July 22, 2008

Japanese-Style Game Shows Are Trying to Win Over American Audiences

By Cary Darling

The Japanese long have been known for their torturous game shows that test not only physical endurance but sanity. Now this approach is finding a home on American TV. Why suffer the stolid bookishness of "Jeopardy!" -- and run the risk of actually learning something -- when you can watch "Hurl!" and savor the sight of guys revisiting their previous meal?

And this being the networks' "off-season," when viewers' brain cells are fried from the sun and summer-TV reality silliness, it's no surprise that the Japanese style of competition is exploding across the airwaves. Here's a guide to what's out there:


When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays

Channel: ABC

Taken either as a tip of the hat or just a rip-off of the Japanese series "Ninja Warrior," ABC's "Wipeout" doesn't measure up. Both shows are built on the premise of pushing individuals through an outlandish obstacle course in which a misplaced foot usually sends the contestant crashing into water. The difference is that most of the competitors on "Ninja Warrior" are athletic -- some are even competitive athletes -- so they stand a realistic chance of completing the course. It actually makes for a good contest. Most of the people on ""Wipeout" are Homer Simpsons whose idea of exercise is popping open the Krispy Kreme box, so it's just painful and generally repetitive -- though it's supposed to be funny -- to watch them stumble, stagger, teeter and collapse into failure. The groan- worthy one-liners from hosts John Anderson, John Henson and Jill Wagner don't help.

'I Survived a Japanese Game Show'

When: 9 p.m. Tuesdays

Channel: ABC

What happens when 10 Americans, who know only that they've signed up for a reality show but don't know the details, are flown to Tokyo and find themselves dumped in the middle of a popular Japanese game show? That's the premise of ABC's semi-entertaining "I Survived a Japanese Game Show," which, on the surface, might appear to be as unlikable as "Wipeout." But as only one person is eliminated per week, viewers get to know the victims, er, contestants, and the stunts themselves are silly but not as physically taxing as those on "Wipeout." It's reminiscent of an extra-long version of a challenge one might expect on "The Amazing Race." Plus, the shots of Tokyo's dazzling urban panorama are cool.

'Ninja Warrior'

When: 9 p.m. weeknights

Channel: G4

Why bother with the rest when you can watch the best? Because viewing this Japanese show that obviously inspired "Wipeout" reminds viewers how superior it is. Though a few people are obviously included for laughs, most contestants -- who sport about as much body fat as Britney does clothes -- are serious as death about completing the increasingly difficult obstacle courses and being declared a true ninja warrior. The competitors generally have almost Olympics-worthy back stories -- a fisherman or fireman who built his own "Ninja Warrior" course in his back yard in order to train -- and the intensity of the Japanese announcers and crowds only adds to the sense of drama.

'Unbeatable Banzuke'

When: 8:30 p.m. weeknights

Channel: G4

The title roughly translates from Japanese as "unbeatable ranking," and that's still something of a mouthful. But the show itself is pretty simple: a goofier indoor version of "Ninja Warrior" featuring such competitions as walking upside down, up and down stairs, on one's hands. Kids, don't try that one at home. Once again, it's the seriousness of all involved, including the studio crowd and announcers, that helps give "Unbeatable Banzuke" its juice. It precedes "Ninja Warrior" weeknights, so that makes for an hour of fun Japanese TV.


When: 7 p.m. Sundays

Channel: G4

This show certainly taps into the extreme spirit of Japanese TV. Because the only thing harder than taking part in this eating contest is watching it. Not only do competitors have to choke down mountains of mac 'n' cheese and pumpkin pie in record time, they are forced to compete in some belly-churning physical activity until one or more of them, you know, hurls. The last one standing, however woozily, who hasn't given up his lunch gets $1,000 and the Iron Stomach Award.

"Hurl!" is helped by its cheeky sense of humor: An alarm goes off when a sweaty contestant looks like he's on the edge, and there's the "vomit cam." Still, it's guys retching on TV. For our amusement. Somewhere, the four horsemen of the apocalypse are saddling up.

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