ABC introduced two Japanese-inspired gameshows on Tuesday, but the combined effect only highlighted the cultural rift. “Wipeout,” a knockoff of a U.S. spoof of a Japanese show (how meta is that?), feels mean-spirited and heavy on rim shots; while “I Survived a Japanese Game Show” is an elimination game with an “Amazing Race” wrinkle, and some of the ugliest Americans that reality casting gurus have dredged up yet. If nothing else, consider this another demonstration of the new-media drift, as both shows are probably better consumed online in two-minute clips than absorbed over a tedious hour.
“Wipeout” is essentially derived from “MXC,” the Spike cable network’s wry “Most Extreme Elimination Challenge,” which took a wacky old Japanese stunt show and –a la Woody Allen’s “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” — dubbed the hosts and contestants. Yet with ESPN’s John Anderson flanked by comic John Henson dashing off witticisms better suited to his old gig on E!’s “The Soup,” the exercise has a nasty, repetitive tone, frequently touting the show as one where “people risk bodily harm so you can point and laugh.”
Nobody was harmed during the premiere, but nobody came close to finishing the opening obstacle course without several slow-motion-replay spills, either. Indeed, some of the exaggerated hazards appeared virtually impossible to navigate, making the spectacle less an “American Gladiators”-style competition (for $50,000! Woo-hoo!) than an excuse to watch people get soaked in mud and carom off oversized rubber balls before plunging into water.
“It never gets old,” useless co-host Jill Wagner chortled. But it does, and with surprising alacrity — as does Anderson and Henson’s smug borscht-belt banter, which practically screams for zany sound effects.
“I Survived a Japanese Game Show,” by contrast, adopts the format of a conventional elimination contest set in an exotic locale, with 12 Americans whisked off to Japan. They remain unclear on what the game is right up until they’re divided into two teams and forced to compete on a you-know-what.
Still, the Japanese fascination with absurd stunts (dressing two players as huge bugs and having them splat against a wall, for example) and public humiliation as good TV fun has a rather acrid taste stripped of cultural context. The only compensating factor to a Japanese studio audience howling and jeering at the U.S. competitors, in fact, is that the “I ain’t never been outside of the country” Americans chosen to participate are, initially, equally poor ambassadors.
Based strictly on the promos — which seemed to air constantly throughout the NBA playoffs — these series possessed the look of a welcome summer romp. The solid premiere ratings for “Wipeout,” in particular, suggest that it at least might work out that way, though given “Gladiators’” downward rating arc, it might also have a rapid expiration date.
As executed, though, what should have been mindless fun somehow feels more like one step closer to “The Running Man.” And when we finally get to that point, the joke’s on all of us.