Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Capsule Review Cavalcade: The Game Show Class of 2007

Like “Millionaire” in the late, late 90s, “Deal or No Deal” spawned a game show comeback when it premiered to great success on NBC two Decembers ago. And like with “Millionaire,” a lot of the shows that came out in response took a lot of cues from the success that spawned it all. So we see gobs of money given away for little work, excruciatingly long pauses to reveal an outcome and a rooting/advising section consisting of family and close friends. And like the “Millionaire” clones, knockoffs of “Deal” were slipshod and just unnecessary (although ratings and revenue would say differently).

Luckily, the summer into fall of 2007 produced a small crop of new shows that aren’t cast in the mold of “Deal or No Deal.” One show I’ll review is indeed a big money show, but done the right way. Another is a revival of an old favorite, and the third is a new game from an old hand who is sadly no longer with us.

Merv Griffin’s Crosswords; Syndicated
We in the game show fan community were lucky enough to get an early jump on this one, following it through early pitch versions with titles like “Let’s Play Crosswords” to where it’s come today. The format goes something like this – two contestants battle head to head to fill in clues on a standard Sunday-newspaper-style crossword. Buzzing in first with the right answer and correct spelling earns cash; $50 for three letter words, $150 for words 7 letters or longer, and $100 for everything else. Some words have a “Crosswords Getaway” bonus of a small trip attached; others are a “Crosswords Extra.” Those work like a Daily Double, where the contestant can risk any or all of their score on a clue all to themselves.

Things change in round 2, where dollars are doubled, and three contestants known as “spoilers” enter the fray. If the two original contestants are wrong or simply don’t buzz-in, any of the three spoilers can jump-in and steal a podium with a right answer. The victim becomes a spoiler themselves and can come back just the same way they were ousted. Whoever has the podium with the most cash when time is called wins the game and plays the bonus round, where filling in the rest of the puzzle in 90 seconds earns $2,000 more and a nicer trip.

To the untrained eye of the casual viewer, the spoilers are a normal game show twist. To a fan, who’s concerned about game equity, this is a pretty big hole in the format. In theory, a contestant could get every clue right, but miss just one before time is called and be usurped by a spoiler. Thus, somebody who got one and only one question right won the entire game.

It’s a lot of fun to play along with. Rookie host Ty Treadway doesn’t do a whole lot outside of play traffic cop. The set is nice, but the theme is a peppy 80s prize tune from “Wheel of Fortune” and feels a bit out of place. The average champion takes home a couple thousand dollars and some trips – hopefully something that can be upped a bit if it sees a second season. **¾

Power of 10; CBS
It’s been said Drew Carey ultimately got the “Price is Right” gig because CBS was impressed with his performance on this show’s pilot. Two contestants start off in this game of poll prediction. Drew poses a question asked to a sample of Americans, and each player locks in a guess at the correct percentage. Sample questions might be “what percentage of Americans think Mick Jagger is too old to be a rock star“ or “what percentage of Americans have bought something from a door-to-door salesman?” Whoever’s closer gets a point, and whoever gets three points first plays the main game.

In the solo game, the contestant now has to get the correct percentage within a range. On the first question, worth $1,000, they have a 40 percent range to work with. They can freely consult with a family member or friend seated offstage before locking it in, as well as review the guesses of the audience. If the correct answer is somewhere within their range, they win the money and move on. Subsequent questions add a zero to the prize ($10,000; $100,000, etc) but decrease the range; from 30 on second question to 20 on the next to a 10 percent range for the million dollar question. The final question, worth $10,000,000, sees the contestant trying to pick out the exact answer from the range of 10 in the previous question. A miss along the way sends the contestant back a prize level.

Polls fascinate me, and I love to watch this one just to get my fix. Drew does a good enough job. His humor is sometimes crammed in like a carry-on bag, and his coaching on the questions could sometimes lead players astray, but for the most part he’s a bright spot. The show comes to us from the executive producer of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” so it’s free of all the production gimmicks we see on shows like “Don’t Forget the Lyrics” and “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” – i.e. it hasn’t been edited with a blender and scotch tape. Worth seeking out if you haven’t seen it already. ***¾

Temptation; Syndication
“Temptation” is a rework of “$ale of the Century,” a game show that had two quiet, but long runs in the 70s and 80s. Three contestants are each spotted 20 “Temptation dollars” and compete in a series of games to increase that stake. Periodically, the person in the lead is offered an “instant bargain” – a prize at a severely discounted value, like a karaoke machine and margarita mixer for just $15 off their score. Another bargain is “instant cash” where the leader can spend their entire lead over second place for a 1-in-3 chance at a progressive jackpot worth in the thousands.

Games to earn money include “Knock Off” where the players are shown twelve answers, and in turn, pick answers that are correct for cash. A wrong answer eliminates the picker from further play. The “Fame Game” sees the host give clues towards the identity of a person, place or thing whilst it’s spelled out on the video wall. Buzzing in with the right identity adds $15 to the score. There are also three 30-second speed rounds with nothing but rapid fire questions on the buzzers for $5 each, with $5 subtracted for a wrong answer. The final speed round has $10 questions. At its conclusion, whoever has the most Temptation dollars wins and goes to “Shopper’s Paradise.”

It’s in “Paradise” where the items get really big. A 52-inch TV for $80! A new bedroom set for $400! A Toyota Prius for $850! Maybe that one doesn’t deserve an exclamation point. Before they get a chance to spend, they can earn yet more in “Super Knock Off” which is the same dance as the first time, only with more incorrect answers, and bigger score money. After that, the contestant can choose to buy a big ticket item and leave the show, or return the next day to add to their account and maybe buy something bigger.

“$ale of the Century” is great – it was number nine on my all-time top 50 game shows list. “Temptation?” Not so much. Host Rossi Morreale, like a lot of new hosts, is forced by time constraints into being a rules-spewing autobot. The new show also has tacky home shopping segments that are just a waste of time. The winner is determined 15 minutes into the broadcast. A little more judicious use of time could see some more questions thrown into the mix. For somebody well versed in the classic format like myself, I can follow it at its current pace. To somebody new to the program, knowing the true gravity of some situations would be impossible given the lack of explanation dictated by the breakneck pace. Ending the game on a partly 30 seconds (about 6 to 8 questions) feels unfair. The show has a lot of potential. Hopefully, like “Crosswords,” a second season can see some changes in the right direction. But right now, it's hard to enjoy. *¾

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