Wipeout's Wackiness Remains Infectious

Ross Langager

The show is never better than when it scores the sophomoric visual poetry of corkscrewing human bodies with the music of sly verbal cleverness.


Airtime: Thursdays, 9pm ET
Cast: John Anderson, John Henson, Vanessa Lachey
Subtitle: Season Five Premiere
Network: ABC
Director: J. Rupert Thompson
Air date: 2012-06-28

Any act of measured contemplation is anathema to Wipeout. Granted. But that doesn't mean someone hasn't put considerable creative energy into it.

Consider the obstacle courses that weekly litanies of lighty-padded contestants stumble through in a televised quest for $50,000. Carefully designed, they're manufactured for strength and safety by dedicated craftsmen, and festooned with writers' loopy concepts. That same writing staff places droll puns and amusing zingers into the mouths of always-game cohosts and blow-by-blow commentators John Anderson (straight man) and John Henson (funny man).

Goofy as they may be, these jokes typically hew to dominant gender and subcultural constructions. This much is on full display during the fifth season premiere of Wipeout, which includes a return engagement of last season’s so-called “Hotties vs. Nerds” contest. Rife with the most stereotypical assumptions about dim but attractive women and intelligent but socially inept young men, the show features quips from the Johns about the female contestants’ excessive attention to their looks and just as many stock jokes about the men's deficient social graces.

As in previous seasons, such characteristics lead instantly to nicknames. “Hotties vs. Nerds 2.0” showcases a video game enthusiast who makes monkey sounds; he is dubbed Dorky Kong, and burnishes his nerd bona fides by commenting on the “Coriolis effect” of a spinning course feature. A tuba-playing band geek, meanwhile, becomes Brass Man. A blonde whose defective math skills lost her a job as a blackjack dealer is the Blackjack Buster. And a boastful model gains the ironic adjective “modest.”

The juiciest comic specimen in the preliminary round, however, proves to be an unabashed coin collector who is given the nickname “The Numismatist” (that is, coin collector: you can't say Wipeout never taught you anything). His run through the gauntlet of padded-but-pain-dealing obstacles is accompanied by a relentless series of currency puns from the hosts, puns that are not unimpressive, and represent Wipeout at its most enjoyable. The show is never better than when it scores the sophomoric visual poetry of corkscrewing human bodies with the music of sly verbal cleverness.

Most of the time, Wipeout is quite wonderfully in touch with its unabashed silliness, as demonstrated by a forest-themed challenge in which the contestants have fleece animal hats stretched over their protective helmets (the Modest Model attempts a moose call, with hilarious results). This tone is unusual in the world of American comedy, which tends towards either the earnestly crude or the archly high-concept variety with little space in between. The giddy idiocy might be explained as an inheritance from the Japanese game shows whose mixture of cartoon surreality and repetitive pratfalls Wipeout approximates (and over whose copyrights Wipeout's creators have been sued). Whatever its origins, Wipeout’s wackiness remains infectious.

But there are other viruses in the new season's system that are less beneficial. The aforementioned Modest Model, for example, has an oddball sense of humor that complicates the clear-cut comic distinctions of the episode’s central conceit. Anderson and Henson never quite get a handle on this “hottie” with the self-awareness of a “nerd.” The collapse of rigid labels results in the failure of the comedy, which is none too encouraging a sign. In addition, new female sideline reporter Vanessa Lachey, who debuted on the show’s brief Winter Wipeout run a few months ago, is a significant step down from the ever-mugging Jill Wagner (and not just because Lachey is visibly pregnant with husband Nick’s child).

Most glaringly, as always, the climactic Wipeout Zone sequence remains an over-serious bummer. The rapid-fire punch-drunk delights of earlier rounds are therein muscled aside by the aggressive American sporting obsession with winning. In this final round, fleeting athletic glory suddenly becomes more important than laughing at the discomfort and the personality quirks of complete strangers. And really, where’s the fun in that? While expecting viewers to overlook the absurd expenditure of resources that goes into its production, Wipeout owes us fun at least.


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