The Seven Network’s premiere of its latest big-budget reality competition program confirmed the station’s pedigree as a premier remake shop.
Nine’s athletic competition, Australian Ninja Warrior, was the ratings success of 2017, surprisingly becoming the biggest new program on television since 2012.
So, Seven quickly executed rights to the similar US series, Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge (which premiered in 2016) and used its coverage of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics to ensure every TV viewer in Australia was aware an Australian version was coming.
Normally such productions aim to ‘spoil’ the incumbent, making audiences tire of the format quickly, subsequently killing a competitor’s ratings hit. Yet Seven’s attempt to spoil Ten’s MasterChef Australia by mimicking it and another cooking format, Come Dine With Me, became an incredible, long-running ratings hit itself.
Australian Spartan is unlikely to destroy Nine’s Australian Ninja Warrior, most particularly because it has the misfortune to be up against Nine’s current hit, Married at First Sight.
And essentially, it doesn’t bring anything interesting to the genre. The only difference in formats between Ninja and Spartan – the respective competitions between individuals and teams of three – counts against the latter, which will find it difficult to create compelling back stories among teams of three which, in some instances, had no stories to tell at all, as TV critic Steve Molk noted.
With three people in the team it's tough to build a back story OTHER than as a team, and that's not as compelling as an individual overcoming big things. #AustralianSpartan
— The Guidefather 👍🇦🇺📺 (@SteveMolk) February 25, 2018
If Seven was to borrow from this year’s TV ratings phenomenon, Married at First Sight, perhaps it would interview teams after they have failed, letting the worst of us revel in conflict. But that would clash with the genre’s mood of aspirational achievement.
Nevertheless, Australian Spartan improves upon Australian Ninja Warrior in some areas. It is more tightly edited and doesn’t waste time on teams fumbling through elementary exercises. Seven’s Spartan also integrates its Brisbane crowd more naturally into the telecast than Ninja’s.
But the differences, nominal as they are, can’t mask the similarities or the inability to bring something fresh or dynamic to this generation’s It’s A Knockout or, as one parody Twitter account noted, Gladiators.
— Brashs (@BrashsAustralia) February 25, 2018
The outdoor course, lit in the blues and reds of Ninja Warrior, has its exposed scaffolding, pools and challenges requiring strength and balance, including a ‘tyre swing’, ‘leap of faith’ and rather challenging ‘slipface’ wall. The inclusion of underwater tasks offers some variety.
Seven’s Hamish McLachlan is in the role normally played by Ben Fordham, and Edwina Bartholomew plays Rebecca Maddern, and answers the question why she, and not sports host Mel McLaughlin, partnered McLachlan in prime time during Seven’s Winter Olympics coverage.
Wendell Sailor plays the superfluous role of Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff.
All three fill the airtime in the anodyne manner of modern Australian television hosts: bland and competent without bringing anything witty or compelling to the coverage. And playwright Nakkia Lui raised an important point: what the hell was the former NRL player wearing?
I really question the decision to allow Wendell Sailor to wear a grey tweet caddy cap on #AustralianSpartan It’s a real contrast to the tough, ultra fit warrior vibe of the show.
— Nakkiah Lui (@nakkiahlui) February 25, 2018
The teams are cast well, as Seven does with My Kitchen Rules, with a mix of extroverts, pantomime characters and feel good units.
But social media on Sunday night appeared to be unimpressed because essentially, Australian Spartan is all about the abs, ‘bout the abs, and just filler.