Friday, May 29, 2009

Looking at: Wipeout! Season 2

God, I wish this show was on every day.

Well, maybe not. Maybe it would get old. But having watched the premiere the other night I had to say goddamn. It's good to have this show back.

"Wipeout!" is basically an American version of a Japanese obstacle-course game show. I got into these in college, back during the underground-tape days when you had to know people passing around videotapes to see anything cool. These days it's a hell of a lot easier obviously, now the cool kids just post it to YouTube or torrent it or whatever. Now don't get me wrong, this is not the part where I talk about how I was into something before it was cool. I can't help my past. I'm just saying I saw a tape of a show called "Takeshi's Castle" back in the day and I thought it was cool. And in later years I've tracked down captures of the actual show as well as "Ninja Warrior" and enjoyed them a lot. So last year when ABC launched "Wipeout!" I was enthused about it.

I think the thing I love about the Japanese obstacle-course shows is their sheer impossibility. Especially "Ninja Warrior" - very few people have finished these courses. They make up for this by just throwing a shed-load of people at the course. If everyone fails on the first or second obstacle, that's okay. There's someone else dressed up in a weird costume right behind them. That's the other thing people like to do on these shows. A lot of the contestants have attempted multiple times - "Ninja Warrior" has been on for years - and some of them have great stories. I think my favorite is the guy who competes in a gas station uniform, which apparently they still wear in Japan. He started out as a pump attendant, competing mostly every year, and every time he came back he'd gotten promoted. By the most recent time he competed I think he owned a couple of stations. Stories like that are great, especially when they're not conveyed by weepy interview segments hosted by Bob Costas. You just find out about them later after you read the translation.

The problems with watching these shows are obvious. Most of the time when you find them they are marathon-length, running 2 or 3 hours, and of course they are entirely in Japanese. I don't think the foreign language detracts at all, because basically when a guy is trying to leapfrog across some floating logs and the announcers are screaming and then he falls it's pretty universal. The length is still daunting, though, but they're good in snippets if you can remember what part you were on last. That's tougher than you'd think since these things go so well with drinking.

So it was interesting to see what we'd do with the format. I'm not one of those people who reflexively hate America and American TV so I wasn't on the Internet talking about how the show sucked before it even came out. I've never been that much of a fan of anything, really. Anyway, the American format dispenses with the idea of failing an obstacle knocking you out of the competition and just lets you keep going. That way you keep score just by who has the best time. They start with twelve people from the "qualifier" and slowly work it down over four courses. Last season the last course had three contestants, this year it's four for some reason, I guess they figured they had too many people winning by default on that one. Overall I approve of the show's format. I like how there are only a limited number of people to follow. Makes it easier to pick someone and root for them. Letting people keep going if their time is good helps keep the show short and always guarantees someone wins, there have been Japanese obstacle shows where no one finished the course!

The obstacles are hilarious and, pace NTV, I don't think rip off their shows so much as pay homage to them. They're different enough for me and anyway their shows aren't broadcast here, unless you count "Most Extreme Elimination", which I don't because the show sucks, imagine watching one of these shows with two really unfunny drunk guys making fun of Japanese people because they talk funny and you're close. But then I never liked What's Up, Tiger Lily? either. I wonder what the status of the lawsuit is, I guess I could do some research and find out.

The hosts are okay, their writing is a little better this season. John Anderson played more of a straight man last season; he still kind of does but he's more in on the joke this time around, and that's good. Generic sports commentary is bad enough without including it in a show like this. John Henson is still funny most of the time, I liked him back when he was doing "Talk Soup" when they still called it that. The spots they do in the studio are usually lame, so hopefully we'll see less of them (they're not skits, really just John Henson clowning). Henson is better filling in with jokes as people fall all over themselves; he does a good job of setting up a laugh or getting a chain-laugh and doesn't step on a laugh too much. I think he knows that the real comedy in the show is watching people fall off the obstacles in hilarious ways.

I'll admit I'm the type to overthink things. Part of me wants to examine what enjoying a show like this says about me and our culture as a whole. But for right now I haven't completely wrestled with it enough to form coherent thoughts into words. Mostly because I'm too busy laughing my head off.

Follow the link to find out the schedule and all that.

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