And yet, very little in our society is built around the possibility that there won’t (or can’t) be a winner declared. Failure is anathema to the motivation industry, which is one of our few growth areas. Everything on TV — from reality shows to the presidential campaign to even the coming Summer Olympics — is geared toward someone coming out ahead and achieving first place even if they don’t set a new record or bring the house down. On our junkiest TV shows, “The Bachelorette” is simply not allowed to decide that not one of these men is right for her. “American Idol” doesn’t tell the finalists that they all sang pretty okay, however, nobody sang like a winner this year. There is no question mark (though there ought to be) in “America’s Got Talent.”
So who would watch a television show where the winner could very well be . . . nobody?
This fact alone may be my favorite thing about the gloriously fun and mentally absorbing “American Ninja Warrior,” the U.S. version of a Japanese obstacle-course competition.
Men (and a few women) get as strong as they can, as nimble as they can, concentrate as hard as they can and still fail. On “American Ninja Warrior,” there’s really no such thing as a second chance or second place, not after the qualifying rounds. The show, which has aired all summer on G4 and in prime time on NBC, is a wonderfully brutal wake-up call to a nation nursed on participation trophies.
When the last of 24 remaining men attempts to finish stages 2, 3 and 4 of the infamous Mount Midoriyama obstacle course on Monday night’s finale (airing on NBC), there remains the distinct possibility that none of them will make it all the way. “Almost” can be everything and nothing here, which means the $500,000 prize could go unclaimed. Which also means, as the show has reminded viewers all along, repeatedly, cruelly: “No American has ever conquered Mount Midoriyama . . .”
No American. Since the Japanese began running “Sasuke,” their “ninja warrior” obstacle course competition, in 1997, several Americans have auditioned and competed. One came close to finishing Stage 3, but none have made it to the end. (And, out of thousands of contestants over the years from all over the world, only three competitors — all Japanese — have ever finished all four stages.)
Americans are not accustomed to a total shutout, yet here it is, in the form of a mammoth series of girders, ramps, platforms, cargo nets, ropes and water pits surrounding a steel tower named Mount Midoriyama.