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Production Philosophies: Wipeout versus Banzuke/Sasuke/Kunoichi

Maybe it’s the schooling talking, but I believe that the difference between many TV shows is the implicit philosophies of the producers. Intentionally or not, programs say things, and mean things, expressing values that are implicit in what goes into the show and what’s left out. You don’t have to look at shows that are explicit about their beliefs — the cynicism of Battlestar Galactica, the quasi-libertarianism of South Park, the Zen of Fullmetal Alchemist, the individualism of The Prisoner, the “stop bullshittng us” agenda of The Daily Show, etc. — since even simple shows speak volumes about the belief systems of their producers and audience.

Case in point: ABC’s Wipeout versus the Japanese obstacle course shows that inspired it, notably Kinniku Banzuke, Sasuke, and Kunoichi. Superficially, they’re highly similar: contestants race through obstacle courses of absurd difficulty, with mishaps sending contestants tumbling to a pool of mud or water below.

But take a deeper look and they could not be more different.

Wipeout, the American show, pits the contestants against each other for a $50,000 prize. For any contestant to win, all the others must fail. In the various Monster9-produced shows, the contestants battle only the course itself. In theory, they could all complete it and win, though more typically, all the contestants fail. There is no mention of a monetary prize for the winners of the Japanese shows. Instead, the honor of winning is stressed: the concept of the “Kinniku Banzuke” (literally, “Muscle Ranking”… the show got the exotic title “Unbeatable Banzuke” when dubbed for Western audiences) is that of an eternal honor roll of the champions who have beaten the various challenges. When someone’s name is “added to the Banzuke”, the previous winners names and pictures are also shown. In Sasuke, every episode reminds of us the only two people in the course of 20 competitions to complete the entire course, years after their successes. By contrast, Wipeout wipes its memory clean every episode: previous contestants are never heard from again.

A fall from any obstacle in the Monster9 shows results in immediate disqualification. The point of their difficulty is to enhance the esteem of those few who can clear them. In a typical Sasuke competition, stage one will eliminate 90 of the 100 contestants, with stage two whittling out several more of the remaining 10. Falling on Wipeout is not grounds for disqualification. Indeed, it’s the very point: many of the obstacles are clearly impossible to navigate cleanly, and the appeal of the show is watching people, well, wipe out.

It probably sounds like I’m making the case that the Japanese shows are better, and indeed, I enjoy them more. But I think for what each is, they’ve made exactly the right decisions. Sasuke appears just twice a year, with its female spinoff Kunoichi appearing just once annually. They are events, and are produced as such: catching us up with what’s going on in the lives of fan-favorite contestants, reminding us of prior competitions, etc., helps to build the sense of time and importance that the event requires. This is exactly the magic that Who Wants To Be A Millionaire originally had as a sweeps-only weapon, until ABC foolishly overexposed it as a thrice-a-week series that sapped the uniqueness of the event (it got to be be pretty silly to be talking about “night 73 of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”).

Wipeout, on the other hand, isn’t meant to last. It is not an event, it is a novelty, a diversion. It’s something you happen across after a day of summertime activity, or maybe before heading out for a warm summer night. The producers wouldn’t expect, or even want, viewers to tune in every week, and the only reason you’d ever TiVo and keep the entire run of the series would be if, say, you had an high-functioning autistic child who was fascinated by TV obstacle course shows. But that’s just fantasy, of course…

So, even if I don’t like Wipeout as much as the shows that inspired it, I think they’ve made excellent decisions adapting the concept of the obstacle course for the particular context in which the show has been launched. And it’s working. Last week, it was the number two show on US TV.

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