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Falling Down

A new crop of game shows take on-air debasement to a new low

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A contestant faces a tough intellectual challenge on “Wipeout.”

As they are in most areas of absurd cultural production, the Japanese are way ahead of the rest of the world in creating ridiculous game shows that encourage contestants to injure or humiliate themselves on a regular basis. That penchant for injury and humiliation, minus most of the trademark Japanese nuttiness, makes its way to American TV this summer, starting, appropriately enough, with I Survived a Japanese Game Show (ABC, Tuesdays, 9 p.m.). A group of Americans are shipped to Tokyo and put through the paces of a typically bizarre Japanese game show called Majide (actually created specifically by the producers of Survived), with one contestant eliminated each week.

Wipeout: Episode 3, Part 4 - from YouTube.com

Anyone who’s watched imported footage online or caught Japanese game shows on satellite TV will know what to expect: contestants in silly costumes engaged in absurd tasks, like peddling a tricycle on a treadmill to avoid falling in a pool of freezing water. Even re-created by American producers, the game show within the show displays the kind of off-kilter creativity and good-natured cruelty that Japanese game shows have been perfecting for years. It’s everything that happens when the contestants aren’t appearing on Majide that drags Survived down, though. Structured like your typical reality show, with contestants living together and forced to form alliances and vote one person off each week, it ends up indulging in tired interpersonal drama that takes away from the fun of the game-show segments.

At least those segments feature a modicum of fun; Survived’s companion piece in the effort to bring Japanese-style competitions to the U.S., Wipeout (ABC, Tuesdays, 8 p.m.), is a painfully unfunny and repetitive take on the perilous obstacle courses no doubt familiar to viewers of Spike TV’s MXC (a repackaging of the Japanese game show Takeshi’s Castle with rerecorded satirical voiceovers). John Henson, a long way from his days as the clever host of Talk Soup, makes feeble jokes over the repeated spectacle of people, well, wiping out on giant contraptions designed to be impossible not to fall off of. While MXC mined humor from creating a fictional backstory for each repurposed episode, Wipeout can’t do anything but half-heartedly make fun of the average people who can’t stay on the red “big balls” that are the height of the show’s humor. It ends up like watching the same America’s Funniest Home Videos segment over and over again for an hour.

As dumb as Wipeout is, it’s genius compared to Hurl! (G4, Sundays, 7 p.m.), a crude, low-budget game show that forces participants to gorge themselves on some sort of rich food and then engage in some potentially vomit-inducing activity, like being rolled around in a giant metal ball. There’s no skill involved whatsoever (at least Wipeout rewards coordination), and while the winner of each episode of Wipeout gets $50,000, and the one person who survives the whole season of Japanese Game Show comes away with $250,000, on Hurl! contestants make themselves sick for the chance to net … $1,000. The show revels in repeated replays of vomit moments, and the graphics meant to cover up the bodily fluids are not nearly adequate.

Watching a real Japanese game show conjures up mixed feelings of glee at the rampant creativity and sadness for the desperate contestants who’ll do anything for money or attention. Watching shows like Wipeout and Hurl! is merely depressing, a reminder that when faced with a choice between originality and exploitation, American reality-TV producers will almost invariably choose the latter.

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