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"Deadliest Warrior": Season One DVD Review

Buy Deadliest Warrior: The Complete First Season on DVD from Amazon.com Deadliest Warrior: Season One (2009)
Show & DVD Details

Executive Producers/Developers: Gary Tarpinian, Paninee Theeranuntawat

Directors: Tim Prokop (both), Michael Ojeda (re-enactment), F. Paul Benz (reality)

Regular Cast: Max Geiger, Dr. Armand Dorian, Geoffrey Desmoulin, Drew Skye (Narrator)

Guests: Apache: Alan Tafoya, Snake Blocker; Gladiator: Chuck Liddell, Steven Dietrich, Chris Torres; Viking: Casey Hendershot, Matt Nelson; Samurai: Tetsuro Shigematsu, Brett Chan; Spartan: Jeremy Dunn, Barry Jacobsen; Ninja: Lou Klein, Michael Lehr; Pirate: Michael Triplett, David Hernandez; Knight: David Coretti, Josh Paugh; Yakuza: Zero Kazama, David Kono; Mafia: Joe Ferrante, Thomas Bonanno; Green Beret: Matt Anderson, Sgt. George Gomez; Spetsnaz: Sonny Puzikas, Maxim Franz; Shaolin Monk: Eric Chen, Wang Wei, Alfred Hsing; Maori Warrior: Seamus Fitzgerald, Jared Wihongi, Sala Baker; William Wallace: Kieron Elliott, Anthony De Longis; Shaka Zulu: Earl White, Jason Bartley; IRA: Skoti Collins, Peter Crowe; Taliban: Fahim Fazli, Alex Sami

Running Time: 387 Minutes (9 episodes) / Rating: Not Rated (TV-14 on air)
1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen / Dolby Stereo 2.0 (English)
Not Subtitled; Show and Extras Closed Captioned
DVD Release Date: May 11, 2010 / Season 1 Airdates: April 7 - May 31, 2009
Suggested Retail Price: $26.98
Black Eco-Friendly Keepcase; Three single-sided, dual-layered discs (DVD-9s)

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The cable network Spike used to be called Spike TV. Before that, it was The New TNN, TNN abbreviating The National Network and previously The Nashville Network. Through all these incarnations, at least one thing has remained the same: I haven't been interested. A visit to their website reveals that, although I'm part of the channel's currently targeted gender, Spike seems to have very little to offer me. Gory sci-fi, gambling, and shirtless fighting might be the ingredients of a perfect night for some men, but not me, especially not with Spike's apparent in-your-face style and trashy quality.
I'll admit I've occasionally stopped on one of the channel's many Star Wars movie airings, but that is the extent of my Spike viewership.

So why am I reviewing "Deadliest Warrior": Season One, clearly part of the fighting genre? Well, I figure I ought to give Spike a fair chance and I'm always open to discovering more television, preferably with the convenience and commercial-free nature of DVD.

To me, "Deadliest Warrior" sounded like a cross between a History Channel documentary and something like "BattleBots", the former in subject matter and the latter in the competitive design. Debuting in April 2009, this hour-long program pits diverse historical warriors from an array of eras against each other, conducting weapons tests, using computers to determine the outcome of the impossible mano-a-mano match, and ultimately dramatizing what might happen. An Apache Indian takes on a Roman gladiator. A pirate squares off against a knight. The showdowns even get as specific as Braveheart's William Wallace versus Shaka Zulu.

For all the hullabaloo, trash talk, and machismo displays, Spike's "Deadliest Warrior" basically comes down to this young computer wiz (Max Geiger) and the number he enters into his laptop's spreadsheets. The dramatized battle between knight and pirate ends up on a beach.

The show aims to appeal to Spike's young male fanbase, adopting the kind of action tone viewers expect from Ultimate Fighting Championship and violent video games. Every episode plays out the same way, with two or three authorities assigned to each side of the fight. These authorities -- martial artists, trainers, historians, stunt men, a UFC fighter -- perform a number of demonstrations in a Los Angeles "fight club", a cross between a gym and a warehouse loaded to the hilt in exotic weaponry. Each test involves simulating an attack on human flesh, with weapons thrust into raw meat, blood-filled skulls, and torsos composed of ballistic gel. After every demo, lab-coated ER physician Dr. Armand Dorian steps in to assess and analyze the impact, distinguishing lethal blows from mere broken bones. Displaying the same awe and admiration is the aptly-named Max Geiger, a 21-year-old computer programmer who plugs some numbers into his laptop. In every episode, the tests cover close-range, mid-range, long-range, and "special" weapons.

