Culture At Large

'Wipeout,' spectacles, and the image of God

Nathan Bierma

On Wednesday nights I open up TiVo and exclaim with relief, "Oh good, it's 'Wipeout' night!" 'Wipeout' relies on the least complex reality TV premise I know of: people fall off jumbo toys and go splash in the water. The obstacles on this freak obstacle course range from the benign (the Big Balls) to the painful (the Sucker Punch) to a few that would qualify as enhanced interrogation (the Spinner and the Catapult). The waivers contestants have to sign before submitting their bodies to this punishment must be so long and detailed they make even lawyers bored.
For me, 'Wipeout' is vicarious stress release. As I watch contestants bounce, flail, and fall, the worries of the day seem to go splashing away with them. For 41 minutes (after TiVo-zapping the commercials) I can idle my brain and not think about the e-mails I have to reply to and errands I have to run. So I'd like to think that the show's only effect on me is therapeutic. But I might be overlooking two things:
First, the appeal of spectacles based on physical feats in a sedentary culture. Sociologists note that the rise of spectator sports in the United States coincided with industrialization and the decline of agriculture: as more people worked indoors in a sitting or stationary position, they were drawn to spectator sports as a reminder of the physical activity they were leaving behind (and, in baseball's case, the verdant pastures they were leaving behind). Today so many indoor jobs—including mine—consist of staring at a screen and tapping keys that we are extra eager to watch physical exertion. So 'Wipeout''s appeal may be a condemnation of how under-exerted our society is.
Second, the question of Schadenfreude, or joy at another's suffering. Of course, contestants aren't forced to participate—or to boast to the camera ahead of time, as many do, before they come crashing down and illustrate parables about pride—and the winner is compensated (though too meagerly, in my opinion, for the gauntlet they have to go through). And 'Wipeout' is pretty tame compared with shows like 'I Survived A Japanese Game Show' or the now-defunct gore-fest 'Fear Factor,' whose sole purpose is ritual public humiliation. Still, isn't a little unseemly to be gawking at a human body being tossed around like a rag doll? Especially when that human body was knit together in the womb to bear God's image?
I choose to see the show as a celebration of capability of the body. But on 'Wipeout,' at least, there's a fine line between celebration and degradation.

Topics: Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Entertainment