Muscles & Mayhem Review: Netflix’s American Gladiators Documentary Is a

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The Pitch: For an indoor ’90s kid, no weekend was complete without watching incredibly buff people in spandex beat up brave challengers inside Gladiator Arena — the showmanship, the inventive games, and the strong personalities of American Gladiators were perfect Saturday morning entertainment (once the cartoons were over). Of course, indoor ’90s kids had no idea that behind the scenes, life for the American Gladiators had its ups and downs, something that the new documentary series Muscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of American Gladiators explores over five episodes.

While billed as “unauthorized,” the Netflix series is anchored by interviews with numerous people from the original production, including director Bob Levy, Samuel Goldwyn executives, and of course some former Gladiators themselves, including Gemini (Myke Horton), Nitro (Dan Clark), Ice (Lori Fetrick), Zap (Raye Hollitt), Blaze (Sha-Ri Pendleton) and Laser (Jim Starr). All of them have some wild stories to tell — not just about what it was like to be Gladiator famous, but what happened to their lives afterwards.

Hang Tough: As an exploration of the ups and downs of the American Gladiator phenomenon, Muscles & Mayhem proves to be an engaging, eye-opening, and at times even touching story. Directors Jared Hess and Tony Vainuku don’t avoid tough topics like steroid use and why multiple Gladiators were fired following an incredibly successful multi-city tour, while still capturing the very specific magic that made the show notorious in its time, and a source of fond nostalgia today.

Central to its success are the participants, with the former Gladiators in particular speaking candidly about both the good times (the fame, the camaraderie) and the bad times (the drug use, the post-fame depression). No one on camera has any illusions or pretensions about the show that made them famous, and reflect on their experiences with the honesty that comes with age.

Dan Clark, the iconic Nitro, in particular stands out with his openness, humor, and self-awareness — the directors don’t hesitate to point out moments when his stories might not be fully accurate (such as the embellished story of him giving a post-date piggyback ride to one of his fellow Gladiators). He’s legitimately hilarious when reflecting on his sunnier days of fame, but also quite heartbreaking as well, from discussing the racism he experienced early in his career as a half-Asian model to his depression after leaving the show to his relationship with his father. (A lot of Gladiators seem to have complicated relationships with their fathers.)

Breakthrough & Conquer: Production-wise, there’s the somewhat puzzling aesthetic choice to do all the present day interviews in essentially an unfinished construction site. It does at least differentiate the talking head footage from the slicker, studio-shot set-ups of other documentaries, but I pity the sound team who had to make that environment work.

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Muscles & Mayhem: An Unauthorized Story of American Gladiators (Netflix)

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