“Arm wrestling is not a sport,” says one man, basically a talking bicep, in the premiere of AMC’s new docuseries, Game of Arms. “It’s a way of life.”
The man, a walking cloud of testosterone, says this with utmost sincerity. He is very serious about arm wrestling. And so are the other members of the New York Arms Control, a local New York City-based arm wrestling club that will compete against rival clubs from all over the country in the first season of Game of Arms. They are all so, so serious. About arm wrestling.
It’s all that seriousness that makes Game of Arms so fun.
The series, the first episode of which airs Tuesday night, fights its own wrestling match of sorts: how to present the outlandish earnestness of the excessive machismo and clichés of permeating this obscure sport with enough respect that we take these people as seriously as they take themselves while also sending up that self-importance so that the show is entertaining without being exploitative parody.
One of the first lines of the show strikes that balance perfectly, setting the tone for a full season of fascinating lunacy. “There’s nothing like the feeling 30 seconds before I put my arm on the table,” says one of the competitors. “When I tell people I’m a professional arm wrestler, they laugh. They give me a look and say, ‘Is that a real thing?’ I just say, ‘You’re goddamned right it is.’”
It’s an astute way to begin the series, because it addresses the bulging-muscled, tattooed, grunting elephant in the room: professional arm wrestling is, apparently, a real thing. Groups of men gather—in gyms, in basements, in abandoned warehouses—and build communities around the sport, getting family and friends involved with this “way of life.” Game of Arms chronicles the training of clubs from Eerie, Kansas City, Sacramento, Baton Rouge, and New York City, with each episode concluding with a regional match between two of the groups. It all leads up to an end-of-season tournament where cash and glory are prizes of equal weight.
So what, pray tell, does a television series about two grown men doing battle by holding hands look like?
To begin with, there’s a lot of footage of the “look how startlingly strong these people are” variety. Because these people are so very strong. There’s footage of them at the gym. There’s footage of them training. There’s footage of one man bending a frying pan in half because he is so strong.
There are several brilliant Rocky-like training montages, showing how these arm wrestlers use their natural habitats to train. These montages are of the “look at all the weird places a person can do pull ups” variety. There are many pull ups in Game of Arms. One of the Sacramento arm wrestlers does pull ups in the wilderness, using tree branches as a pull up bar. The New York City club transforms the streets into their jungle gym. One guy uses a tension band to tone his muscles while driving down the streets of Queens.
More frequent than pull ups, however, is yelling. There is so much yelling. There appears to be a simple two-step formula to transform yourself into a professional arm wrestler. Step one: do a pull up. Step two: yell every time you finish a pull up. Then, apparently, repeat.
But don’t be fooled! “Arm wrestling is more heart than biceps,” one of the featured athletes says. (If there’s one thing Game of Arms doesn’t lack, it’s amazing sports clichés like these.) True to the statement, the series does an admirable job showing the communities being built around arm wrestling: the brotherhood between club teammates, how training impacts families (one wife is not pleased that her alarm clock has been replaced by her husband’s training grunting at 5:30 a.m.), and the pride taken by everyone involved when one of their own ekes out an arm wrestling victory.
Which brings us to the premiere’s climax, the actual arm wrestling. What does a professional arm wrestling match look like? Actually, we’ve all seen it before. It looks exactly like it did in fifth grade when the entire class would crowd around a cafeteria table while Bobby and Danny wanted to settle a lunch money dispute. There is an orbit of screaming, shouting, manic people, some jumping up and down like overenthusiastic hype men, surrounding a teeny-tiny little nucleus: two dudes at a small table holding hands.
The energy is palpable. The silliness, equally so.
At the end of the episode, one team prevails against the other, winning three matches in a best-of-five contest. They are awarded $1,000, to split amongst the entire team. The victors celebrate as if they were just given access to all the gold in Fort Knox, to do with what they will. The elation is absurd, and therefore all the more endearing.
That success of Game of Arms—with its silliness, ridiculousness, and absurdity—as a reality show and docu-series reflects how much the genre has morphed since its conception. Trailblazing experiments like An American Family and The Real World used the format of reality television to present encapsulated portraits representative of all of us, the goal that through the depiction of these “characters,” a patchwork of people can together make up at least a blurry reflection of society as a whole.
These days, however, reality TV seeks out fringe cultures: weirdos, wingnuts, and wild groups of people for us to gawk at and be entertained by. There’s Duck Dynasty, Jersey Shore, Real Housewives—series that focus the lens on people that almost none of us can identify with, rather than those almost all of us can. Game of Arms certainly is an evolution of that mission. How many of us can say we identify with those who devote their lives to the world of arm wrestling?
Before the closing credits, the rest of the season of Game of Arms is previewed. “A lot of people arm wrestle,” says one of the athletes. “But there’s a very small percentage of people who are arm wrestlers.” True words, sir.