When I started this online diary, I set out not just to give you the latest news from my secret delusional base in the mountains of my psychosis, but also to chronicle some—and I do stress the word “some”—of the wonders of bad television. By bad TV, I do not mean the unwatchable schlock that airs during the day, though watchability is not necessarily a limiting factor, overall. What I’m talking about here is the fast food of the TV world.
One of my guilty pleasures is the ABC show Wipeout. A cross between America’s Funniest Home Videos, Takeshi’s Castle (known briefly in the US as MXC), and Ninja Warrior, Wipeout is an enormous obstacle course on which contestants face largely impossible jumping puzzles, and are thus continually battered and brutalized by giant padded robotic arms. As viewers, we simply turn our brains off and bask in glorious schadenfreude for an hour.
The obstacle course is run in three stages, in which the number of contestants is whittled down to three, and concludes with the Wipeout Zone, which I will discuss in more detail later. Keeping in mind that I am reporting on the second episode of the new season, and that the course changes somewhat from episode to episode, the following is a basic idea of how the game works.
The first stage is the O Chem of the show, weeding out all obvious non-hackers, and is more of an excuse to see a bunch of half-formed humans flail around in the water after being bent in half and juiced like obese lemons. In this iteration of the show, Winter Wipeout, round one has some new obstacles. First is Mogul Madness, a zip line that carries the contestant through a series of whirling and undulating bars and horseshoe-shaped contraptions, all designed to separate the contestants from the handlebars, forcing them to swim to the next obstacle.
As always, the second obstacle is the show’s trademark, the Big Balls: four big red, nylon-covered yoga balls on posts sticking about twelve feet out of the water; think four giant red Tootsie Pops all in a row, and you get the idea. Also, from now on, I’d like you just to assume that everything is about twelve feet high. The idea is simple: jump across from one to the next and reach the other side. Unfortunately, the Big Balls are quite bouncy, and tend to get slick after several waterlogged contestants attempt to cross them. This means that contestants, again, end up swimming. (Let it be known that the hosts, John Anderson and John Henson, make all the Big Ball jokes, and since there are none left, I will not attempt to make more.)
The next obstacle, the Snowplow Sweeper, consists of a semicircle of about eight or ten two-foot diameter pads spaced about three feet apart. In the middle of the semicircle is a cross of sweeper arms that rotate counter clockwise, and will catch the contestants in the small of the back if they are not fast enough. For this device, think of one of those lawn sprinklers you attach to a hose, but about fifty times bigger. This one is actually my favorite because it reminds me of a classic Mario Bros-style jumping puzzle.
The last obstacle, the Yule Log Jam is, as in almost every other episode of Wipeout, pretty much impossible. In the previous episode, it consisted of two giant, randomly tilting planks, separated by a cross of sweeper arms rotating clockwise so that the arms come down on the contestants as they try in vain to jump from one bucking platform to the next. In this episode, they added yellow, U-shaped, freely pivoting buckles to the middle of each plank, so that, as the platform bucks mechanically, the big yellow bars come snapping down on the contestants like a mousetrap.
As I said before, the purpose of this first course is to eliminate half of about 24 contestants by timing them and taking those with the top twelve times to the next level. It is also the stage in which those contestants get nicknames.
I still, after having watched a lot of this show, cannot figure out if the contestants’ professions or personal stories are real, but once people make it to the second round, those attributes become their identity on the show. When they give someone a decent nickname, you know, that person is going to succeed at least partially. So here are the contestants that made it through this time, starting with the nicknamed folks.
“Stinky Bachelor” David Sego (said he once went two weeks without bathing)
“Master Bowler” Eric Granados (a bowler)
“Unbreakable” Elise Schuetz (when asked by the show’s third host, Jill Wagner, why she wanted to be on Wipeout, she replied, “I kinda wanna know what it feels like to be punched in the face.” And took some of the hardest hits, to boot.)
“Kiddie Party” Katie Fierro (party clown)
“Cool Dad” Steve Brant (because he’s an old-guy dad and crazy manic)
“Latin Lover” Marcos Bellet (pronounced with a rolling R because he’s from Spain, you see)
Jason “Six Toe” Ondo (six toes)
“Broadway Babe” Tiffany Saenz (musical choreographer and director)
And here’s what bugs me about this episode: they not only left four contestants un-nicknamed, but didn’t even name a couple of them when they got eliminated in the second round. Can you guess who they are? If I’m going to watch junk TV, I want the people making it to care about and put effort into it. Otherwise, it does become total schlock. It’d be like watching a soap opera in which there aren’t constantly murders, mistaken identities, forbidden love affairs, and characters coming back from the dead, meeting their own clones, and dating their own siblings because they were separated at birth by a mad scientist … which gives me an idea for a weekend project.
