There are two sides to every story – and that’s certainly true when it comes to the early 90’s reality competition hit American Gladiators. Not even a month ago, ESPN released their 30 for 30 narrative, The American Gladiators, primarily based on the contentious nature of the show’s co-creators, Johnny Ferraro and Dan Carr, and the history of who came up with the idea of the show. That is not really to say that it all came out with a happy ending – in the second part, we do eventually get to hear from Carr himself, and through the heartbreak of it all, he does get some bittersweet validation, at least.
While the two-part documentary does cover some of the behind-the-scenes controversies behind the show, many of the classic Gladiators did not partake in the documentary. That’s where Netflix’s Muscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of American Gladiators from co-directors Tony Vainuku and Jared Hess comes into the fold. A five-part documentary stylized with bright cartoons in parts is told from the viewpoints of those who made the show what it was in its heyday – from Dan “Nitro” Clark, Lori “Ice” Fetrick, Sha-Ri “Blaze” Pendleton-Mitchell, Michael “Gemini” Horton (who also speaks in the ESPN documentary) and more with a first-person account of the trials and tribulations of one of the first reality shows in existence.
Muscles & Mayhem rarely references the once-embattled creators. If anything, brief older videos show Ferraro with remembrances of his Elvis impersonator days regarding his appearance (Carr isn’t spoken about at all). Instead, Netflix’s take focuses on the early days of the concept speaking with former producers about how it came to fruition, the almost disastrous pilot they shot, and the dismissals of American Gladiators being called Crash TV. This documentary's bread and butter comes from the gladiators' accounts. Many of them have a similar story – they either played a particular sport and sustained an injury ending their career, or amidst the late 80s/early 90s bodybuilding craze, they auditioned for this show. They made a brief career from that, partaking in fame (but not so much fortune).
In speaking about money, it is now chronicled in both of these documentaries that the Gladiators were not paid well through the various injuries and many merchandises opportunities. Much like Ferraro, the producers meet these claims with a “there wasn’t much money to make” response or a “the contract they signed is the contract they signed.” I wish there were a little more pushback concerning this topic, considering the Gladiators mentioned battling ailments such as concussions and torn ligaments because they always felt expendable.
Given the “bigger is better” action star mystique that was huge during American Gladiators' heyday, the question of steroid usage arises within the fourth episode. Some Gladiators briefly discuss the subject, saying they took human growth hormone instead of the drug. Nitro recalls a situation where he was caught with steroids crossing the Mexican border with a loaded handgun that was particularly scary. While the executives tried to throw a morality blanket over the role of the show and its relation to being role models, the drug policy they instituted was implemented for Gladiators to get around. This is referenced as a joke and a theme where Samuel Goldwyn TV cared more about the bottom line than their subjects.
Toward the end, the possible strike and subsequent relation are discussed. Even with that, many classic Gladiators were asked to return in various roles. However, it was clear that the show didn't continue because they thought these personalities were interchangeable. Everything has an end date, but at least as Muscles & Mayhem goes, you can see the family-oriented aspects this crew had with each other. Concerning the American Gladiators road show, old camera footage is shown along with stories of fun and brief hookups.
Even with all the disgruntlement and pay disputes, the former Gladiators speak of their time with a particular fondness – some specifically touching on a childhood drama that the show served to heal. Muscles & Mayhem is the Sunny Delight drink of the two documentaries – not as a harsh deep dive, but more of a fonder recollection of a time in early reality television history.