The premise for ABC's Wipeout is pretty simple: Hearty Americans of slightly above-average looks and strength compete in an escalatingly dumb series of physical competitions designed to make them fall over, usually into water. In a nation where viewers tune in to watch people yell at models holding briefcases, it's not surprising that Wipeout was a ratings hit when it debuted June 24. But what is surprising—or at any rate, curious—is that the show isn't even an original concept. It's merely the latest in a long line of Japanese game show imports, and those shows are having a greater impact on American reality TV than you realize.
Poking fun at the insanity of a Japanese game show isn't new. It's happened on Saturday Night Live, when a panicked Chris Farley had to decipher Mike Myers' "hilarious" pidgin speak to survive a lightning round; it still happens on The Colbert Report when host Stephen Colbert cuts away to footage of an actual game show in which women wear meat on their heads to tempt a lizard.
But now that mockery is being married with a shrewd commercialism as the very concepts that were once gently derided are Americanized. Hole in the Wall, a Japanese human Tetris game requiring contestants to contort themselves into unusual shapes lest they be (of course) knocked into a pool, is coming to Fox next season; the network has ordered 13 hours of the show, which can be cut to an even more troublesome 26 half-hours. Wipeout is itself a mishmash of multiple shows, including Takeshi's Castle, a Japanese show that CBS attempted to remake in 1993 but ditched after one episode. In a telling sign, Castle didn't find American love until it was redubbed as a spoof of itself and rebranded as MXC, or Most Extreme Elimination Challenge. It airs on Spike; your kid brother loves it. The physical challenges and the footage haven't been altered, but the added voice-overs turn what was a (semi-)serious game show into a comedy series about a game show, an admittedly head-splitting turn that's only rivaled by another ABC show, the meta-competition I Survived a Japanese Game Show.
Also bowing June 24, I Survived a Japanese Game Show is the perfect import because it's actually a self-reflexive travelogue/reality show that offers viewers the same old reality show trappings they're used to—tan caricatures of human beings, mood music, B-roll—and shoehorns them into a contest where Americans are flown to Japan to compete on a local show. MXC proved that American remakes of Japanese game shows only work if (a) all traces of the original are scrubbed and (b) the bits that do remain are chastised for their foreignness. Wipeout works because it's nothing but people getting beat down, while I Survived a Japanese Game Show works because the American contestants and viewers are safely surveying their new territory through the comforting and somewhat xenophobic lens of reality television, which reinforces any stereotype it can get near. The contestants are ostensibly there to compete on a game show, but what they're really doing is starring in a reality show about people willing to put themselves through something viewed as dumb in order to win prizes. Even the very title implies a sense of victory over something unpleasant: Not "I won," or even "I played." Just "I survived." The games are the same, but the attitudes are continents apart.
airs Tuesdays at 8 pm on ABC;
airs Tuesdays at 9 pm.