Nitro Circus

MTV’s Nitro Circus could make you hurl. And question gravity, mortality, and the meaning of existence. Brought to you by producer Johnny Knoxville, this child of Jackass is yet another show about male bonding via masochistic pranks. But it has upped the daredevil ante. As these guys (and one gal) fling themselves into the Grand Canyon on motorcycles or base-jump from the roof of the Palms Casino in Las Vegas, their stunts are bigger because their skills are. It’s breathtaking and yet painful to watch.

Head honcho Travis Pastrana, one of the most decorated motorcyclists and action sports stars in the world, has no fear. After all, he was the first (and so far only) person to land a double back flip on his motorcycle in competition (X Games Freestyle Motocross, 2006). And he’s been a Motocross and Freestyle Motocross champion since he was a teen (he’s just 25 now), as well as enduring dozens of surgeries, broken bones, and concussions. In footage included in the series, he races his rally car, flips it, and it rolls violently over a dozen times in a horrendous crash. As the mangled car comes to rest, Pastrana asks his co-pilot if he’s still alive, and then yells with glee at the experience. A camera in the car shows a stomach-lurching view of what it’s like to be in the crash. Ghost Rider has nothing on him. This ain’t CGI, buttercup.

Pastrana tests the limits of life and death and tries to outrun existential dilemmas (Is this all there is? What to do with your time here on Earth? Are we all existentially alone?). Each jump brings him to the brink. In the series’ first episode (“Welcome to Pastranaland,” i.e., his Annapolis compound and his altered state of reality), he somersaulted out of an airplane without a parachute, swimming through air and mugging for the camera while his buddies with chutes scrambled to catch him. He chugged Red Bull, challenged friendly nemesis Andy Bell to do a backflip off a jump on a pink Big Wheel. When Bell succeeded and Pastrana failed, Pastrana couyldn’t rest until he one-upped Bell, flipping a tricycle on a mega ramp — without dying or adding to his many injuries.

Streetbike Tommy, a fan turned friend, is the only non-pro among the trained athletes, and often called upon to try smaller tricks that still leave him bloody. Warrior Jolene Van Vugt often outdoes the men, sometimes even Pastrana. In “Lake Medina” (15 February), which featured the crew doing crazy dangerous water jumps at Pastrana’s lake house in Texas, she competed with Pastrana to see who could hold onto the legs of a whirling helicopter over a lake the longest.

In the most impressive episode to date, “Las Vegas” (22 February), Pastrana did the Grand Canyon. The idea was to jump into the Canyon on a bike, let go of the bike, and let it crash to the ground while he opened a parachute. Pastrana and Van Vugt did this successfully twice. Like Wile E. Coyote, he went splat but got right back up again. He flipped his bike several times into the air, opened the chute too late, and landed hard on the canyon floor. His helmet cam showed terrifying footage. Everyone rushed to the cliff’s edge, fearing the worst. Pastrana emerged with only road rash, cactus sticks, and a blown out knee, announcing, “Not to be a complete moron, but as bad as it went, it couldn’t have gone any better for that situation.”

The most telling part of the episode was a closing credit line: “In loving memory” of Jeremy Lusk, a young rider who died performing a hazardous trick in competition. Indeed, in this subculture, friends routinely greet each other with “Oh, you’re still alive.” When pressed, Pastrana lists possible motives: family, religion, and night terrors. His Marine drill sergeant father (who joins in on some stunts) put him on a motorcycle at age two and taught him he could do anything, that he should always push the boundaries. His mother prays her son won’t die.

The pop psychology leaves us with a general sense that he’s addicted to risk. When he and two comrades performed an illegal base-jump off the Palms, they nonchalantly ran off the roof, hurtled through thin air, and pulled the chutes just in time, leaving bar patrons gazing in awe and admiration. But Pastrana doesn’t even need the audience, because he’s content to be his own witness in his war with the unknown. Later that night, he jumped off again on his own, out the hotel window with no fanfare — but the show made sure you knew he did it.

RATING 7 / 10