The participants share conjecture about who will win and their reasoning. We do get a little history about each class in play, but it is entirely concerned with weaponry, combat, and tenacity. There is nothing gleamed worth sharing in polite company. For just about every warrior, we're told that failure is not an option. Facts and figures are eagerly dispensed, from warrior weight to the weight of their gear. Based on the team lines drawn, participants constantly engage in arrogant trash-talking, using the future tense as if the battle isn't hypothetical. Manufacturing the kind of conflict that reality TV loves, this tone again arises at the very end, as team members reflect on and challenge the results like their attitudes and demeanors had something to do with them.

The results could be hilariously anti-climactic, since they're determined by Geiger and the data he's entered in his open spreadsheets. Supposedly, the computer's "state-of-the-art" program simulates 1,000 deathmatch battles between the assigned warriors. The numbers reveal who would emerge victoriously and which of their many weapons would deliver the final blow. Wisely, the show saves its frequency counts until after a brief dramatization of the fights. These duels are staged in basic cable fashion with grunts, yelps, clangs, slices, plenty of dramatic narrow misses, and the occasional CG blood splatter. As ridiculous, short, and savage as these fight scenes are, they may just be the most tolerable thing about "Deadliest Warrior."

Brick Tamland's weapon of choice, the trident, is among the first of countless tools profiled. A samurai sword is tested to the amusement of fellow participants acting as expert commentators.

The episodes feel about four times as long as they need to be. Nearly the whole show feels like set-up and indeed all but the final three minutes are. If you're interested only in answering the DVD cover's question, "Who is the deadliest warrior?" (which technically should be "Who is the deadlier warrior?" and the show less catchily retitled), there is no way you'll be satisfied by the brief pay-off. No, you'll have to be impressed by the extensive tests of weapons, many of which end up not being used in the short staging.
I would estimate that about 85% of the show consists of demonstrations and expert commentary, with the other 15% going to the period warrior depictions (which I'm surprised that time, money, and make-up was spent on) and the final duel. That vast minority is considerably more interesting and ambitious than the macho studio observations and geeky calculations. And yet, entertainment and any other perceivable value to both aspects are about as low as anything I've seen.

It isn't enough to say that "Deadliest Warrior" glorifies violence. It worships violence, devoutly and thoroughly. The show exists merely to celebrate brutality, boiling down the appeal of combat action to its most primitive form. Action movies may depict gladiators, samurais, ninjas, et al. dealing out deadly damage, but they do so per some generally unambiguous moral code. It's acceptable for crowds to approve Russell Crowe jabbing a sword in someone, so long as his wife and son are murdered beforehand. Here, there's no reasoning or motivation; it is kill or be killed for the heck of it. And if viewers were okay with it, one gets the feeling the show would use human cadavers instead of dummies and dead pigs for those weapons demonstrations.

That the show cites history and 21st century science as part of its arsenal is an insult to all. They're thin excuses for unabashed carnage, which is ripe for parody and an atrocious influence on the disturbed. With cheesy narration, experts who say things like "Dude, I'm sorry, you're double dead", unconvincingly juvenile rivalry, and grossly graphic slow-motion gore, "Deadliest Warrior" reaches a dangerous low in men's programming.

Former UFC champion Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell tests out gladiatorial cesti (spiked gloves) on this punching bag. Is it any surprise that the show whose narration is inspired by "300" wastes no time putting a Spartan to the test?

Disc 1

1. Apache vs. Gladiator (43:02) (Originally aired April 7, 2009)
Can an armored gladiator with the power of UFC champion "The Iceman" Chuck Liddell defend himself against a tomahawk-throwing, scalp-hungry Apache?

2. Viking vs. Samurai (43:01) (Originally aired April 14, 2009)
Will a Viking's brute force be enough to withstand the speed and swords of a samurai?

3. Spartan vs. Ninja (43:02) (Originally aired April 21, 2009)
Can the stealth of a ninja overthrow a vicious, heavily-armed Spartan?

The deadliness of a Mafioso Tommy Gun is tested on -- what else? -- blood-filled dummies in an Italian restaurant setting. Former Spetsnaz operative Maxim Franz gets down to show off his sharpshooting skills.

Disc 2

4. Pirate vs. Knight (43:00) (Originally aired April 28, 2009)
In one of the more creative mismatches, an armored knight on horse squares off against a pirate with gunfire and explosives.

5. Yakuza vs. Mafia (43:01) (Originally aired May 5, 2009)
We turn to modern warfare as five Sicilian American New York mobsters take on five Japanese gangsters in a hotel lobby.

6. Green Beret vs. Spetsnaz (43:01) (Originally aired May 12, 2009)
Cold War rivalries are reopened as American Green Berets face off against stoic Russian Spetsnaz.

A Shaolin monk clad in orange tells a fierce Maori warrior to talk to the hand. In glorious slow motion, Jason Bartley demonstrates the power of Shaka Zulu's poison spit on a dummy.

Disc 3

7. Shaolin Monk vs. Maori Warrior (43:01) (Originally aired May 19, 2009)
Ancient fighting traditions from China and New Zealand are put to the test.

