Let’s say you are a high-powered network executive looking for the next big thing to happen during the summer. I come into your office, I’m met with your secretary, she asks me what my pitch is, and I say… “One person… 500 questions.”
I would get a counter offer that went something like this: “Security is gonna rough you up on the way out.”
But because Mark Burnett did it, he gets a week on ABC. A week which, as I write this, is mercifully halfway over.
And watching this half week, you halfway get the feeling that the people who developed this show – Burnett and former Fox reality tsar & current alternative programming chief for Warner’s Mike Darnell – didn’t really think things all the way through. One person… one challenger waiting in the wings… and 10 rounds of 50 questions each. Sounds fun, right? Well, that’s where the fun ends, because then you throw in a bipolar host, an ill-fitting game metric that slows the pace of competition (you get 10 seconds for each question, but you get a little break to compose yourself), and the trappings of a primetime game show in the 21st century, and it becomes less so.
By way of comparison, let’s take every major primetime player in the last 15 years and see where they went right:
– Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?: the first game show that successfully blended old-school game show drama with modern-day technology, a quiz show with a hero trying to conquer the money tree and win the adoration of a nation in the process by beating a completely computerized set, complete with dramatic lights, tense music, and vertigo-inducing floor. It was like the Running Man of quiz shows.
– Deal or No Deal: … honestly this show was less about the game and more about the aesthetics. At its heart was the age-old questions of “how far” and “how much”. Of course, $1 million, a nefarious skinflint of a banker, and 26 models make it a lot easier to watch.
– Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?: Most game shows test your knowledge. This one tested your ignorance. Against grade schoolers. On stage with you. Who are there to save your bacon. In front of an audience. Of millions. On national TV. Needless to say, those with a fragile ego need not apply.
– 1 vs. 100: of all the games that arrived in the wake of the mid-2000s wave, this was my personal favorite. Think of it as “500 Questions”, only instead of facing one challenger, you were facing 100, and they were all playing the game with you. It was a fresh take on the age-old story of “you against the world” and was well done… GSN version notwithstanding.
– Survivor: debates will continue until the end of time as to whether or not this would count as a game show. That’s another column for another time. But this brought something new as it introduced an open-endedness to a competition for a million dollars. Here’s point A, you. Here’s point B, the Final Tribal Council with the people you voted out determining your fate. How you get there and what you do once you do is completely up to you.
– The Weakest Link: the show that singlehandedly brought “the evil British” into the game show zeitgeist. It was the best of “Millionaire” combined with the open-endedness of “Survivor”. Again, here’s point A, here’s point B. What happens in the middle is completely up to you.
– The Chase: speaking of “the evil British”, this show brought a bit of control to the player-side of the situation. We have the best of America vs. the best of the world in a winner-take-all showdown, becoming one of GSN’s biggest hits. Fox turned this down in favor of “Take Me Out” and “The Choice”, two dating shows that came and went quickly.
– Jeopardy!: I’ve included this show because, despite it being around for 16 years before the turn of the millennium, it was during this age when the game became the Daft Punk of quiz shows: harder, better, faster, stronger. The money doubled. The five-game cap was lifted. A guy from Seattle named Ken Jennings showed up.
So what’s the point I’m leading to here? It goes back to the primary reason why I personally am watching the show in the first place. Recall that I went to the Trivia Championships of North America in Las Vegas last summer, where I met a lot of brainiacs who run the gamut of pub quiz champs to quiz show titans. Said brainiacs became fast friends in the process, and a great deal of them have been – or will be – featured within this week.
Truth be told… I’m only watching for them. Nothing about this game – not the lack of a game or a sluggishly annoying host – would see the light of day on a primetime television space if it weren’t for the fact that Mark Burnett had his name on it. The game show world deserves better than a quiz show that, for all intents and purposes, seems halfway finished.