Welcome Back, “Wipeout” – A Chat with Jill Wagner and Matt Kunitz

You don’t find that many shows on prime-time television that can successfully capture all ages of the viewing public, but ABC’s “Wipeout” is definitely one them…you know, provided that you can stand to see grown men and women bust their butts as they try to complete some very outrageous (and significantly foam-covered) obstacle courses. Although now on its fourth season, the show has switched things up a bit for its winter episodes, offering what would appear to be ice and snow – though, given that the proceedings are taped in California, it almost certainly isn’t – as the contestants battle obstacles like the Wipeout Ski Lift, the Polar Bear Run, and…well, you get the idea.

Co-host Jill Wagner and series executive producer were both on hand during the Winter 2011 TCA Press Tour to talk about the show. So, for that matter, was commentator John Henson, but he always seemed to be otherwise occupied when I was free to chat, so we never successfully crossed paths. Still, if you’re going to talk to someone about a show, better to go with the brains behind the outfit…and, of course, the hottest of the co-hosts.

Jill Wagner, co-host


Bullz-Eye: Well, first of all, let me just tell you that I’ve got a 5-year-old daughter who has made “Wipeout” appointment television for the entire family.

Jill Wagner: Yes! I love your daughter! (Laughs)

BE: Well, she is pretty awesome. So how did you come onto “Wipeout” in the first place? I presume an audition was involved, since you have to be both funny and quick on your feet.

JW: You know, it’s funny, because…I was doing commercials for Lincoln-Mercury, and (executive producer) Matt Kunitz had seen me on the commercials, so they called me from them. And I was in North Carolina at the time, and they said they wanted me to fly back for an audition, but I was, like, “I’m with Grandma! I can’t fly back now!” It was some holiday, so I had to stay at home…and they actually wound up having a camera guy come over and shoot my audition at my grandma’s house, interviewing my brother and his two friends. So that was my audition for this show! And I knew that a lot of my friends were also auditioning for it, so I thought, “There’s no way I’m ever gonna get it, because I’m doing it from Grandma’s house!”

BE: Yeah, but maybe that gave you an edge, because it was so different.

JW: Well, the thing is, my brother now credits all my success to him, because he says that his interview was the best, and he made me shine. Which is probably accurate. (Laughs) But I would never tell him that!

BE: Where in North Carolina are you from?

JW: Winston-Salem. Well, my parents are in Winston-Salem.

BE: I’m in Virginia.

JW: I love it! We actually have a house in Gretna, Virginia. I was actually just home for about a month. It’s so nice to just go back and get my fill of my country people… (Laughs) …and then come back out here to La-La Land?

BE: So have you ever been watching the course, seen someone go down, and just thought, “Well, they’re dead. They’re not getting back up”?

JW: Yes! All of the time! I wish the camera would show that half the time I’ve got my hands over my eyes going… (Sucks in breath) “Just don’t tell me, don’t tell me…” And then the person comes up, and they’re laughing! And I’m, like, “What is it, did they hit their head too many times?” You know what? You would be really surprised to see how much foam padding we have on all of those things.

BE: Yeah, Matt was saying that you guys get a bulk discount.

JW: It’s unbelievable. It’s, like, two feet of foam. So it really would be hard for someone to get hurt seriously, and they take it very seriously, so they have medics and everybody standing around, just hoping that no one gets hurt. And it’s been very rare. I think out of 200 people, only two got mildly hurt and had to go to the doctor. But, I mean, that’s a pretty good number for that show, which to the normal person watching it, who’s not on the show, makes you think, “Oh, my God, people are getting really hurt!”

BE: It’s ironic that it plays so well to a family demographic, since it regularly inspires me to curse. I’ll see someone go down, and I’ll be, like, “Oh, shit!”

JW: Well, that’s funny, because that’s what they do. They just have to…I can hear people on the set, and I’m, like, “Pottymouth!” (Laughs) And, of course, that’s what I do out there, too. It’s all in good fun.