8. William Wallace vs. Shaka Zulu (43:01) (Originally aired May 26, 2009)
For the first time, historical individuals are chosen, as Braveheart's Scottish freedom fighter competes against the 19th century African monarch.

9. I.R.A. vs. Taliban (43:01) (Originally aired May 31, 2009)
Just when you thought "Deadliest Warrior" couldn't get sleazier, it turns its awe to modern terrorist militia groups for a season finale whose controversy is apparently quelled with repeated disclaimers (firmer than the usual ones) and a 4-second plea for minefield adoption.

It's a good thing ER doctor Armand Dorian is on hand to assess weapon damage, otherwise how would we know what to make of this Apache arrow demonstration on ballistic gel torso? An IRA soldier goes to the slingshot while graphics keep score in the tasteful Season 1 finale.

VIDEO and AUDIO

"Deadliest Warrior" has a slew of problems, but DVD picture quality isn't high among them. Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, the show is a little grainy but fine, its digital video clearly not top-of-the-line, but more than adequate for most of the visuals (if slightly tacky on the dramatizations). On a large or close enough TV, you'll spot some compression artifacts and notice it isn't as clear as an HD broadcast (if you're getting Spike in HD), but there is nothing too troubling. The basic stereo soundtrack is acceptable, if subjecting us to blood squishes in slow motion can be considered acceptable. Curse words, which show up with some regularity (always after the demonstration antics), are bleeped as on television.

In Disc 2's "The Aftermath" roundtables, host Kieron Elliott (far left) talks with Gary Tarpinian, Ryo Okada, and Steve Meyer, three people who make the show what it is. CycloneRayyar4 is one of the Deadliest Warrior fans upset enough with a battle result to voice his complaints on Spike's forums and be heard on "The Aftermath."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Available from both the episode and bonus features menus are installments of "The Aftermath", an Internet series of post-fight shows (furthering the illusion of this as sports programming). The weekly roundtable has Scottish host Kieron Elliott (from the William Wallace team), talking with the corresponding fighters and typically the show's mainstays (tech guy Geiger, weapons expert Barry Jacobsen, and Dr. Dorian). The group addresses questions and concerns passionately submitted by nicknamed viewers on Spike's forums. (One submission is an amusing backyard fight video.)
The experts explain and defend their methods, never fessing up to any historical inaccuracies of which they're accused. All nine episodes have a corresponding 12-16 minute webisode reviewing them, totaling 1 hour, 58 minutes, and 31 seconds across the three discs.

In addition to those, there are five "Aftermath" episodes devoted to recapping the first season. Three of these on Disc 1 (34:48) merely get reflections from the usual suspects. Disc 2's two better ones (25:37) feature executive producer Gary Tarpinian, associate producer Ryo Okada, and prop master Steve Meyer. These explain the genesis of the series, announce a second season, and describe some of the show's methods (the practice of shooting two fight outcomes to maintain secrecy, safety measures taken, and the process of manufacturing and acquiring weapons).

The season-long retrospectives "spoil" the results of episodes and so do some of the other companion pieces (these were filmed slightly out of order). As such, the lot may have been better placed on Disc 3, but at the same time putting episodes and related post-fight shows on the same disc makes complete sense. I can't fathom being interested in this show enough to want to revisit highlights and hear behind-the-scenes stories, but for those who are, these are nice, obvious inclusions. Unlike the show itself, these episodes do contain some unbleeped profanity.

Disc One opens with a promo for both the second season and the forthcoming downloadable video game.

The discs' menus, screens resembling the show's statistical graphics but with blood splatters, run through a brief typical montage before settling on a static image. The set's three discs, each adorned with a different warrior, fit into a standard black eco-friendly keepcase with tray.

The opponent in this showcase of Shaolin monk hook swords and several other Deadliest Warrior demonstrations is dead meat.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Despite the abundance of talking heads and supposedly historical/scientific intentions, "Deadliest Warrior" is all brawn and no brain. There is perhaps some promise to the apple-to-orange what-if premise, but I couldn't imagine a more offensive and less enlightening execution of it. Violent, stupid, and hopelessly invested in weaponry destruction, this is quite possibly the worst television program I've ever seen. I question the mentality of those who enjoy watching demonstrations of fake brain fragments flying on impact. That the show has enough of a fanbase to come to DVD suggests there are plenty of Mel Gibsons in this world.

Most people won't call the show out on how obnoxiously awful and meritless it is, because it is far easier just not to watch. In committing to review this DVD, I have had to bemoan this at length, no doubt to the dismay of fans who are reading angrily. I guess this is not a bad DVD if you like the show and plan on rewatching these episodes, but I suspect and hope you do not. While my visit to the world of Spike television was eye-opening and in some way fascinating, I definitely don't plan on returning there anytime soon.

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Reviewed May 2, 2010.



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