As you may have guessed, the goal of the second round is to cut the field in half again, this time quickly. So far, in the winter version of Wipeout, this round is the Dastardly Ski Lift, a circle of twelve two-foot diameter platforms that rotate around a central axis. Contestants stand on these platforms and hold onto handlebars that dangle from a cord above and are part of the same rotating system. As the wheel of contestants rotates counterclockwise, two sets of big padded bars, which cut through the vertical area between the pads and the handlebars, rotate counterclockwise, knocking the contestants off the pads. In order to stay in the game, the contestants must hold onto their handles, endure the battering of the mechanically whirling arms, and swing like crazed pendulums without letting go and falling into the water below.
Without actually watching the show, one can imagine that this is very much like dangling people in front of a giant cat, which bats at them until they are all dislodged. The last six to fall into the water move on to round three, and the last one standing gets a thousand dollars, which I assume helps pays for rotator cuff surgery after the show.
With the exception of contestants—Unbreakable Elise being most memorable—getting hurled crotch-first into part of the Ski Lift mechanism, this particular round does not provide the kind of excitement found in previous seasons, mostly because the people are not doing anything other than dangling from the ends of ropes.
So, cutting to the chase, moving on were:
Latin Lover Marcos
Cool Dad Steve
Broadway Babe Tiffany
Six Toe Ondo
and Master Bowler Erick (whose name apparently gained a “k” after the second round).
This is actually a pretty fun obstacle to watch. Called the Seven Letter Word, it is the word “WIPEOUT” suspended a few feet above the water, each letter of which has a different property, starting out easy and progressing in difficulty. The main difficulty contestants seem to have with this is making the three-foot jump from letter to letter while waterlogged, and especially as the letters become slick with water and whatever goo the show staff fires at them from pressurized cannons.
The breaking point in the obstacle is the O, which is a quickly spinning square with rounded corners and waist-high posts on each corner. Even if one can make it onto the O without being clocked by one of the posts, there is still centripetal force that will fling the slippery contestant into the water. It is marvelous to watch as a contestant madly hangs onto a post while their body is projected out horizontally like the cord on a weed whacker.
I was surprised to witness a selfless act in this round, when contestants are so close to the end that occasionally they will jostle or even climb right over each other. Broadway Babe was one of those weed whacker contestants on the O, but Six Toe Ondo jumped on and had his balance in the center. Tiffany asked if he’d giver her a hand, and he crouched down and pulled her up. She jumped to the U—which is a device that simply punches contestants in the face, stomach and crotch as they try to navigate it—and went on to place first that round. Fortunately for ol’ Six Toes, he did finish the course and proceed to the final Wipeout Zone, followed by the Master Bowler.
The Wipeout Zone
The Wipeout Zone is the final course and is, like the opening round, timed. In previous seasons, four contestants would come into the Zone, but it looks like that has been reduced to three for some reason. In any event, the fastest person takes the prize.
The Zone also consists of four general themes. The first one of these is the start, in which the contestant is launched into the water near the first obstacle so that all contestants start out wet. In this version, it’s the Bobsled Blastoff, and behaves kind of like an aircraft carrier’s catapult.
The second is usually a climbing puzzle on a moving object or set of objects. This Zone’s climbing puzzle is the Icy Stairway from Hell, three sets of ascending stairs, a middle plateau, and three sets of descending stairs, the lowest point of which is about twelve feet above the water. Each set tilts about ten degrees and is slick with either actual ice or something roughly approximating ice, which still makes them only half as treacherous as any outdoor stairway in Boston during the winter. Contestants have had universal difficulty with the stairs, and in this episode, it chews up a lot of time.
The next obstacle is a spinning obstacle, usually something that requires the contestant to navigate a platform that spins in one direction while obstacles rotate at them from the opposite direction. In this case, it’s the Frostbite, in which contestants must cross a platform that rotates counterclockwise around a central vertical axis, while dodging vertically hanging bars attached to spokes that rotate clockwise on the same axis. This has been the easiest of all obstacles this season, in contrast to the spinning puzzles in the first three seasons, which usually made or broke people’s chances to win.
The last obstacle is a timing puzzle, this season the Sinister Snowflakes, and consists of two rounded hexagons, one next to the other, that spin clockwise like wheels and have a peg (each about as long as a human is wide) protruding horizontally from each vertex. The idea is that the contestant jumps onto one peg, rides it over the top of the arc, jumps onto a peg on the next wheel, and rides it to the finish platform. Tired and slick, players tend to have a little bit of trouble with this, but nothing that they can’t figure out after a few tries. Broadway Babe Tiffany had no trouble with this, but had such a hard time on the stairs that she finished with a time of 19:13. Master Bowler had trouble on the stairs, too, but was too fatigued to navigate the snowflakes in time, and was eliminated. Six Toe Ondo, had a little trouble on the stairs, but blew through the course, figured out the snowflake after a few go ‘rounds and won, cutting Tiffany’s time in half.
You may be asking yourself, “Why is he simply reporting this? Why is this twice as long as his other posts? Who the fuck cares?”
My answers, in order, are: because I’m chronicling junk TV, because I needed to set out the general setup of the game so future posts on this show can be shorter, and no one. Did you actually read this far?