Over the past couple of days I’ve rekindled my love of the gameshow Wipeout – the original US version of the BBC’s Saturday night hit, Total Wipeout – via the cable channel, Watch. Set on what is described as “the most outrageous obstacle course ever designed”, the show sees 24 eager contestants (most of whom are certifiably insane) try to win $50,000 by triumphing in 4 rounds of painful mayhem.

The show is like a cross between the old Japanese gameshow Takeshi’s Castle, and Super Mario Bros if it was designed by an acid-taking MTV executive. The reason that Wipeout exists is to watch people fall into mud and water, over and over and over again.

Doing stuff like this:

It’s supremely repetitive. Like You’ve Been Framed, it basically has one joke that happens again and again. And yet, partly because of the carnage involved – the hits look like they actually hurt, with the contestants being taken out in ways that make them resemble ragdoll physics from a computer game as they fly across the screen before hitting the water – the show is often laugh-out-loud funny.

At least, it is in its American incarnation. The difference in the production values between the US and UK versions is perhaps the most interesting direct comparison of the way the two countries do television in many years. If the American version is the ultra-slick High School jock, then the one we get over here is his slightly slower, “special” brother. The major difference is that the across-the-pond incarnation is smarter in its dumbness. The stupidity factor is elevated, but it’s done in such a way that it’s actually far more knowing when revelling in its own moronicness. In short, it’s simply more fun.

The thing that really elevates the US version to a higher (lower?) level is the quality of its writing, which is far superior. The two studio hosts, John Anderson and John Henson, interact together well, being tossed gag after gag after gag by the scriptwriters as they commentate on the action. Many of the one-liners are genuinely hilarious, and even if they’re not, there’s another joke along only a couple of seconds later to make up for it. There’s loads of self-deprecating humour, and it’s pleasing to watch a show that could just lazily rely on its “oooh, someone just fell off something” action but instead makes a real effort to satirise itself as often as possible. Compare this to the UK version and it’s easy to see that while the production team here are trying to pull the same trick, host Richard Hammond badly needs someone to play his jokes off against, and his gags are noticeably slower-paced and less imaginative. The editing in the US version is much slicker too, and the contestants are more entertainingly mad than their UK equivalents.

Still, although it isn’t as good, Total Wipeout still features people being clobbered by huge obstacles and being thrown into water, so it isn’t all bad. Plus, any show featuring massive red balls gets my vote. I am such a child.

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