Image: Vivian Zink/NBC

The thing about watching The Titan Games, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s new competition series on NBC, is that you will probably cry and you will probably yell at the TV. But sometimes one enjoys crying and yelling at the TV, especially amid interludes of The Rock, who serves as an occasional commentator, flashing that smile of his that makes you want to eat his teeth—just, like, savor each and every one like a cotton-candy flavored Chiclet sent from heaven.

In Titan Games, which premiered last week with a special two-hour episode, “everyday people” (a phrase repeated ad nauseam) compete against each other before a live audience in a series of feats of strengths. These gender-segregated trials—women compete against women, men compete against men—involve things like knocking open massive wooden doors with a 350-pound battering ram, using a body harness to raise a 40-pound anvil through a series of concrete-like slabs to the top of the 30-foot tower, and swinging around a 60-pound suspended wrecking ball to knock down several two-story-high pillars.

Those who hack the early tests advance to Mount Olympus, a vaulted obstacle course that requires climbing over spinning cylinders—“each wider than a redwood tree,” says DJ—and pushing 450 pounds up a 25-degree incline. (In case you hadn’t noticed, this show is all about THE STATS.) Johnson describes Mount Olympus as “the physical manifestation of what it would look like if Mt. Everest had a baby with Godzilla.” You get to the end and have to use a mallet to break through a “tomb” of concrete to retrieve a “relic” in the shape of the Titan Games logo and then sink it into a glowing platform. Thusly, you are crowned a Titan.

The competition is narrated by the host Cari Champion—a name which is a bit on the nose if you ask me—and a pair of fairly forgettable dude-ly commentators, all of whom do the nitty-gritty work of exposition and play-by-plays. Johnson’s on hand to bring the inspirational star power. All along, he cheers on the contestants from the sidelines—offering up a “come on” here or “let’s go, let’s go” there—as the audience cheers him on.

Advertisement

While this might conceptually seem a hyper-masculinized future-Roman gladiatorial TV dystopia, the ultimate effect is less “destruction” and “annihilation” than it is “proving oneself” and “second chances.” That’s because the producers have supplied the show with meticulously chosen contestants with backstories that are compelling, sometimes kinda tragic, and always inspiring. (Inspiring! I just wrote that word un-ironically, which is just the kind of effect this show had on me.) These are not professional athletes—they are ripped-as-hell firefighting grandmas, tender-hearted single dads with hard bods, and 130-pound massage therapists who can haul a 200-pound metal ball and chain across a stadium floor. “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” yells an announcer in the final case. “MY GOODNESS, SHE’S REACHED THE TOMB!”

I am anti-sports. I don’t care much for feats of strength. But when you tell me that the aforementioned 130-pound woman, nicknamed “Pitbull,” has a sister who survived bone cancer, minus a leg bone, and is in the audience cheering her on, well, OK you have my attention, and my tears. Same, times a million, when that aforementioned single dad wins a trial and goes running up to his teary-eyed 9-year-old son in the audience, swoops him up in his arms saying, “C’mon baby! Come on! I did this for you.” Then there’s the young roofer who hits the gym every night and always visits his mom’s headstone in the cemetery afterward, and who announces, “I’m absolutely competing for my mom.” (Just a lil journalistic note here: When someone phrases something in that way—I absolutely am—it’s often because they’re prompted by an interviewer.)

Advertisement

Without further ado, here is a much-condensed list of some things I genuinely yelled at the screen—and at my husband, who was in the other room declining my invitation to watch—during the first episode of Titan Games:

  • Fuck!
  • Oh no!
  • Her sister!
  • WITH THE MISSING LEG-BONE!
  • Jesus Christ!
  • I’M CRYING!
  • Get it!
  • I’m CRY-ING!
  • OH FUCK HE BROKE THROUGH TWO SLABS AT ONCE!
  • Come on, buddy!
  • Aw, poor buddy.
  • I’m crying!
  • You better hurry your ass up!
  • Better hurry your ass up!
  • Hurry! Your! Ass! Up!
  • Damn, he can’t hang.
  • Get to the tomb!
  • GET THE RELIC!
  • GET THE GODDAMNED RELIC!
  • HE HAS THE RELIC!
  • Oh, he gets to hug The Rock!
  • He’s hugging his son again!
  • HIS SON IS CRYING!
  • I’m crying!
  • I’m CRYING!
  • THIS SHOW IS SO GOOD!
  • I’m crying again!
  • IT’S SO GOOD!

Titan Games, which airs its second episode tonight at 8 p.m., has the absurdity factor down with its battering rams and tombs and relics. But what it really has dialed is the formula for making the show about more than athleticism, which is actually what made me scream at the screen. It’s about the personal backstory, the one that has driven these “everyday people” to spend their evenings in the gym building their insane bodies and, now, to scale a wall and play midair tug-o’-war with a massive golden pole 9.5 feet high off the ground. There’s much talk of reaching one’s “full potential” and rising “to the challenge.” As The Rock puts it in the show’s opener, “The people who inspire me are those who dig deep, they get back up, and they keep fighting.” The show, he says, is the “ultimate test of athleticism and heart.”

Advertisement

Titan Games is a perfect reflection of The Rock’s precisely honed brand, which is built on his own triumph over adversity (namely, his poor upbringing in Hawaii) and his oft-repeated motto of “blood, sweat, respect—the first two you give, the last one you earn.” He’s an over-the-top muscle man who we care about in no small part because he shows us what drove him to become an over-the-top muscle man, and because he represents the exaggerated possibilities of that drive. At the end of the first face-off on Mount Olympus, he tells the victor, with a hearty pat on the back and that dang smile again, “I’m proud of you, buddy.”

It’s enough to make me think about going to the gym, ever. More likely: I’ll watch another episode.