BE: Do you find yourself frustrated for people because it’s taking them so long to get through an obstacle?

JW: Oh, yeah. More times than not I’m frustrated because it’s taking them too long to get through it. But I understand that it’s hard, and a lot of these people aren’t athletic at all. So you just have to keep that in mind. It’s, like, “Oh, it’s a grandma who is 53 years old, and she probably hasn’t done anything like this in her life, and she probably doesn’t work out, and the last time she went running was 10 years ago.” You just have to keep that in mind. And then there’s some people who I’m, like, “Oh, they’re never going to make it through there,” and then they blow through it! So I’m surprised every day. I bet on the side. I have my own favorites. Sometimes I lose, sometimes I win. (Laughs)

BE: Who was the contestant that you were most excited to see win?

JW: God, there’s been a lot. You know what? I can’t pick one person. Normally, I really fall in love with all of our characters. They’re really all so different, and you want to root for each one for different reasons. So normally, with the four that we have at the end, usually I’m happy with whoever wins. Unless I’ve bet money on the other one. (Laughs)

BE: A lot of times, you go to silence in lieu of possibly saying something that might offend a contestant.

JW: You know, I have to watch my mouth. Sometimes you have people that are really, really cocky, and…I wish the audience could hear what I hear, because you guys…obviously, they don’t show all of the interview. But there are really some odd comments that we get. (Laughs) To each his own, though. That’s the beauty of our contestants: they’re wacky, they’re crazy, they’re funny. That’s what makes the show. Thank God for them, or I wouldn’t have a job.

BE: For my money, there’s nothing better than a contestant who talks a load of shit, only to slip and bust their ass before they even get to the first obstacle.

JW: (Laughs) My God, I know…and I kind of like that! It’s, like, hey, karma’s a bitch…

Matt Kunitz, executive producer

Bullz-Eye: I was just saying to Jill that my 5-year-old daughter has made “Wipeout” into appointment television for our family.

Matt Kunitz: It’s interesting how…in the ratings last week, they said that we were the #1 2 – 11 year old show all season long so far. (Laughs) But what I love about that…because, obviously, we’re not trying to target 2 – 11 year olds. Everybody wants 18 – 49. But 2 – 11 year olds are watching with their parents, which is great. And I hear that all the time. “My 5-year-old…” “My 4-year-old…” I heard it yesterday: “My 3-year-old loves the show!” And this person was telling me that the 3-year-old even gets up and…when the contestants do their shout-out and do some kind of scream, the 3-year-old gets up on the couch and does the same scream! So it’s good.

BE: I keep saying that you guys should have a TCA day on the “Wipeout” set, where the TCA members run the course.

MK: You want to come run the course? (Laughs)

BE: I want to. And I think my daughter wants me to. But I don’t think my wife would ever let me.

MK: Yeah. (Laughs) That’d be good stuff, though, watching the critics take a shot at it!

BE: So how often do you try to mix it up and add new stuff on the course?

MK: Well, every episode there are new stunts. For example, they start the qualifier, and the very first stunt they do is new every episode. And then there’s different ways of switching it up throughout the show. The winter season is one season, and then when we get into the summer season, it’s a completely different course…times two! We shoot for about five weeks, then we shut down for about a month and a half and build a completely new course, so that during the summer we have two full completely separate courses that we can mingle together and try to keep it fresh. I think it’s important to keep it fresh and to keep not only the audience but also the contestants on their toes, so that they don’t know what to expect.

BE: So, now, are you always on the set when they’re running the course?

MK: Yep.

BE: Has there ever been a point when you’ve seen someone wipe out and just thought, “Oh, my God, that person has died”?

