On June 24, 2008, Wipeout debuted on American television ... and changed everything.
In fairness, the competitive obstacle course, which featured perpetually optimistic and perpetually doomed contestants hurtling themselves headlong—often literally—into foam turbines and supersize bouncy balls, didn’t exactly come out of a vacuum.
Wipeout, in fact, bore strong similarities to a number of Japanese game shows, including one called Sasuke. While American game shows historically have rarely strayed from the host-podium-stage setup, that is delightfully untrue in Japan, where flashy, outlandish, and occasionally masochistic contests have become a source of obsession both nationally and worldwide. (Exhibit A: the very real, if sadly short-lived, ABC series, I Survived a Japanese Game Show, which took American contestants and asked them to do precisely that.) Shows involving obstacle courses, but especially shows demanding bizarre feats of speed, balance, and strength with inevitable cartoonish crashes—see: the viral slippery stairs challenge from a 2016 segment of the celebrity-starring All-Star Kanshasai, also known as 13 of the finest minutes you might ever experience online—are longstanding features. Rather than being the first show to ever do it, Wipeout was the first to port those principles over to the U.S. mainstream—an innovation that did not escape notice: Tokyo Broadcasting System promptly sued, alleging that Wipeout was “a blatant copycat” of some of its offerings; ABC and production company Endemol ultimately settled in 2011.
(Your additional fun fact: It’s not just the challenges that are strange on Japanese game shows—so, too, are some of the prizes, thanks to the country’s complex tax laws. In the 1990s, TransAmerica Ultra Quiz offered winners “a log cabin in Canada, a hot-air balloon and a do-it-yourself classic car kit,” as well as a posthumous cryogenics flash-freezing procedure and spit of sand that became an island only at low tide, according to the Orlando Sentinel. That show got an American spinoff too, naturally.)
In recent weeks, you may have found yourself sampling some of the few new shows still trickling onto television before the Great Pandemic TV Desert overtakes us all. In June, Netflix dropped a full season of Floor Is Lava, a preposterous—and maybe even more preposterously well-composed—imagining of the children’s game. In its televised form, the game sees teams of three adults attempt to clamber from one side of a room to the other by clinging to household furniture—sofas, a pot rack, a pizza oven—left precariously floating in a pool of “lava.” (Fluorescent red—and, judging by the horror of the contestants it laps, reasonably warm—watery slime whose recipe is “a closely guarded industry secret,” per Vulture.)
Or maybe you caught a glimpse of USA Network’s Cannonball, whose basic premise is that a series of competitors are loaded into a cannon and fired into the great beyond (a body of water). (At present, you can stream the first episode online for free.)
Or perhaps you’ve tried out the second season of mini golf epic Holey Moley, in which the Putt-Putt is arranged in roughly the same way that a future serial killer might kill ants. (The season’s opening gambit saw two players literally lit on fire while attempting to golf mere minutes after the credits rolled. This, too, you can currently enjoy for free.)
All three follow in Wipeout’s—as well as Sasuke et al.’s—footsteps, in that their basic substance does not matter nearly as much as the singular inevitability: These people are going to eat shit, and it will be glorious.
The appeal, for those of us at home (and we are all at home, forever), is twofold. First: It turns out that small children do not have a monopoly on enjoying seeing their fellow man get absolutely wrecked; the number of face plants, solar plexus bashings, and poorly disguised groin slams, the better. (This is the ratings and often also the play-by-play commentators speaking, not me; the more spectacular crashes are replayed repeatedly, often with added, horrifying sound effects.) And second: The perverse agony-ecstasy of watching others crash in ways that I, a nondoctor, am very sure would cause any number of rib crackings, ligament shreddings, and dislocations to my own personal corporeal self. To watch this genre is to watch certain death—certain death softened only very slightly by foam padding or massive pools of water—over and over and over.
But somehow, the contestants survive; some, heaven help them, even pass their respective shows’ early challenges and earn the right to be pulverized on additional ones. For this, they have a shot at a cash prize: $10,000 for the victors of Floor Is Lava and Cannonball, and a whopping $250,000 for Holey Moley, perhaps speaking to the show’s comparative glitz: Warriors star Steph Curry serves as executive producer. (The show takes pains to bill itself as one made in Curry’s image. In reality, the show has two play-by-play announcers—the former voice of Monday Night Football Joe Tessitore and, for some reason, Rob Riggle—and a sideline correspondent in the same fashion that many of its peers do; Curry appears mostly in pretaped segments or animated sequences in which cartoon Curry looks approximately nothing like real-life Curry, a possible indication of the amount of face time—presumably none—that the animator got with the six-time All-Star.)
But the core remains the same. Each has its own spin on the form (though at least two feature “Uranus” jokes). Holey Moley: Contestants play mini golf—until they are catastrophically thrown into the pool. Floor Is Lava: Contestants play floor is lava—until they catastrophically slip into the pool. Cannonball: Contestants attempt challenges in the middle of being catastrophically thrown into water. Even American Ninja Warrior, an entirely more serious and wholesome variant as well as an officially licensed edition of Sasuke, does the same: Contestants bicep and quadricep their way through the course—until, with precious few exceptions, they catastrophically tumble into the pool.
It is not, maybe, the most intellectual of pursuits—but in a time of cataclysm, can you fault anyone for just trying to hang on? Perhaps not: A reboot of Wipeout is currently on its way.