Why Wipeout is far superior to Fear Factor

Fear Factor aired its final two episodes of its revival season last night, unless NBC finds its testicles and airs the donkey semen episode. While the series held up better than might have been expected, especially since so little changed after five years, executive producer Matt Kuntiz’s other series, Wipeout on ABC, remains the superior show in this subgenre he helped define.

The major difference between the two shows is simple: Wipeout, which was created years later and has the benefit of hindsight, is a better, more durable version of a very similar elimination competition format. The repetition of foam pads beats flags every day.

The challenges on Fear Factor are actually crazier and more challenging, at least psychologically, than ones on the obstacle course. They are sometimes awesomely designed, like last night’s challenge where someone was pulled through a plate glass window 13 stories up and had to hurl bean bags at a target below. But the challenges are generally far less interesting to watch over and over again, as multiple pairs attempt the same stunt, and no amount of Joe Rogan’s taunting can overcome the boredom that frequently comes with watching people dangling from a helicopter, or gathering flags, or gagging while they swallow something you normally wouldn’t eat.

The brilliance of Wipeout is that it is eternally amusing to watch bodies smack into things and flop around in ways that are unimaginable. This isn’t a new idea; the New York Times explored its appeal in 2009. But the contrast is even more striking now, after seeing the offspring next to its parent–and Wipeout‘s brilliance and the reasons why it keeps working, season after season, are easy to miss.

Sure, the commentary can get old, fast–particularly John Henson and John Anderson’s shticky play-by-play–and by the end of the season, the course can use a refresh to keep things interesting. But the show emphasizes fun instead of “fear” and drama, and fun wins–especially when it’s being slammed in the face with a foam pad and causing its owner to flip backwards into foam-covered water in a more spectacular way than the body before it did.

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