end of the first episode when the Korean Heeyong Park won the evening, and the Koreans threw down a K-Pop dance and song number at his celebration circle was a highlight…And then In the Finale when they brought it back!? Oh, thank you, producers, thank you so much. Then we have the Germans and Brazilians; I didn’t realize that the World Cup of 2014 would spawn such a rivalry between the two countries. Perhaps it had to do with German host Hans being a footballer, but boy was it fun to watch. Every episode they are heckling and joking with each other, and since they were such good sports about it, it made every episode better. The good spirited Germans even joined team Brazil when their final competitor was eliminated in the finale; throwing their support behind eventual winner Felipe Camargo. The Americans tried to have a rapport with the other teams, but nothing blossomed quite like these two.
Lastly, the contestants. Team America was mostly disappointing, especially how many obnoxious bro-types we filled our ranks with. We had some gems such as the fitness model triathlete Jonathan, Air Force Ken, and the Marine Charles Robinson; but boy did we have plenty of real annoying dudes. The women of the competition were all enjoyable, but it got old fast when every woman (except for Silke Sollfrank) failed early in stage two. It is like ANW of years ago where women SELECTED couldn’t get past the warped wall, and were never taken seriously; thank god for Kacy, Jessie, Megan, and the rest. You don’t know how good the diversity of ANW is until it’s gone.
Actual lastly, the logistics of the show ground on me. Likely no one but me noticed this, but I love the logistics behind television…I know that the show was filmed all night over a week, and that’s A-OK; but in every episode, every person is wearing the exact same outfit across the board…Why? Furthermore, with all their aerial shots we as the viewer know there is little to no audience, mostly cast and crew; but boy is there a ton of applause noise at every twist and turn. I didn’t even realize it until a few episodes in but once I realized it, I couldn’t help but laugh at it. As a TV show you have to fill the dead air with something, but canned applause in this day and age? Couldn’t you get a few hundred spectators with signs? Even the new “Robot Wars” can fill their stands with near obvious plants. Just sayin’
That’s it. Thanks for making it all the way down here, you’re the real hero. Please let me know what you think of the article, the show or life in general in the comments below!
PS. After a few episodes, I just assumed that any American who announced their profession was “Crossfit” was immediately doomed, and I was right. Especially if you introduce yourself as the “Crossfit Queen.” You’re dead to me.