It sounds like the kind of thing that would emerge either from the mind of an imaginative 9-year-old or an alcohol-fueled barroom bet: who would win in a battle between a pirate and a knight? Or how about between a Spartan and a ninja?
But the concept actually was hatched by a full-fledged, card-carrying grown-up and presumably sober television producer who made it into a hit for Spike, the cable channel aimed squarely at young men. "The Deadliest Warrior," which returns Tuesday with a 90-minute special (7:30 p.m., Channel 44) followed by the second season premiere, pits fighters from different eras and cultures against each other to see who's the best at war and weaponry.
Part reality TV and part "300," part history lesson and part testosterone-juiced science project, "The Deadliest Warrior" uses experts on both sides, weapon demonstrations, re-enactments, and a computer program that tabulates 1,000 possible fight outcomes to declare a winner every week.
It has also spawned an online-only show, "The Deadliest Warrior: Aftermath," in which a recent episode is discussed and dissected. The result is one of the most entertaining outbursts of geek-cool on the small screen since the G4 network began importing the athletic Japanese game show "Ninja Warrior."
Of course, the whole ninjas vs. pirates thing has been hotly debated on the Net for ages but series creator/producer Gary Tarpinian wanted to take it to the next level.
"I've always loved history and I would make these shows for the History Channel or Discovery to tell the story of Gettysburg or whatever. I love that stuff but it's not really connecting to today's younger viewers," he recalls in a phone interview from his Los Angeles office. "I knew I had to tell stories in a different style and, at the same time, I love games like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter.
"So, my vision is two warriors who could not be more different, from across time and space, who never would have met, what would happen if they fought?"
So "The Deadliest Warrior" would move beyond ninjas and pirates to include gladiators, Apaches, samurai, and Shaolin monks as well as some eyebrow-raising choices from the semiautomatic era: the Mafia, the Yakuza, the IRA and the Taliban.
Tarpinian approached the networks he had worked with before and found himself about as welcome as a Viking off the English coast. "Not only did they all say 'no' to me, I went back a second time and every network rejected me twice," he says. "Then I pitched Spike and they were wanting to get into non-fiction in a cool way ... So we don't have an old-fashioned history show that appeals to guys who are 50. We're going to cover the same ground but you're going to have this horse race of who's ahead and culminates in the end with the computer saying who wins."
Spike's gamble paid off, with an average of 1.8 million viewers during the first season (a solid number for a cable outlet). It is the network's best-selling series on downloads.
As might be expected, there has been some online blowback for the choice of warriors, especially those that have existed or still exist in modern times. For example, the second season features Viet Cong vs. Nazi SS and Somali pirates vs. the Medellin cartel.
"This is a show in which we're not celebrating what these people do or condoning it," says Tarpinian. "It's a fact that there are Somalis hijacking ships and these are the weapons they have and this is the climate in that country that produced them. If we did a straightforward doc, people would say we could show it on CNN. But we're showing the same information through this slightly wacky prism of fighting each other."