Netflix rolled out its first reality show last weekend with Ultimate Beastmaster, a hardcore obstacle course competition series clearly inspired by NBC’s summer hit American Ninja Warrior (which in turn is a spin-off of Japan’s Sasuke). In a way, Beastmaster is like a metaphor for how Netflix has evolved television; the streaming company has taken something traditional channels have done well, then tried to upgrade it into something that’s bigger and better and even more addictive. Have they succeeded? Both shows are fun diversions featuring athletic prowess, inspiring you to get to the gym. Here are five honest comparison thoughts:
The Beastmaster course is a gorgeous superstructure (trailer below) that’s metaphorically designed like the interior of an animal, with obstacles called things like Spinal Descent and Digestive Tract (icky, but interesting). Contestants enter through its jaws and proceed through to the end (which would basically mean they’re pooped out, a logical conclusion that’s glossed over). The lighting is dramatic, the heights are dizzying, and there are clever uses of moving treadmills, shifting platforms, magnets, and bonus point buzzers. It’s like a real-life video game (as the hosts repeatedly point out). You can’t praise Beastmaster’s course without also honoring Ninja Warrior, however, as it’s very much designed to build upon what NBC has been doing for years. That said, Beastmaster does make the Ninja course look cheaper and more static — a course that’s been improved by a few degrees each year when NBC should have been pushing the genre further and taking more chances to leave no room for a rival like Beastmaster to impress.
The biggest difference between the shows. Ninja Warrior has a straightforward progressive elimination of a large pool of competitors drawn from regional qualifiers (think American Idol). Ultimate Beastmaster has six countries offering up two contestants for each episode, and the winner of each hour competes in the finale. I prefer the linear simplicity of Ninja Warrior, but I also appreciate the added value of Beastmaster’s international cast where you feel warm fuzzies when competitors from different countries root for each other. Also: Props to Beastmaster for actually paying each episode’s winner a cash prize; Ninja Warrior athletes do all that work for a big TV network for free unless they win all the way to Stage 4 (which has only happened once in eight seasons).
Ninja Warrior changes its course between each city and in the finale. Ultimate Beastmaster created a stunning course which stays basically the same throughout the season (at one point a dangling chain is switched to a thick rope, and we’re breathlessly told this is a big deal as the rope is harder to grip). By midway through the season, the Netflix show feels as repetitive as watching somebody play the first level of a video game over and over again. Hopefully Beastmaster season 2 will shake up the course for every episode in interesting ways.
Winner: Ninja Warrior
I’m sure they’re all nice people, and perhaps I’m too hard on them, but as quasi-sports commentators, they’re, well, annoying. And all in different ways: Ninja Warrior’s Matt Iseman has that monster-truck title yell, and Akbar Gbaja-Biamila makes painful bombastic dad-jokes. Beastmaster‘s Terry Crews and Charissa Thompson scream “USA! USA!” like they’re in the stands watching the competition rather than doing the commentary (there are no spectator stands on Beastmaster, so maybe producers ordered them to pull double duty). Plus Crews creepily says “into the blood” every time a contestant falls into the Beast’s pool. (Note to producers: When we SEE something happen, you don’t also need to SAY it happened — especially every damn time). Thompson is probably the best of the bunch because she’s not overcooking it; there are brief moments on Beastmaster where there is no commentary at all, and they’re blissful. Oh, Beastmaster also has a brief and wholly dispensable introduction from Sylvester Stallone in its premiere and finale, and I wonder if he scored that executive producer credit in exchange for shooting only one minute of video.
This is a tough one. Having the international cast adds value to Beastmaster, but the competitors on Ninja Warrior seem far more skilled — particularly the U.S. athletes. Ninja Warrior has nurtured a cast of obstacle course experts over the years, several of whom I suspect would chew up this flashy new course. Also, Ninja Warrior lets competitors wear whatever they want, and even run shirtless, so there is that. Which brings us to another aspect: The Ninja Warrior competitors are given more chances to show their personality, so we know and like them better. So Ninja Warrior clearly wins this category, right? Well … maybe not. NBC competitors feel like they’re encouraged to present themselves as campy characters to get camera time (if you recognize the nicknames like Captain NBC and Cowboy Ninja then you know what I mean). One of the things I immediately loved about Beastmaster is its contestant profile clips are blissfully short; Ninja Warrior’s treacly Olympics-style bios have half the competitors racing in honor of a dead family member, or to prove some health ailment “can’t hold me back!” Basically, Beastmaster contestants need more personality … and Ninja Warrior ‘s need less.
Ultimately there’s room enough on TV for both Ninja Warrior and Beastmaster. Hopefully having both will inspire each to improve even more in their seasons to come. Competition has a way of doing that.