The freak show called reality TV has always pushed its clowns to fall apart, whether they're would-be models pining for the affections of a washed-up rocker, hot-tempered roommates battling for the last dab of toothpaste or cold-hearted contestants willing to emotionally scar their loved ones for a shot at a bag of cash. ¶ That's no longer enough. Now we want blood.
In ABC's new hit "Wipeout," borderline athletes get punched, ricocheted and knocked into muddy waters on obstacle courses surely designed by Rube Goldberg and the Marquis de Sade. That's followed by "I Survived a Japanese Game Show," in which 10 Americans compete in humiliating, bruising games you'd expect to be played at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay. CBS has turned over prime time to mixed martial arts, a sport for fans who think boxing is nothing more than a slap fest, and NBC has revived "American Gladiators," the national pastime that gives mere mortals the chance to get the stuffing knocked out of them by Hercules-sized gods. At CMT, the network that proudly brought you "Ty Murray's Celebrity Bull Riding," producers are hard at work on "Hulk Hogan's Celebrity Championship Wrestling," which promises the long-awaited sight of Dustin (Screech) Diamond in tights.
Toss in the primitive punishments on "Man vs. Wild," the thrills and spills of "Celebrity Circus," the brutal nature of "Ultimate Fighting Championships" and the leg-splitting, body-tossing, tendon-pulling moves on a half-dozen dance shows and you have what can kindly be tagged the Summer of Shove.
"It's not ballet," said Wolf, the aptly named regular on "Gladiators." By his account, the first season of the revamped series resulted in at least one broken leg, a couple of torn ligaments, a separated shoulder, a separated ligament and countless bumps and bruises. Wolf himself confessed that after a session swinging on the rings to knock over a competitor or climbing a steep wall while trying to yank down his prey, his arms were shaking so badly he couldn't control his fork at dinnertime.
"My goal is to hurt people," he said. "I want to hit them so hard they think twice about coming at me again."
The new ABC shows aren't quite as dangerous, although you wouldn't know it by the way the mostly hapless competitors on "Wipeout" get bounced around the course like Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff.
Creator Matt Kunitz said the show spends $100,000 on padding obstacles with names like "Dirty Balls" and "Dreadmill." Special attention is also paid to the water below. They mix in specialty dirt, the kind you find on pitchers' mounds, to assure that the mud won't all sink to the bottom and create a painfully hard surface.
Kunitz previously served as executive producer for "Fear Factor," another stunt-heavy series, and he claims that during the show's six-year run, you could count the number of serious injuries on one hand.
That's one of the reasons Kunitz believes his shows make great family-friendly TV. The "Wipeout" premiere was first among the networks among ages 2-11 in its time slot, behind only Nickelodeon and Disney Channel in programming overall. According to NBC research, 22 percent of viewers between ages 25 and 54 watch "American Gladiators" with their children.
"There's a significant difference between someone bouncing off a big ball and someone getting stabbed or beat up," said Kunitz, referring to the grittier, gorier crime dramas that populate prime-time programming. "In our shows, there's no violence, no sex and a minimum of [vulgar] language. Who else does that? It's 'American Idol' and us."
Common Sense Media, a San Francisco nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the media lives of families, worries about those under age 9 viewing both "Wipeout" and "Gladiators," especially if parents aren't by their side to provide commentary.
"Sometimes what's intended to be family viewing has to be carefully monitored," said Common Sense founder Jim Steyer. "Kids need to be told that stunts that look silly and harmless can be dangerous in real life and cause real injury."
It's hard, though, for grown-ups to be too judgmental, considering that every generation has been reared on some type of physical entertainment, whether it was Roman gladiators fighting to the death or the Three Stooges poking each other's eyes out.
"Everyone watches NASCAR for the wrecks and everyone wants to watch me rip someone apart," Wolf said. "Back when I was a rodeo clown, the bull would sometimes get me 15 feet into the air and even my wife was on her feet, laughing."
But there's a difference these days. In the past, we relied on professional comedians and fighters to give us a thrill. Many of today's TV stars are ordinary folks willing to walk across a field of banana peels to be on camera.
Veteran reality TV producer Arthur Smith said the Japanese are leading the way in this anything-goes trend.
"Japan is a very rule-conscious, very conservative place during the day. The cabdrivers even wear ties," said Smith, who's behind "Japanese Game Show." "But at night, they like to escape and let go. Their game shows are an extension of that. Sometimes, they don't even play for prizes. They're not afraid to laugh at themselves."
And we're not afraid to laugh at them.
"Wipeout" goes so far as to select many participants who could barely maneuver bumper cars, let alone a killer obstacle course.
"We're not looking for athletes," Kunitz said. "We're looking for big personalities."
That strategy leads to easy, even cruel jokes. "Wipeout" commentator Jon Henson, who used to savage celebrities on "Talk Soup," now turns his wit on a pastor who gets punched into the water ("He just got Bible belted!") and a single woman who meets the same fate ("She said she was on the market and she's already getting hit on!"). If that weren't enough, there's a sideline reporter on hand to point and giggle on cue.
Miss the goofy, embarrassing fall from grace? Well, producers are happy to replay it again and again. If it's not clear by now, "Wipeout" isn't about contestants outsmarting the obstacles. It's about, well, wiping out.
"It's not fun watching someone succeed," Kunitz said. "We had a network executive here during shooting and he kept begging us to let him give it a shot. Well, on the last day, he got out there and ran right through it, because he had had time to figure it all out. It was boring."
Henson summed it up best after introducing a game with the appropriate name, Dizzy Dummy: "Good times for us. Bad times for them."
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