MK: No, not that, but definitely…like, I mean, this clip they’re showing right now… (Points to a nearby monitor) …where this girl is smacking her head into that beam, there are times where I’m just, like, “Ohhhhh!” But, you know, safety’s a number-one concern for us, so we spend…hundreds of thousands of dollars on padding alone. Just on foam. We have a special deal with foam manufacturers now. We go directly to the manufacturers to get foam. So while everything looks like it’s a hard impact, there’s usually anywhere between six and 18 inches of foam that they’re smacking into. So as hard as the impacts look, I know that it’s safe, because we’ve put so much into it.

BE: My daughter is of the belief…and keep in mind that she’s only five and hasn’t seen every episode…that no one has ever successfully gotten past the Sucker Punch portion of the course.

MK: Here’s the thing: we don’t show everybody. And sometimes…I mean, the show’s called “Wipeout,” so if I showed everybody making it, it’s not really interesting. People have made it across, for sure, and we’ve shown a few of them. But we don’t show all of the successes because, ultimately, it’s about the wipeout. So when we plan the show and design the stunts, we plan it for 90% failure. We want to see that 10% of the people can actually do it, so everything that we have out there is do-able by that one out of ten people that attempt it. Or, at least, that’s the plan. (Laughs)

BE: What’s the most amazing performance you’ve seen on the show?

MK: We had this woman who was an ex-stuntwoman who came on the show. She was on a “Blind Date” episode, and…I don’t know whether she was doing it on purpose, but she was really good, and every wipeout that she had involved some kind of crazy flip in the air. I’m often impressed by the women on the course. You don’t expect them to do as well, and they come out and…I mean, this woman was incredible.

BE: Has there been anyone in the Wipeout Zone who just legitimately depressed you because of how long they were taking to complete the course?

MK: Oh, that happens a lot, where you’re just, like, “C’mon, please! We need somebody to finish this course!” (Laughs) It’s tough. When you get to the Wipeout Zone, that’s really tough. It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s wet, it’s scary…and difficult. So, yeah, we’re always crossing our fingers on that one.

BE: Lastly, can you even believe how successful this show has become?

MK: I’m thrilled by the success. I mean, ultimately, we set out to do a family show, and it’s turned out to be just that. And it’s reaching across all demos. You can’t ask for more than that.

  

You can follow us on Twitter @moviebuffs and on Facebook as well.

Related Posts

Winter 2011 TCA Press Tour: No Quotes from Day 6? (Well, not many, anyway…)

The greatest mystery surrounding ABC’s day of the TCA press tour is why they chose to make so little of it. Given that they had ABC, ABC Family, Disney Channel, DisneyXD, the outgoing SOAPNet, and the incoming Disney Junior to work with, it’s absolutely unforgivable that there were only five panels the entire damned day.

Day 6 began on a decidedly solemn note, as the giant screens in the ballroom aired the national moment of silence to commemorate the tragedy in Tucson, and, perhaps appropriately, things shifted directly into the introduction of new ABC News president Ben Sherwood. Next up, Paul Lee, the president of ABC Entertainment, took the stage for his executive session. After that, we had a “Winter Wipeout”-themed cocoa break, then came back into the ballroom for two more panels: one for the return of ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars,” the next for the new ABC medical drama, “Off the Map.” Then came lunch revolving around the new Disney Junior animated series “Jake and the Never Land Pirates,” followed by a panel for the new Disney Channel movie, “Lemonade Mouth,” which – beyond the music playing during the trailer – only held my interest when the very cute and very British actress Naomi Scott opened her mouth.

And that’s it.

Well, it wasn’t quite it. We had a cocktail party at 5 PM which was ostensibly “Off the Map”-themed (they offered a trio of tropical cocktails, but I am hard pressed to recall any hors d’oeuvres that had any particular South American flair), but it only featured stars from ABC’s mid-season shows, and even then there were several notable names missing from the guest list, the two most notable being Matthew Perry from “Mr. Sunshine” and Dana Delaney from “Body of Evidence.” Now, admittedly, my experiences with Mr. Perry during the summer tour make his absence neither surprising nor overly upsetting, but it was kind of a bummer that Ms. Delaney wasn’t there, as she’s always been a real sweetheart.

