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KIND WORDS FOR ESPN2: INTENTIONALLY USELESS TV RETURNS

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When people talk about the glory days of ESPN, they usually mean the days when ESPN strained to cover the full span of 24 hours of programming by spackling together Sportscenter and the eight other obscure sports they had licensing agreements with into a barely watchable porridge of bowling, World's Strongest Man Contests, and six to eight hours of Steve Sabol's NFL films. The nostalgia comes from the brutal acclimatization the television sports fan endured in becoming used to the cycle, so that after a few years of watching you came to crave the mediocrity of it all.

The upside of the glory period came in the real reaches ESPN made to plug holes: World's Strongest Man, the hodgepodge of agricultural/hunting activities that became the Outdoor Games, and the summer bashos. The eclecticism was the charm, even if it was two in the morning and you were watching dogs jump into water off a dock (the apex of civilization, as far as we're concerned.) You never knew what you were getting, which was both the curse and the charm of the network.

Mark your calendars, because we have something kind to say about the Worldwide Leader: they did something magnificently right by buying the rights to Fuji TV's Viking: Ultimate Obstacle Course Challenge and showing it on ESPN2 at night. Last night Cuddles Swindle called and alerted us to the show, which isn't that far off from being MXC without the announcers and ass-sex jokes.

Like MXC without Guy LeDouche. Which isn't a bad thing.

So where's the good part without the ass-sex jokes and Kenny Blankenship? The pain, of course, presented unfiltered and authentic in the original format, made all the better by contestants running headlong into walls, falling into pools of freezing water, and looking as if they're preparing to kill themselves immediately after getting eliminated from the competition. The really great bits:

--A baffling intro featuring what we imagine is a Japanese version of a Viking, a purple dude with a flowing white beard, who says something intimidating in an echoey basso just as Japanese pictographs flash across the screen with the English word "VIKING." Incomprehensible, bizarre, and exactly what gives you that hair-raising "I'm watching Japanese TV and losing my mind" vibe.

--An obstacle course set up like an enormous Viking ship featuring not 5, not 10, but 100 contestants attempting to get across the course. The show's only thirty minutes long, so all you get to see of most contestants are their painful demises, often run together in quick montages of faces slamming into pads and flailing, burned legs tangled in cargo nets.

--The requisite non sequitur: a section of the course called "The Captain's Cabin" involves solving a fourth grade level math problem, which the announcers say at least five hundred times a show to drive home the point that if you're dumped through the trap door after getting it wrong, you are a slobbering moron who deserves your fate.

It's brilliant. It's derivative. It's cheap. It's everything we used to love about ESPN. Bravo, sirs.