There are times where I like to consider myself a smart and sophisticated consumer of culture, and there are other times that I like to just turn my brain off and watch things explode and dudes get chopped in half. Spike’s Deadliest Warrior finds a way to bridge those two halves of my brain – one that enjoys shows about ancient history and one that enjoys Conan the Barbarian – by fusing genuinely interesting science-y type stuff and the silly “who would win?” conversations I had with my friends when I was 10. Deadliest Warrior uses science to answer questions like “Who wins: a ninja or a Spartan?” And if you think that sounds intriguing, then this show’s probably for you. If you think that sounds stupid, well, I don’t know what to tell you; it sort of is. And that’s what makes it such a fun show.
I was initially in the “this show is stupid” camp, based exclusively on the promo ads that aired on Spike during the show’s first season. But I caught most of an episode during one of the network’s many, many marathons, and found myself getting really into the show. See, as much as the central idea is sort of goofy, and each episode ends with a cheesy fight sequence between two (sometimes more) actors dressed up in high-end Halloween costumes, the stuff before that is actually pretty interesting. The Deadliest Warrior team – ER doctor Armand Dorian, biomedical engineer Geoff Desmoulin and computer programmer Max Geiger – spend the bulk of the show, along with two-man teams representing each side of the fight, testing each combatant’s various weapons using cutting-edge technology. And as a guy who grew up fascinated by medieval history and reading bad fantasy novels, watching a quasi-scientific test aimed at finding out what, say, a Viking’s great axe would actually do to a human body (or in the show’s case, a gel-covered torso with a fake skeleton and fake organs) is pretty compelling television.
How the show works is, the three main hosts spend most of the hour testing weapons and techniques with the help of the experts, and at the end all the data from the tests is fed into a computer, which runs 1,000 simulated fights between the two combatants (for fairness’ sake, to avoid a lucky shot winning the day for either side), and the winner is declared the deadliest. So for the first episode in the set, ‘Apache vs. Gladiator,’ two actual Apaches (one of whom is a combat instructor for the U.S. military) pit their weapons and techniques against two experts trained in the use of gladiator weapons (short swords, tridents, nets, etc.), while the three series regulars evaluate the results, with Desmoulin (a former paramedic) and Dr. Dorian providing their assessments of how deadly each weapon and/or warrior is, and Geiger, the token geek, offers his two cents as well. The experts themselves can also be quite entertaining, especially when they start posturing to each other after the weapons tests. Usually this is all in good fun, but there are a few awkward moments when temperatures start to rise. And the losing side almost always makes a bitter crack about how they don’t need science geeks and computers to tell them their warrior is really the deadliest.
Deadliest Warrior isn’t without its faults. As much as the show caters to both idiot fratboys who think 300 is the pinnacle of historical fiction and history buffs who argue over the relative merits of samurai and medieval knights, the show is definitely built to appeal more to the former, and sometimes the hosts, while evaluating the weapons, are a bit too wowed by superficial stuff like how messed up a crash test dummy looks after being hit by something. And some of the matchups are just silly, like mafia vs. yakuza or an episode positing a battle between historical figures William Wallace and Shaka Zulu. But once the show hits its stride a few episodes in, it can be pretty fascinating stuff for military and/or history buffs. ‘Green Beret vs. Spetsnaz’ is probably the most interesting episode of the entire first season (Spetsnaz being the harder-than-hardcore Russian special forces), and it’s based entirely on watching four highly-trained soldiers do their thing (the Spetsnaz guys in particular are absolutely terrifying; you can tell immediately that these guys are actual killers).
Deadliest Warrior does a pretty awesome job of stimulating both the meat-eating, violence-loving side of my brain as well as the more sophisticated side that appreciates history, though the balance is definitely tipped in the Neanderthal direction. The extras on the DVDs are some of the most fun stuff in the whole set, collecting the ‘Aftermath’ web series, which runs after each episode and features the hosts and experts taking questions submitted online, and while they’re quite short, they’re also often as interesting as the show itself, and offers some insight into how the show is made. Overall Deadliest Warrior offers just enough real information to make you feel like you learned something, but it’s also just a fun show for guys.