The titular Spartan of TVNZ1's Australian Spartan.

Australian Spartan is the people’s obstacle course show

It may not be as flash as its counterparts, but TVNZ 2’s latest obstacle course show more than makes up for it in pure heart.

The giant obstacle course could be about to topple the commercial-grade kitchen as television’s main competitive arena in this part of the world.

Australian Spartan (Sunday nights, TVNZ 2) is the latest arrival at this particular intersection of sports and reality TV after aggressively tailgating last year’s successful Australian Ninja Warrior onto Antipodean screens.

Spartan is the My Kitchen Rules to Ninja Warrior’s Masterchef. While both feature super fit muscle men and women and take place on overgrown versions of the What Now gunge run, only an obstacle course fool would say they’re the same thing. Spartan has plenty of nuances and quirks to set it apart from the Ninja Warriors and Ultimate Beastmasters of this world – and in some ways make it the superior obstacle course show.

A team valiantly tries to win in Australian Spartan.

The big difference is that this one is contested by teams of three rather than individuals. Australian Spartan is based on US series Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge, itself based on the various Spartan Races which have been taking place in the non-televised world for the last decade or so.

From an entertainment perspective the teams format has its pros and cons – it’s not as easy, for example, to create an immediately compelling backstory for a team of uni mates than it is for an individual battler. But a major positive is that it results in a more diverse field of competitors – while other obstacle course shows tend to play into the incredibly strong-gripping hands of an elite few (predominantly male, mostly rock climbers), the first heat of Spartan saw teams of gymnasts, rugby players, some Kiwi cops and plenty of lay men and women – including the world’s most hard-out hen’s party.

The first of a handful of New Zealand teams in the competition (the deadline for entries had to be extended on this side of the Tasman because there was so much interest), Kiwi cops Aviation Bacon (“we’re a bit tongue-in-cheek”) breezed past balance-testing obstacle ‘The Shield’ and tricky strength-tester ‘Tyre Swing’, successfully crossed the ‘Tilting Bridge’ only to come unstuck on the deceptively tough ‘Angle Grinder’. It was enough to briefly put them in the top 5 who’d progress to the semifinals, before they were bumped by an incredible run from The Hen’s Party.

A woman teammate in Australian Spartan.

The pair of sisters in $2 Shop tutus and one lanky bloke in a novelty bow tie defied first impressions to be one of the few teams to make it to the end of the course. Through the ‘Dry Zone’ and the ‘Wet Zone’ they battled to the show’s blue riband obstacle, the penultimate ‘Slip Face’ – a 5 metre, 45 degree angle slippery wall that teams conquered by forming a human ladder. By the way everybody attacked it this was clearly not anyone’s first Spartan Race.

The Spartan-standard obstacles may not be not as high-concept as the ones to be found on Ninja Warrior or Beastmaster, but they are no less challenging – the bulk of the teams in the first heat (Viking Sisters, Young Guns, Big Rigs, Stacked… the team names are definitely another huge plus for Spartan) came a cropper on the second-up Tyre Swing. And the ‘Spartan Arena’ set design, seemingly based on the chemical plant from Tim Burton’s Batman, still looks appropriately ridiculous for this genre of television.

Channel 7 broadcasters Edwina Bartholomew and Hamish McLachlan gamely struggled to commentate a sport they have likely never seen before, while hormer league star Wendell Sailor assumes the Freddy Flintoff role. Milling around the edge of the course in a flat cap he looked more like a cabby waiting to drive the teams back to their hotel than interview them after their race.

It might do its best to give the impression it’s the poor man’s Ninja Warrior, but no other reality show this year will match the inspirational sight of Phil from Unit 5.5 completing the course with his mates just a year out from having his lower leg amputated. Other formats have their strengths, but Australian Spartan is the people’s obstacle course.

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