Beat That Wall, or "American Ninja Warrior" in Uneasy Times: David Roth's Weak In Review
What the best sports show on earth shows us about people, and sports, at a less-than-great time.
Illustration by J.O. Applegate
Coming out of the break on Monday night, we join Jo Jo Bynum already in progress, going nowhere and gassed. There's no reason why you would know who Jo Jo Bynum is, really, or why you should. He was the best hitter on a Alabama A&M baseball team that went 7-34 in 1998, and he still plays in a semipro league. By day, he works as a software engineer in Huntsville, in an office where his sideline as one of the wall-walking aerialists who throw themselves at the hilariously sadistic obstacle course on NBC's American Ninja Warrior is simultaneously as mundane and as strange as any other co-worker's hobby. The nice woman in payroll is writing a novel of vampire erotica, and it is filthy; the IT dude who wears the same Amon Duul II T-shirt to work every day is knitting a sweater for his arthritic terrier; the software engineer moves himself bodily across sheer plexiglass walls while suspended from doorknobs, and during the summer NBC puts it on television. "My co-workers were surprised," Bynum told AL.com in 2014. "I come to work every day with a shirt and tie on, now to see me with shorts and hanging upside down and jumping and carrying on..."
We all have our different visions of America. There is, in my mind, a sunny-sided idea of the nation as being a place full of fundamentally pretty nice people who mostly just could use a vacation, and then there is another one in which the country is curdled, wary, multiply addicted, and entirely too angry about things it understands not at all. It's not all one or all the other, and every surprise that the day throws at us is mostly a reminder of that. America, like the poet said, is hard to see. From moment to moment and one person to the next it's great-hearted or it's crazy-eyed, except when it's both or when it's too tired to be any type of way at all. It's possible to say things like "the country is in an uneasy mood" and have it be true, but only in the broadest sense. Every one of our personal bundles of unease is different, and both individuated and contingent.
In an election year, there invariably are attempts to soothsay a consensus from all this, but there is no real average of us. Individually, we defy it; collectively, we reliably underperform it, if only because people as a general rule struggle with the challenge, as the same poet said in the same poem, "of how to crowd and still be kind." We are too strange, individually, to make much sense together. This is why so many of the most scrupulously mainstream culture products scan, if you watch closely enough, as not just false and strange but overtly fucking insane. They reflect a point of view that does not, strictly speaking, actually exist in the wild, and the algorithmic attempt to compress the various hugely discordant things that our culture "likes" produces something so inverted and weird as to be, on its own, frankly avant-garde—we see a diverse crew of attractive young TV detectives smilingly hitting the nae-nae while standing over a horrifically mutilated corpse, say, and just change the channel. The perversity barely registers, not because it isn't perverse but because it is so familiar. It's unlike anything we see in our daily lives, or are likely ever to see, but it's also just normal.
American Ninja Warrior is as conventionally mainstream an entertainment as could be imagined; broadly speaking, it is a maddeningly difficult side-scrolling video game with actual people in it. You could watch it on mute and understand it perfectly; you could watch it while doing several other things at the same time and still get a pretty good handle on it. But there is something else that is wilder, funnier, and stranger, and more vital. On Monday night, surrounded by the doom carnival of a ghoulish political convention busy scaring itself to death on neighboring channels, that effect was redoubled. My thoughts on American Ninja Warrior are a matter of public record, but I'll reiterate: it is my favorite thing on television, and it is more fun and more funny and more in command of its totally delirious weirdness with every passing season. I enjoy watching it a great deal. But it did not occur to me until Monday that there is in it something not just profound but essential.
Anyway, back to Jo Jo Bynum, who listens to Sam Cooke while he trains, like many American Ninja Warrior competitors, on a course that he constructed himself in his backyard. Jo Jo is in a bad way as we join him, nearly halfway through a Dallas City Finals course so implausibly difficult that my wife and I actually found ourselves laughing in cascading disbelief as the obstacles were introduced at the top of the show. In front of him is a 14-and-a-half-foot wall; there is a small runway approaching it, which curves up at a sharp angle until it becomes the wall itself, sheer and straight and six inches higher than it was last year. Bynum, who is 5'9" and seems pretty thoroughly exhausted after completing the first stack of obstacles—in TV time, this happened during a commercial break, somewhere behind an ad for Diet Dr. Pepper—has three attempts to run up the wall, or rather run far enough up it that a leap will make it possible to get a hold of the ledge at the top, so that he can then pull himself up.