What I want to know is, why didn’t ABC offer panels for one or two of their existing shows, like CBS and NBC are doing with “The Good Wife” and “Community,” respectively?

I’ll give us them credit for setting up a “Cougar Town” set visit for us – that’s happening on the 12th – but I would’ve loved a panel for “Castle,” “The Middle,” or any number of current ABC series.

And why not have an evening function featuring folks from all of their series rather than just their midseason material? I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy the fleeting chance to speak with Allison Janney about “Mr. Sunshine.” I’m just saying that the whole day felt like one big missed opportunity.

You know, I was originally going to try and offer up the top 6 quotes from Day 6’s panels, but it would feel forced, so I’m not going to waste your time or mine. I will, however, offer at least one which made me laugh…

Read the rest of this entry »

  

Related Posts

ABC: What’s New for Fall 2010

TUESDAY

No Ordinary Family (Tues., Sept. 28 @ 8:00 PM, ABC)

* The competition: “NCIS” (CBS), “The Biggest Loser” (NBC), “Glee” (Fox), “One Tree Hill” (The CW)

Starring: Michael Chiklis, Julie Benz, Romany Malco, Autumn Reeser, Kay Panabaker, Jimmy Bennett, Stephen Collins

Producers: Greg Berlanti (“Eli Stone”), Jon Harmon (“Tru Calling”), David Semel (“Life”), Morgan Wandell

Network’s Description: The Powells are about to go from ordinary to extraordinary. After 16 years of marriage, Jim feels disconnected from his workaholic wife, Stephanie, and two teenage children, Daphne and JJ. To encourage family bonding time, Jim decides the family will join Stephanie on her business trip to South America. When their plane crashes into the Amazon River, they barely enjoy a moment to celebrate their survival before returning to the grind of everyday life. But they will soon realize that their lives have been forever changed. Each member of the family starts to show signs of new, unique and distinct super powers. Will their newfound abilities finally bring them together or push them further apart? For the Powells, embarking on a mission to understand their new abilities becomes the key to rebuilding their family life, as they learn what defines and unifies them. Despite the fact they can collectively lift a car, run at lightning speed, read your mind and calculate the dimensions of the Eiffel Tower — all before you say “superhero” – they are first and foremost an average family with everyday problems.

The Buzz: Decidedly strong at Comic-Con, as you’d expect, and there’s no question that ABC’s treating it as a major player in the season, given all of the intrusive pop-ups promoting the series during its current programming. The big question, though, is whether or not non-nerds (and as a nerd myself, please understand that I’m simply using this phrase as to separate us cool kids from those other people) can be sold on the show.

Pilot Highlight: Perhaps unsurprisingly, the members of the family discovering their respective abilities make for the most fun, but as for the best of that bunch, it’s a tie between Jim learning how to jump and Stephanie speeding around the track.

Bottom Line: The pilot is a heck of a lot of fun, offering a sense of humor and a sense of adventure that’s more like a live-action “Incredibles” than another “Heroes,” but given the tough competition, superhero fans had better tune in from the get-go, keep on coming back for more, and spread the good word on the show for all they’re worth if they want “No Ordinary Family” to stick around.

Detroit 1-8-7 (Tues., Sept. 21 @ 10:00 PM, ABC)

* The competition: “The Good Wife” (CBS), “Parenthood” (NBC)

Starring: Michael Imperioli, James McDaniel, Aisha Hinds, D.J. Cotrona, Jon Michael Hill, Shaun Majumder, Natalie Martinez, Erin Cummings

Producers: David Zabel (“ER”), Jason Richman (“Bangkok Dangerous”), Kevin Hooks (“Prison Break”), David Hoberman (“Monk”), Todd Lieberman (“The Kill Point”)

