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TV premieres: What's on Sunday

Here’s what to expect from the revamped ”American Gladiators,” Darren Star’s ”Cashmere Mafia,” and the fifth seasons of ”The Wire” and ”The L Word”

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Hulk Hogan, American Gladiators

NEW SHOW:
AMERICAN GLADIATORS
(NBC, 9-11 p.m.)

”How many people wanna see somebody get knocked into the water?!” bellows the man on the mic, and the audience howls in delight. Pair after pair of helmet-clad combatants then beat each other silly with giant Q-tips while balancing on 15-foot-high platforms above a pool of water. When a nasty blow sends a challenger plummeting to his liquid end, the PA blares ”Another One Bites the Dust.”

”It feels great to knock a few heads around and put them in the water where they belong,” confides the 6’6”, 240-pound Gladiator named Mayhem after one victorious joust. ”It’s my house. You disrespect me, I’m gonna send you home crying to your folks. Take your kids out to a park the day it airs — they won’t see you get embarrassed.” He laughs. His biceps bulge.

Forget those ESPN Classic reruns. On Jan. 6, NBC unleashes a new version of American Gladiators, the 1989-96 reality series in which contestants tried to match physical skills with ridiculously ripped athletes. (Your hosts? Hulk Hogan and boxer Laila Ali.) The outfits remain tight, and the Gladiators still rock absurd names like Titan, Fury, and Hellga. But those wall-scrambling, ball-dodging challenges have been updated (”slicker and quicker,” says Hogan). And did we mention the pyro? No, not another catchy Gladiator name, but actual pyro displays to spice up the games. Declares exec producer Howard Owens: ”It’s the most high-octane, energy-laden, fun-filled family hour of TV this year.” (This quote is currently being tested for steroids; results are pending.)

While the producers are jacking up the competition — contestants vie for $100,000 and a slot as a Gladiator, awarded to one male and female winner in the finale — they’re not turning up their noses at original American cheese. ”There is a knowing wink, a pantomime theatricality, that we are playing up,” notes exec producer Mark Koops. They’re also playing up the sexy: Female Gladiators boast looks and left hooks. Says imposing brunette Crush, ”Sturdy-bodied girls like me, we just need a positive place to put our aggression.”

Mayhem, for one, thinks viewers should brace themselves for immediate impact. ”You should be scared. We’re monsters,” he warns. ”No, we’re cool with you — as long as you don’t put any gear on. It’s like, the bull sees red: ‘ARGGGHHH! Don’t come near me wearing red!”’ Color us intrigued. Not to mention a little frightened. —Dan Snierson

Episodes set to air: 8 (Meet the 12 American Gladiators)

NEXT PAGE: The scoop on Cashmere Mafia

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