He tries once and his body appears to crap out about a third of the way through. He gathers himself at the bottom. A timer, uselessly, spins in the upper right hand corner of the screen—uselessly because Bynum is competing against nothing but the obstacles in front of him at this point, the wall and then the collection of plexiglass girders and demonic monkeybars and impossibilities beyond it. He tries again, brushing the top of the wall before sliding down on his back, floppy as a sleeping man strapped to a luge. "You are not defeated," his wife Camille says. "Keep going." His mother, who the commentators remind us has the peculiar tic of singing to herself while her son attempts to complete the course, is swaying through a sort of anxious hula, and then clapping.
There's a chant that the crowd does at this part of the course, for Bynum—who is not terribly well known as American Ninjas go—and for fan favorites and really for anyone who appears to need the support. They shout out, "Beat that wall." They pick it up as he makes his last attempt, this crowd of people that are there because they know someone competing in the event or because this is the sort of sports experience that they like, people who are there with kids in oversized T-shirts the color of Gatorade flavors or holding signs with some stranger's name on it. You see them in flashes. There's a man with a long beard. There's a teenager in the sort of strange woven pullover that kids called "drug rugs" when I was in middle school. There are all manner of stumpy middle-aged adults, the ones you see every day. They put their voices together as Bynum gave it a last shot and this time his hands catch the top, one and then the other, and he is pulling himself up, and then he is up.
And when he's flat on his stomach, with so much more left to do, the crowd just loses its mind. You can see one of the two ultra-vociferous booster-broadcasters, the former NFL lineman Akbar Gbaja-Biamila, do a little hop of happiness. There is a cut to Bynum's wife, beaming, and his grandmother, beaming, and people in the stands who know him or don't, screaming. And then he struggles up as if to crawl, and then he stands up, and he keeps going.
And keeps going. He kips up something called the Salmon Ladder, jumping a chin-up bar four times, from one cradle to the next. He gently but commandingly crosses over the Floating Monkey Bars, taking an 18-inch length of pipe from one cradle and passing hand over hand across another stretch of water to safety. The next obstacle, the Clacker, is difficult to describe and nearly impossible to complete. Only a handful of competitors out of 30 even come close. Jo Jo comes close.
A thing that I know about American Ninja Warrior, which is not really important but which I think is useful to mention here, is that the shows are shot in the dead of night. A lot of reality television programming is; in order to get the sort of conditions necessary for the action to stand out as it should, you need what television people call "perfect dark," which is strictly an overnight thing. This probably has something to do with the pure out-of-body giddiness of the broadcasters, and the fact that dotted throughout the shots of the sublimely turnt-up crowd there are exhausted-looking children clinging to parents or nodding off in the chaos. It's not the sort of detail that really informs the watching, but it's there once you know it, the same way you might remember, in the moment when Bynum's body finally can't do any more, and he's hanging from a peg attached to a clacking metal arm twenty or so feet above a pool of water waiting for his grip to finally give, that the reason Bynum's name is familiar is that he's the competitor who, in an earlier season, revealed that he cannot swim. When he fell, assistants from the show jumped in to help him.
Bynum did not finish the course, but I think we can leave him on it. "His body's on E," Gbaja-Biamila says, right before Bynum staggers, somehow, through one more impossible step. Think of him there on the course, in perfect dark, suspended above water and unable to swim. Think of the people screaming some hope into him, strangers telling him that they believed in him, strangers who wanted him to get what he was fighting for, strangers who wanted somehow to help. Think of them all together, the symbiotic and sympathetic loop of it, not transactional or binary but communal, everyone without the everyone else. Think of it, and think of why you would ever want to watch anything else.
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