One Man Army: TV Review

A surprisingly engaging celebration of male toughness, One Man Army pits an A-Team inspired contestants against one another through a series of physically demanding obstacle courses.

A reborn fascination with Navy SEALs and Special Forces powers Discovery’s latest competition-reality show.

In the wake of the daring Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout, the American public’s interest in highly trained, covert warriors reached new heights. Our cultural fascination with men who routinely defy the rules that govern most mortals is, however, nothing new. From James Bond to Bruce Lee to Bear Grylls, we’ve long marveled at the near-mythic characters that turn survival instincts and warfare into an art form.

One Man Army, Discovery’s latest competition-reality venture, showcases this brand of tougher-than-thou, double-y chromosome males who populate the elite, badass hierarchy of the gender.

The proceedings are hosted by Mykel Hawke (who viewers might recall from Man, Woman, Wild), a chiseled former green beret whose often absurd lines and catch phrases are delivered in a no-nonsense baritone.

“In the dangerous, unpredictable world of combat and covert operations, elite military, extreme sports and law enforcement, only the fastest, strongest and smartest survive,” Hawke proclaims in the show’s lead-in.

Amplifying that Darwinian premise, One Man Army’s producers David Garfinkle (Man, Woman, Wild), Jay Renfroe (The Surreal Life) and Maria Baltazzi (Sarah Palin’s Alaska) bring together four alpha males each week for a head-to-head obstacle-course challenges. In the premiere, Hawke introduces us to Robert, a former member of Delta Force; Kevin, a U.S. marshal; James, a SWAT team vet, military contractor and the owner of “over 100 weapons”; and Jeff, a tactical-training instructor.

Our A-Team is driven to the makeshift proving ground in a requisite unmarked black van, where Hawke introduces them to what is dubbed “The Speed Challenge.” Our macho men he-men must traverse a long, nearly horizontal rope line with fist-over-fist technique, then run through a debris field rigged with explosives and, finally, nudge a weighted six-inch cube off a wide embankment using a SIG P220 pistol.

While none of the individual parts of the challenge seem particularly daunting, it’s clear watching the contestants that, taken together, this is no walk in the park. The contestant who takes the most time to complete the course is whisked off the set in what is dubbed “the extraction van,” and it’s on to Round 2 of the competition. Take it away, Mr. Hawke.

“Gentlemen, as you well know, an operative must possess both the power and endurance to overcome any and all obstacles,” Hawke says with a straight face. “Whether it’s a raid or a rescue, often brute force is required to bust down doors and break through walls, so welcome to the strength challenge!”

But whatever cynicism Hawk’s taglines and redundant summarizing (“Kevin’s still hanging; it looks like he’s exhausted”) might engender, the fact is that the Strength Challenge presents a raw spectacle unlike anything seen on American Gladiators.

Using sledgehammers, axes, battering rams and their own bodies, the three remaining warriors must break through two reinforced doors and two walls made of concrete block, cement and rebar.

“When I first swung that sledge and nothing happened, that’s when I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m gonna be here awhile,” one competitor says; the sweat, blood and exhaustion on display say more than Hawke’s running commentary ever could about just how demanding this test is.

The same, however, cannot be said of the show’s final bit: the Intelligence Challenge. Set in a mock prison, each of the remaining two men is locked in a cell and told that he must fashion his own escape.

“For any operative, being captured by the enemy is the ultimate nightmare,” Hawke explains. “But if that nightmare becomes a reality, the operative must quickly adapt, improvise and affect his own escape in order to survive.”

Luckily for our competitors, their hypothetical jailer would seem to be none other than Barney Fife, as the key to said jail cell is hung in plain sight on a hook a mere 20 feet from its old-fashioned, gaping bars.

Without revealing who triumphs in the first show, suffice it to say that there’s a wonderful twist based on one of the men’s past that few viewers will see coming. Ironically, this bit of biographical information also forces us reconsider our stereotypes about what it takes to be an elite warrior. But while the backstory of One Man Army competitors gives the show some depth, the real pleasure here is marveling at these he-men as they push themselves to the physical limit. No, most of us don’t have what it takes to become a Navy SEAL, but watching their ilk battle it out on television offers some measure of consolation.