Network’s Description: What does it take to be a detective in one of America’s toughest cities? Follow one homicide unit as Detroit’s finest reveal the crisis and revelation, heartbreak and heroism that characterize these inner city cops in this series shot entirely in Detroit, Michigan. There’s the damaged but driven Detective Louis Fitch, a wily homicide vet who is the most respected — and most misunderstood — man in the division; Detective Damon Washington, Fitch’s new partner, who finds the first day on the job is a trial by fire, complicated by the imminent birth of his first child; Detective Ariana Sanchez, sexy, edgy and beautiful, who has emerged from a rough background to become a rising star in the department; narcotics undercover cop John Stone, a streetwise smooth talker, clever and quick with a smile made for the movies, who is teamed with Sanchez — a combustible pairing rife with conflict and sexual tension; Sergeant Jesse Longford, a 30-year veteran and sage of the department struggling with his impending retirement from the force and the city he loves, who, together with his partner, Detective Vikram Mahajan — a fully Americanized son of Indian immigrants — form an amusing mismatch of experience and enthusiasm, intellect and instinct, old school and new world, but whose combined skills have never encountered a case that couldn’t be cleared; and all are headed by Lieutenant Maureen Mason, a strong-willed single mom struggling to balance home and work. The unit works with the primary medical examiner, Dr. Abbey Ward, who has an unusual hobby in her off-hours-roller derby. The men and women of Detroit Homicide are as smart and tough as they come. They have to be, as they struggle with their own inner demons, using only their sharp sense of humor to keep them grounded while working the neighborhoods of the historic Motor City.

The Buzz: The show earned a few headlines when it had to deal with an impossible-to-predict change from its original faux-documentary format after a real death in Detroit during the filming of an episode of A&E’s “The First 48” led the city to ban camera crews from following cops around. The producers, of course, have put the most positive possible spin on the situation, but given that it was one of the few things that instantly helped the show stand out from its fellow police dramas, you know it had to hurt, especially since there hasn’t really been any buzz about the show.

Pilot Highlight: The conclusion to Washington’s first day as a detective. You won’t see it coming, and it wipes away many of your concerns that the show might wallow in schmaltz.

Bottom Line: The cast is strong, but the show still ends up feeling like a typical cop drama. Having both Imperioli (“Life on Mars”) and McDaniel (“NYPD Blue”) back on the beat is nice, and the last scene of the first episode will no doubt bring just about everyone who’s watching back for Episode #2, but it still may not be enough to help “Detroit 1-8-7” compete against two shows that absolutely do have buzz.

Read the rest of this entry »

  

Related Posts

TCA Tour: The Deep End

Legal dramas come and legal dramas go, with some succeeding admirably (congrats to Julianna Marguiles for her Golden Globes win for her performance on CBS’s “The Good Wife”) and some failing miserably (stand up, please, TNT’s critically-berated “Raising the Bar”), but they’re a proven commodity, so it’s rarely a surprise to hear that another one’s being rolled out. Tonight brings the premiere of ABC’s latest contribution to the genre, “The Deep End,” and when the cast and producers of the series sat still for their panel during the TCA press tour, it was only to be expected that someone would ask them if they’re bringing anything new to the table.

“I kind of see this show as kind of the reboot of the legal show,” said executive prodcer David Hemingson. “I think if you go all the way back in television history, back to ‘Perry Mason’ and ‘The Defenders’ and certainly the incredible job that Steven Bochco did with ‘L.A. Law,’ and David E. Kelley, there’s a rich tradition. Like with medical shows, there’s a rich tradition of legal shows, but I think there’s never been a legal show that has taken it from the perspective of these newly minted lawyers, these newbees, these kids who’ve come out and they’re confronting the reality of their practice for the first time and they’re being dropped into this intensely political, highly charged environment and also, you know, having the partners kind of reflecting on how they’ve changed in relation to the kids. So I think the interpersonal aspects of the show, I think the comedy of the show, the sexiness of the show, the fun of the show is something we haven’t quite seen, especially from a 20-something perspective. And when you consider the fact that it’s also sort of conflated with some really realistic kind of ripped-from-the-headlines cases that we’re doing, I think it distinguishes itself from anything that’s been on thus far. At least, we hope it does.”

