Friday, July 10, 2009

Capsule Review Cavalcade: Adults Acting Silly

Grown people competing in obstacle courses has become a hitmaker on TV over the past few years. One might trace the recent rash of adult stunt shows back to "MXC," the Spike TV redubbing of the Japanese game show classic "Takeshi's Castle." These subsequent efforts highlight the same thing we watched "MXC" for - people falling about in an attempt to complete a difficult physical task. One of the shows I'll review in this capsule cavalcade was adapted from Japan. One of these shows is another redub.

Ninja Warrior; G4
"Ninja Warrior" takes the long-running Japanese show "Sasuke" and cuts it up into 30 minute bites. On "Sasuke," 100 competitors come from all over the world to conquer Mount Midoryama. The game is divided into four different obstacle courses. The first two stages are speed runs. Contenders traverse a number of obstacles trying to beat the clock before it expires. Any time a player makes a mistake, they're prone to fall into the pit of muddy water underneath most of the structure. A majority of the competitors are eliminated in the first round. The third stage has no time limit, and uses mostly upper body strength. Whoever's left attempts the fourth stage, which is a thunderously fast climb to the top of "the mountain" (actually a big network of scaffolding) on a rope or similar device. Ultimate winners who complete all four stages receive a cash prize of approximately $37,000 American as of the latest tournament. In the show's first 12 years, comprising 22 competitions, two people have achieved this feat.

I agree that having such a tough game adds mystique and excitement to reaching the final stage, but I don't know if I'd have the same patience as our Far East friends if this were a first-run American series. 12 years and two winners? Enjoyed this way, where one season's competition can comprise only a few half hours, you don't notice as much. Especially when G4 runs it as part of a marathon, which is often. I like analyzing the techniques on the various obstacles, and talking with whoever's watching with me about what one competitor did right versus what another did wrong. The regular competitors are another highlight. Aside from the "all-stars" who do well, there's a stable of colorful characters that never make it far, but show up year after year to fail again for our amusement.

G4's editing of the show is weird. Sometimes they'll cut out entire runs of the course - in later stages no less, where there are only a dozen or so competitors. This would be excusable, except it's sometimes used to condense two whole stages into one half hour. Milk this cash cow, G4! The American announcer isn't the greatest, but his cheesy delivery sometimes adds to the charm. I can't watch it consistently, but when I'm in the mood? Bring on the marathon!

Hole in the Wall; FOX
Here's another import from Japan, but this one is format only. Once upon a time, videos of "human Tetris" sprung up on YouTube. These were clips of a Japanese game show where contenders see a hole in a styrofoam wall that's coming at them, and attempt to contort their body to fit through it. Failure meant a dignity-stealing fall into the pool. The misfires were hilarious, and the victories fun as well. So FOX, ever the "innovator," decided to bring it over here. Two teams of three face off. The game starts with a "solo wall." One contender from each team attempts to clear a shape for one point. The game moves to walls involving two or all three members of the team for more points. The winning team after the three rounds collects $25,000, and attempts the "Blind Wall." One teammate is chosen to take on this final wall blindfolded, while the other two describe the body manipulation necessary to fit. If the player clears, the team splits $100,000.

The hosts are Brooke Burns and Mark Thompson.
I liked Brooke Burns on "Dog Eat Dog," but she is sadly miscast here as a scream-til-you're-hoarse sideline reporter, while Mark Thompson turns the smarm to 11 as the main host. Everybody on set seems to be experiencing a sugar high, and it makes sticking through the half hour a chore. The main attraction is people looking silly trying to fit through walls. Perhaps the appeal only extended to those 3-minute YouTube chunks. The walls are often clever, but is it enough to base a game around? ** (I do like the animation sequences before each round, though.)

Wipeout; ABC
On this summer hit, 24 contestants take on an obstacle course meant to make them look like fools. Most of the obstacles are impossible to get through, and result in many hilarious wipeouts (hence the title of the show). Signature stunts include the "Sucker Punch," a wall of moving boxing gloves the contestant can only get past on a small ledge; and "Big Balls," a series of four huge inflatable red balls the contestant tries to walk over. In a nod to its inspiration from Japanese game shows, contestants flail into a body of water when they fail to complete an obstacle. However, contenders here are allowed to continue the course, swimming to the next task.

The 12 people with the fastest time through the qualifying course play "The Sweeper." Standing on clockwise-arranged pedestals, the contestants try to avoid a sweeping arm knocking them into the water. The first 6 to survive move on to the third round, with the last one standing earning a $1,000 bonus. In round three, the contenders are whittled down again with a new stunt to a final four. The last round, "The Wipeout Zone" is a larger obstacle course with similar tasks to complete. Whoever marks the fastest time there collects $50,000.

"Wipeout" puts more of a traditional game-show-type game behind all the courses, and it works. The final round is where it wears more of a "Fear Factor" mask, pushing the drama up, along with the cannons of fire in the background. But it fits when it's in the context of the Big Money Final Round. The commentators are ESPN's John Anderson and former "Talk Soup" host John Henson. I was a big "Soup" fan during his run, and enjoy seeing him here. The producers knowingly put the game on the backburner in the first round, giving the show a "YouTube appeal" of watching fall after fall. The tasks in the later rounds are also fun. One third round I particularly liked was "the dreadmill" where contestants ran against a conveyor belt that had inflatable fish and tennis balls impeding their progress. The producers struck a good balance here of game and humor. I enjoy my weekly dose of wipeouts. ***¾

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