Winter Wipeout

Up through 1992, the Winter and Summer Olympics were held at different points in the same year. It wasn't until 1994 that the IOC started to break them up, with the winter games held one year and the summer games coming along two years after that. I guess the rest of the world has made its peace with this, but I've never really felt good about it. When I was a boy, "the Olympics" were a single, two-headed entity, something big to be herded through the national consciousness in the space of seven or eight months, with a little breather in between, before being forgotten about for a good four-year stretch.

When I first heard about Winter Wipeout, I was concerned that history might be repeating itself. Did its appearance on the schedule mean that the summer edition, or, if you will, "old school Wipeout", wouldn't be returning until 2012? No, thank Christ. Winter Wipeout officially amounts to one-third of the fourth season of Wipeout proper, the bulk of which will still be here when the weather heats up and viewers' brain cells start flatlining like so many unpopped kernels at the bottom of a Pop Secret bag. If you're reading this, you may have started wondering what the hell any of this has to do with the price of tea in China, but I like to think of myself as the kind of guy who can see the positive side to anything, and when you're trying to find something positive to see in Wipeout, it pays to let your mind wander a little.

You could be forgiven for having assumed that the Wipeout format is intrinsically summery, like film comedies in which fat guys experience bladder control issues while visiting a water park or outdoor productions of Shakespeare plays performed by movie stars whose closest thing to experience at speaking in Iambic pentameter was when they cut their rap CD. Actually, the whole thing adapts to a snowy-postcard look and feel quite well. Our hosts, slumming SportsCenter anchor John Anderson and smirking butthead John Henson, a man who was put on this Earth so that Greg Kinnear could have someone to look at and think "There but for the grace of God... ", preside over a G-rated carnival of horrors, watching from a safe distance as enthusiastic contestants vie for the chance to make it through a series of obstacle courses that might have been designed by Dr. Seuss, working from a rough blueprint by Dr. Evil, if not Dr. Mengele. Any of those three guys would be more directly involved in the process, though. Anderson and Butthead have about the same relation to what they're commenting on as the host of America's Funniest Home Videos (on the air for 21 years and still going strong! I know, because, to my great surprise, I just saw a commercial for it while I was watching this!) and might as well be reporting from a fallout shelter on a faraway continent.

It's hard to blame them; it does look cold down there. The contestants are running, jumping, and crawling through various life-sized Mattel set-ups that have been constructed in a snowy field decorated with pine trees. If you didn't notice any of that, your biggest clue that this is"Winter" Wipeout would be the contestants' body types and how it affects your feelings about what you're seeing. For those in truly desperate need of entertainment in the dog days of summer, Wipeout may offer the bored viewer a chance to see a pair of pretty legs in motion, at least until the legs are caked with mud, along with the passing thought that the one out-of-shape guy getting his wheeze on might just have a heart attack that they'll have forgotten to edit it out. Watching the winter edition, one is happy to see that many of the contestants look a little more fleshy than athletic, to the point that you come to feel grateful for every extra spoonful of gravy that's passed through their lips. They all spend an awful lot of time being knocked off their asses into pools of water, and the way that water looks, insulation is an issue. As a bracing reminder of how being required to survive in nature can force you to rethink your priorities, Sarah Palin's Alaska had nothing on Winter Wipeout.

Not that the contestants seem to mind any of it; even the poor bastard who was made to dress up in a marching band costume looked as if he had nothing he'd have rather been doing that day and no place in the world he'd have rather been doing it. One of the finalists, a big, goofy bear of a guy who offered the deathless explanation for his nickname, "Some people call me Fruitcake, but you know, I just love fruitcake," barreled through his challenges, remaining in good spirits even when, faced with getting past one obstruction to the finish line, he employed a strategy that basically amounted to taking one direct blow to the nuts after another. He also kept bellowing his nickname, thus taking charge of his responsibility as a good reality TV guest to turn himself into a cartoon for the convenience of the folks at home. ("Reality TV" is ABC's preferred classification for Wipeout, presumably because Bob Barker has threatened to send a letter bomb to anyone who calls it a game show.)

Kelsey, a tour guide who whupped even Fruitcake in both the game itself and the telegenic personality category, made her entrance shouting, "I'm on television, and America's about to watch me get hurt!" with a smile that most people would hold in reserve until they needed it to tell Grandma that they'd won the lottery. She won my heart when she fell into the water, which looked as if it had been treated with battery acid and melted Milky Way bars, screamed "My eyes!", and tried to ease the pain by rubbing more of the water into her face. I find it hard to dislike these people, even the woman who, having admitted that her only interesting personal characteristic is her ability to lick her own elbow, kept doing it as if she thought it might win her own series. Discounting the personal humiliation of any kids they might have, they're not hurting anybody, which is more than can be said for some people who are out there trying to fulfill their destiny as Americans by being on TV. You sure can't say they aren't working on their fifteen minutes.

I've heard it said that a show like this represents the Japanization of American TV, a view that executives at the Tokyo Broadcasting System have taken seriously enough to file suit for copyright infringement over it. The good gentlemen of Tokyo should get over themselves. ABC may have asked for this by originally broadcasting Wipeout in tandem with the defunct I Survived a Japanese Game Show, but the show has western antecedents going back at least as far as the '70s series Almost Anything Goes, which in turn was adapted from the perennial English time-waster It's a Knockout (which was itself inspired by some French piece of crap). Wipeout has also been praised because, in a pop culture landscape overpopulated with decaying, flesh-eating zombies and middle-aged guys with 'roid rage kicking the shit out of some hapless extra to find out where the next bomb is going to go off, it gives multigenerational families who enjoy each other's company something they can watch together. This does nothing for me, because I don't have any damn kids and never will and am barely on speaking terms with my cat, but I just thought I'd mention it, to be sweet.

Wipeout does have the potential to just be silly, which would be fine with me: I like silliness. I hate stupid, though. The ironic thing about the show is that what pushes it that extra quarter-inch into stupid is the degree of care and thought you can sense has gone into making it just dopey enough. The funny sound effects and the dumb jokes by the hosts and the interplay between the contestants and the location presenter Jill Wagner aren't done so that they're hammy and over-the-top, because the people involved want to keep their dignity. All that the show of restraint does, though, is make the viewer who's smart enough to notice it feel that he's being implicated in the producers' contempt for their own audience. So long as you're in the nut shot business, you might as well embrace your calling and lay your fart noises on the soundtrack, brassy and proud.