Stay Tuned: The reality show goes patriotic on ‘American Grit’
Watching “American Grit,” a reality competition that features military-grade challenges, I found myself wondering why the 16 people on the series were there, other than for the chance to win prize money. The contestant storyline is dull. The patriotic storyline, on the other hand, is loud and clear. More than anything else, this show is a celebration of the U.S. Armed Forces packaged as one, long, military-themed “Survivor” episode (minus the manipulation and votes). Whether or not the four teams of 16 civilians have the necessary “grit” to make it to the end is secondary to the idea that their determination is all-American.
Making sure the nationalistic theme is front and center is host and WWE celebrity John Cena, a square-jawed, muscled, G.I. Joe doll come to life. Cena appears throughout to explain rules, introduce the challenges and give pep talks to the contestants. It’s not too long before the patriotic language takes center stage.
It starts with competitor Chris, a fitness trainer, breaking ranks and telling his team leader Tawanda “Tee” Hanible, a retired Gunnery Sergeant with the Marines, that he doesn’t trust her and the team would have been better off without her after she gives what he feels was bad advice during a challenge. Later, Cena calls Chris aside and lists all Tee’s military accomplishments then admonishes him for his disrespect. He ends with: “You sleep under a blanket of freedom that she has provided.” Cue the national anthem.
Ok. They didn’t actually play it but they could have because Cena is so perfectly cast and so genuine in his convictions that the melodramatic line actually works.
While Cena is throwing out lines that make you want to pledge allegiance to the flag, it’s the four team-leading mentors, known collectively as “the cadre” that do the inspirational heavy lifting. They encourage their teams to work together, be deliberate, move on from mistakes and put their heart into challenges. The mentors, who along with Tee, include Rorke Denver, a Navy Seals trainer, Noah Galloway, a recipient of the Purple Heart and Nick Irving, an Army sniper, are as genuine as Cena, even if their advice is straight out of pop psychology 101.
The show’s patriotic premise doesn’t mean it lacks the required reality series drama. The competitors share a house and they were carefully chosen for their personality traits. One, who became a viral hit as the “no excuses mom” is instantly entertaining. She confidently explains how she knows people are posing (she has posed herself for magazine covers and can spot the signs) and pronounces epitome as two words, epi-tome, with a long “o” in tome. Her and Chris, who early on says to the camera: “Normal people are weak and stupid” argue almost immediately.
As for the other competitors, there is likable single mom/roller derby skater “Goldie” and Cameron, a wrestler who practically squeals with delight when he meets Cena. The rest will have their moments, I’m sure but they are not really the point of the series. While there is some interest in waiting to see who will fail the endurance test, give up and ring the bell at the end of each episode (the only way to be eliminated), the competitors are secondary. The real winner, if Cena and the cadre have anything to say about it, is America.
“American Grit” is on Thursdays at 9 p.m. EDT on Fox.
— Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.