Hemingson also acknowledged that the timing couldn’t have been more perfect to get the series onto ABC. “I would say it was sort of like a confluence of circumstances or a wonderful moment,” he said, “because I actually started out as a lawyer coming from New York to L.A. some years ago, and it was a story that I always wanted to tell, a story very near and dear to my heart. And I felt like with a couple of decades I had some perspective and it just so happened that it coincided with ABC’s need for new drama, a new dramedy. And so the stars kind of aligned for us, and I just feel fortunate to be doing it this way with Jan and with this fantastic cast.”

Of that cast, the face that will likely leap out to most viewers is Billy Zane, who gets yet another opportunity to tear into a larger-than-life character as Cliff Huddle. Someone immediately made the observation that the actor’s name rhymes with another famous TV lawyer (Denny Crane), but it’s apparently complete coincidence.

“This character was based on someone that came directly out of David’s experience,” revealed Zane. “Now, obviously, we have the flesh and bone and the odd bit of spin on the free throw, but it’s all there. This is writing at its best, which is why we’re all here and, I think, is a testament to what hopefully will be the success of this show and what people will find endearing and identifiable about the characters. As repellent and attractive and inspired as they are, you cannot wait to see what they’re going to do next.”

Hemingson quickly clarified Zane’s statement about the source of his character’s inspiration. “I practiced basically as an attorney for three years, three months, two days…but who’s counting?” he asked, rhetorically. “It was definitely one of the transformative experiences of my life, and I got to know a lot of really supercharged personalities, (but) the lawyer’s answer would be that any resemblance to any character living today is purely coincidental.”

That’s probably the best possible tactic to take when discussing Cliff’s origins, given that the next person to question Zane about his character used the phrase “Prince of Darkness” to describe him. Zane clarifies, however, that Cliff isn’t the Devil nor even a devil.

Read the rest of this entry »

  

Related Posts

“Defying Gravity” worth a look

Originally pitched to networks as “‘Grey’s Anatomy’ in space,” I was a bit leery heading into the first episode of “Defying Gravity,” which follows eight astronauts as they embark on a six-year mission through our solar system. The series is set in 2052, but features plenty of flashbacks to 2047, when this group of astronauts first started training for this mission.

I gave up on Ms. Meredith Grey a while ago, but I guess I can see the comparison. This series features a relatively small cast of core characters who live and work together. There’s an extremely cute heroine, Zoe (Laura Harris, who played Daisy Adair on the Showtime series “Dead Like Me”), and the gruff but likable hero, Maddux (played by the ever-watchable Ron Livingston, of “Office Space,” “Band of Brothers” and “Swingers” fame). The two are — wait for it — star-crossed lovers who can’t seem to get together despite an obvious attraction. There’s a history between these two, but I’ll stop there as to avoid ruining it for anyone.

This isn’t Maddux’s first time in space. On a previous mission to Mars, he was ordered to leave two crew mates by his commander, who is now running this mission years later. There is all sorts of ill will about that failed mission, which leads to loads of subtext and mean looks.

“Defying Gravity” is an ensemble drama, but Livingston and Harris are its heart and soul. Whether or not it’s for you will largely depend on whether or not you like these two characters. For something that falls in the sci-fi genre, it’s not terribly exciting or thrilling, but there’s a subtlety to the show that is engaging. With time, it ferments. And there’s an underlying sci-fi storyline that will keep the fanboys happy, at least for while.

I’m not sure that the series will last, as ratings have been less than stellar. It shed about 20% of its audience after the pilot, but has held onto virtually everyone who made it to the third episode. It’s slow place would seem to indicate one of those ambitious, long-term plans that may never see the light of day. But if it gets a second season, it’s worth a look on DVD.

  

Related Posts