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Wipeout is back and such a failure it even squanders Nicole Byer and John Cena

Wipeout has done the impossible. Not the bending people’s bodies into unimaginable positions as they bounce off of obstacles before splashing into a pool of water.

No, there’s still plenty of that. I’m referring to how Wipeout has actually managed to make Nicole Byer and John Cena appear both stodgy and inert.

That’s just one of the blunders of this reboot of a classic format (TBS, Thursdays at 9), but it’s a major one.

When I settled in to watch the episode provided to TV critics, I was expecting to laugh along with Nicole Byer and John Cena as people bounced off of heavily-padded obstacles. I was a fan of ABC’s Wipeout, and have rather enjoyed all of its successors.

The most immediately apparent change is that the course’s familiar red and blue has been replaced by bright colors, though the iconic giant red balls remain. Instead of four rounds, there are now three, with a long obstacle course replacing the middle two rounds.

Instead of individuals, there are now teams of two, though instead of doubling, the prize has been cut in half from $50,000 for an individual winner to $25,000 for a pair.

Alas, all of this combined to be significantly worse than ABC’s version of Wipeout, even though its original producers have returned.

Why are Nicole Byer and John Cena so dull on Wipeout?

John Cena and Nicole Byer hosting Wipeout, during the one part of the show where they actually seem to be reacting to what's happening in front of them.
John Cena and Nicole Byer hosting Wipeout, during the one part of the show where they actually seem to be reacting to what’s happening in front of them. (Photo by TBS)

Nicole Byer has repeatedly demonstrated—on her show Nailed It (for which she really needs an Emmy), as a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and elsewhere—that she is excellent at hosting and judging reality show competitions.

Her skills as an improviser allow her to respond to whatever is happening in the moment, so casting her for Wipeout was an inspired choice. And John Cena did an excellent job hosting American Grit, and certainly has demonstrated comedic skills elsewhere.

But for some reason Wipeout has decided to have these two talents read shitty, scripted jokes off a teleprompter. At least, that’s what it seems like they’re doing, because nothing they say—while standing in front of a green screen—seems sincere. Or funny.

Congratulations, Wipeout: You’ve made Nicole Byer and John Cena boring. I mean, good for them for showing up and getting their checks, but bad for us.

In the credits, there are three “host producers” listed alongside four “comedy producers.” I wonder if they’re responsible for “jokes” like drawing a penis between two of the big red balls.

That’s what amounts to humor here. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for a dick joke or bawdy references, but these are witless, and Nicole Byer nor John Cena deliver it like they can’t quite believe this is the material they’ve been given. Most of the time, they look bored.

John Cena tweeted that the show is “family-friendly,” and I look forward to all the families who will be helping their kids understand all the references to fucking in the premiere.

What’s missing, besides humor, are genuine reactions. Perhaps that’s because the hosts are watching tape of something filmed earlier; the image behind them is just the course, devoid of people, so it doesn’t even try to pretend that it’s live.

On Holey Moley, Joe Tessiore and Rob Riggle are on set, watching and reacting live—and even though some of their lines are scripted, the result is perfect, and the exact opposite of what Wipeout delivers from its hosts.

The most I laughed during the first episode was the result of a genuine reaction to a wipeout, but it came from a contestant, not either host. “You’ve got this!” a contestant yells to her partner, and then seeing her partner bounce off of several obstacles almost immediately, screams, “What the fuck!” and then a string of curse words I couldn’t make out.

That’s what Wipeout needs: raw, authentic reaction.

A contestant gets bounced around and sprayed on Wipeout's new Jiggleator obstacle, which is part of the new Qualifier course
A contestant gets bounced around and sprayed on Wipeout’s new Jiggleator obstacle, which is part of the new Qualifier course. (Photo by TBS)

John Cena and Nicole Byer actually do comment live during the third and final round, the Wipeout Zone, and the producers have smartly placed their hosting booth right by the final leg, so they can basically yell at the contestants.

But the Wipeout Zone has never been the strongest part of Wipeout, and by this point all the life had drained out of the show. There was potential here, it was just produced away.

The best decision TBS’s new Wipeout has made is compressing the middle rounds, one of which was usually just a sweeper, into a full-on obstacle course. That course incorporates several sweepers and also multiple paths, so the contestants can try different obstacles.

From start to finish, though, the editing is in disarray. What’s on screen is a collection of GIFs, not an episode.

In the first and second rounds, we almost never see one contestant proceed along the course. It’s just rapid cuts to wipeouts, and back and forth to our hosts so they can read us another scripted line. Where contestants actually are on the course is never clear. Smart editing can cut out the slow spots and compress time, and use montages effectively.

As I watched TBS’s Wipeout, I thought maybe it was just duplicating the original, and I was just misremembering how surprising and delightful this once seemed.

Since then, it’s been been eclipsed multiple times over, and maybe coming back with a 13-year-old act just isn’t going to work. Holey Moley combined silly obstacles with actual sport, and Floor is Lava introduced strategy into the silliness. Both of those shows iterated on Wipeout’s primary idea, and added a lot of their own creativity to back it up. (Of course, some attempts failed.)

So I went back and watched part of a season-two episode of Wipeout, and it was immediately apparent how much better television it was: it’s actually possible to follow an individual contestant’s progress! Hosts John Henson and John Anderson may have some scripted lines, too, but the joy and pleasure they get out of watching what’s happening is immediately apparent. And the editing is actually coherent.

The only thing keeping me from giving TBS’s Wipeout an F—because the reboot is an absolute failure—is the hint of potential that shows up during the Wipeout Zone. But it way too little, far too late.

Wipeout: D

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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