Can man outwit a ferocious beast?

The stadium scene.
Jan. 16 2003 5:26 PM

Aaron Sorkin Mauled by Fox

The disturbing appeal of Man vs. Beast.

Still from Man vs. Beast
Bear experiences the thrill of victory

Poor Aaron Sorkin. First, The West Wing is assailed by the roses and pathos of The Bachelorette. Now, he finds his literate, meaningful drama competing for viewers with the spectacle of 44 "little people" pulling a DC-10 in a race against an elephant. Let's face it—it's no contest. How can walking purposefully through hallways while having enlightening discussions on tax policy match a test of strength between a sumo wrestler and an orangutan?

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Just when the other networks started to muscle in on Fox's chokehold on moron television, Rupert Murdoch's boys gave us a little reminder last night of just who is king of lowbrow county. Man vs. Beast, the one-hour special that matched human and animal in various feats of athleticism, should have been titled When Bad Sports-Bar Debates Get Greenlighted. Who hasn't sat around the bar arguing over who would win a fight between a shark and an alligator?

Man vs. Beast got under way with Takeru Kobayashi, veteran of another Fox foray into appointment television, TheGlutton Bowl, taking on a Kodiak bear in a hot-dog eating contest. Not content with the interspecies rivalry, Fox built the drama by making it Japan vs. the United States, complete with flags overhanging the electrified rings (protection against the bear making Takeru his main course after the hot-dog appetizer). It was the Battle of Midway all over again as Our Bear crushed the foreign interloper. Unfortunately, guest analyst Michael Buffer refused to climb into the ring for the post-fight interview, a task I like to think Howard Cosell would've undertaken with, uh, relish.

Japan took it on the chin again in the next battle, as the orangutan pulled the sumo wrestler into a mudpit after a tug of war. The boys back at the basho couldn't have been happy with the desecration of their sport, but given the sumo champion's accent, he must have been the grand champion of Orange County. A former Navy SEAL got some primate payback by whipping a chimpanzee in an obstacle course straight outta Quantico, then rubbed it in by calling his foe a "wannabe human." Sorry, chimp, try the Marines.

Surprisingly, the low point of the telecast wasn't the much-hyped "Duel in the Desert" between the pachyderm and the pint-sized, each lugging a DC-10. That race was actually entertaining, not to mention close, with the elephant squeezing out a narrow victory over nearly four dozen opponents.

No, the nadir was a pair of 100-meter races between a runner named Steve Crawford and those sprinters of the savannah, a giraffe and a zebra. Predictably, the human defeated the confused-looking giraffe, which almost fell during the race, while the zebra blew Crawford away. During this spectacle, one couldn't help but be reminded of Jesse Owens, who after returning from smashing Hitler's propaganda at the Berlin Olympics was consigned to racing against horses in Jim Crow America. Crawford's nickname, "Cheetah Man," and regular references to his predatory instincts upped the wince factor. The guest analyst was former Olympian Carl Lewis, who advised that in order to win, the zebra must "realize it's a race." Lewis somehow managed to stay peppy through the competition, although on the humiliation scale, the only thing lower than racing animals has to be commentating on it.