“It’s Like Breaking Bad With Chilis”: We Are the Champions

We Are The Champions: Season 1. Brianna (AKA “Chili Queen”) in Episode 2, Chili Eating. c. Courtesy of Netflix © 2020
We Are The Champions: Season 1. Brianna (AKA “Chili Queen”) in Episode 2, Chili Eating. c. Courtesy of Netflix © 2020 /

Netflix and Rainn Wilson have teamed up to deliver a competition show with elan, We Are the Champions.

To quote Rod Serling, “There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity.” In his case, those iconic words described The Twilight Zone, but for me, I’m invoking them to best capture my reaction to Netflix’s new We Are the Champions.

To continue, “It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” Over 60 years removed from their origin, these words rang true while watching two specific episodes from the Rainn Wilson-produced series.

Bear with me here. Yes, I’m referring to a quote from television days gone by, but they strike me as fitting when talking about, the new Netflix show,  We Are the Champions. And I mean that in the most flattering way possible because my initial skepticism quickly turned to viewing enjoyment.

Each installment of We Are the Champions shines the spotlight on a different form of competition, and instead of taking the yuk-yuk approach of ESPN The Ocho, it introduces us to people from all walks of life who have a genuine passion for their quest. They may be quirky, and their pursuit may be beyond my skillset or bravery, but they’re also authentic and endearing, which creates a connection with the viewer.

Episode 1, Cheese Rolling

Call me crazy, but I like my cheese melty or spready or dippy. I’ve never wandered into the kitchen or sat down for a meal with a compulsion to roll some cheese, yet across the pond, there are many who would beg to differ.

As Executive Producer and Narrator Rainn Wilson described, “in this bastion of agriculture, there is no tradition more powerful than cheese…rolling.” It was the dramatic pause after “cheese” that hooked me for the duration, as it was followed by a slow-motion visual introduction to the competition. If run at full-speed, we’d be treated to bodies cascading dangerously down an English hillside, but in slo-mo, it’s pure grace and elegance. And therein lies the charm and amusement of We Are the Champions.

Ah yes, the majesty of watching a wheel of cheese rumble down a steep—and I do mean steep—Cooper’s Hill in Gloucestershire, England at 80 miles per hour. And it’s followed by throngs of eager participants who are at best giving gravity a good name and at worst heading towards awaiting ambulances and medical professionals. And still, it is truly charming. And cringe-worthy, meant in the very best way.

While this cheese rolling competition, presented We are the Champions-style, would be compelling enough TV as it is, we’re pulled in even more by one of its competitors. Florence Early is everything you want in a protagonist. With her sweet smile, pixie haircut, and Evel Knievel-esque fearlessness, Flo instantly grabs you by the heartstrings. Yes, she’s loveable, and yes, she’s daring, but she’s also good, multi-time Cheese Rolling Champion good.

We Are The Champions
We Are The Champions: Season 1. Florence Early in Episode 1, Cheese Rolling. c. Courtesy of Netflix © 2020 /

“When you see that hill, if you’re the type of person who likes that kind of thing, you can’t not want to run down it” says Early in describing the allure of Cheese Rolling, though I think calling what she and her competitors do running is taking a bit of creative license. The Von Trapps frolicking on an Austrian hillside this isn’t. But what it is works for Flo and so many others, resulting in a treasured tradition for locals and fun television for us.

Episode 2, Chili Eating

When a show’s narration begins with “How do you measure pain?”,  I’m usually inclined to reach for the remote, but knowing that the line is referencing the consumption of chilis, I opted to stay with the festivities. And festivities they are, originating from Fort Mill, South Carolina, a small township located just south of Charlotte, North Carolina.

Why Fort Mill? Well, because that’s the home of Smokin’ Ed Currie, who is arguably the world’s foremost authority on peppers and inventor of the world’s hottest chili pepper—the Carolina Reaper. Like you, when I hear the word “inventor”, I think of pioneers like Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and the Wright Brothers, not some guy who grows peppers. But Currie, through his PuckerButt Pepper Company, is in fact an inventor and is perpetually striving to outdo himself via Scoville Heat Units.

This episode’s focus, courtesy of Currie, is the first-ever World Championship of Chili Pepper Eating. Described by narrator Wilson as “a test of human endurance and the razor’s edge of sanity and stomach,”  the event drew competitors from around the globe, an eclectic group with little more in common than an impressive threshold for gustatory pain.

Smokin’ Ed Currie, “the Willy Wonka of peppers”, is the self-labeled “mad scientist” whose apparent life mission is to take SHUs to infinity and beyond. And with each new creation or invention, there are legions of masochists awaiting their chance to tackle the challenge of consuming the fruits of his devious labor. And yes, peppers are fruits, not vegetables.

Unlike the annual Nathan’s hot dog eating contest, Smokin’ Ed’s chili eating competition does not have the air of parody or theatre. These people, who have come to compete from as far away as Australia and the UK, are in Fort Mill because of their shared passion and the daunting task that awaits them. One has a more compelling story than the next, which quickly entices viewers to root for their personal favorite. It makes for fascinating television.

With We Are the Champions, Rainn Wilson and his team have produced precisely the type of TV programming that 2020 is crying out for.

Don’t get me wrong; the competitions featured on We Are the Champions are far from traditional, and it would be easy to dismiss them as folly, but what Wilson has done is treat them as theatre. Regardless of whether he did so with tongue planted firmly-in-cheek—and I’m pretty certain that he did–Wilson succeeded. From the narration to the music to the style, We are the Champions views like the most sophisticated of PBS shows, and it’s exactly for that reason that I found watching so eminently enjoyable.

Related Story. Phil Rosenthal is back with Season 4 of Somebody Feed Phil!. light

Do you have a tolerance for spicy foods? Would you ever dare try eating Smokin’ Ed’s Carolina Reaper?