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'Wipeout': Josh Wolk's Pop Culture Club wonders, Are pratfalls funny if they're premeditated?

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http://ewpopwatch.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/wipeout_l.jpgWelcome again to the weekly Pop Culture Club, where each week I make an assignment, and we meet back here on Thursdays to discuss, compare notes, argue, stew, and, time permitting, write a song cycle. This week we take on a topic that I feel very strongly about: People getting hurt. And what better way to address this hot button issue than through ABC’s Wipeout?

I should clarify: I don’t have an issue with people getting hurt on TV. On the contrary, I encourage it. My issue is the importance of people getting hurt in a funny way. For over 25 years,I have honed my appreciation for all things bloopered. You know how some film directors talk about the first time they saw a Truffaut film and had their eyes opened to a whole new world? I had the same thing one cold day in high school while sitting in a cafeteria, watching through the window as fellow student after fellow student pinwheeled their arms wildly as they tried — and then failed — to cross the school’s icy courtyard. This is art, I whispered to myself as yet another classmate picked himself off and dusted the snow off of his snorkel jacket.

Staged pratfalls by the likes of Jim Carrey or Buster Keaton aren’t the same thing. I’m talking about that magical moment when someone is captured on tape accidentally tripping, slipping, or getting clocked, bonked, or generally ker-slammed. I love America’s Funniest Home Videos(the current, less grating, Tom Bergeron years) and Jackass. But I don’t just laugh at anything: I am an ass-over-teakettle purist with very specific tastes. My fellow injuryphile, EW’s Dan Snierson, and I will spend hours outlining our rankings and preferences: I like people getting hurt on treadmills and trampolines. I am largely jaded to the faceplant genre, except in those instances when a victim lands on his nose and his spine curls backwards, his feet landing just beyond his head in an inverted somersault. And my veryfavorite genre of home video is when someone gets hurt alone while taping himself showing off (lifting weights, swinging nunchuks, doing a flip, etc.) and then — and this is key — has to make the slow, post-accident walk of shame back to the video camera to turn it off. It’s the ultimate degradation, and I love it. (And yes, when watching AFHV, I fast-forward through the cutesy dogs and cats. Save it for Animal Planet, boys — I want to see old people fall down hills!)

In any of these videos, there is one constant: The subjects don’t see the injury coming. And that’s the fatal flaw of Wipeout. The contestants begin the obstacle course knowing they’re going to be clocked by giant Styrofoam wands and tossed into water and/or mud. It’s like watching someone hit himself in the face with a pie. It’s not funny, it’s just desperate.

And then there’s the repetition. Person after person rebounds off the same big red balls. We get it! They’re hard to land on! In a good injury show, wipeouts should be like snowflakes, no two alike. But here, it’s the same thing over and over again, just with different-shaped contestants. And the patter between John Henson and John Anderson is overdone. Have they not learned the lessons of Saget? Less is more, people! Let the faceplants do the talking…and the fact that your faceplants aren’t talking loudly enough is your problem, not mine.

So what do you think of Wipeout? Is it wipey-outty enough for you, or does it leave you craving a good golf ball in the nuts? Am I being too picky about a show that doesn’t want to be anything more than fall-down-go-boom? (The answer to that question, by the way, is NO NO NO.)

Before you answer those questions, here’s next week’s assignment: Dark Blue, the new undercover cop drama with Dylan McDermott. It premieres next Wednesday at 10 p.m. on TNT. If you’re wondering why I didn’t pick Big Brother, which premieres tonight, it’s because I’ll be writing a weekly TV Watch on that show every Friday morning as well. See you tomorrow, slop lovers!

All right, let’s talk Wipeout! And remember: Typos do not count as literary pratfalls.

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