Thursday, July 26, 2007

I Indulged My Game Show Sweet Tooth With "Set for Life"

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

I have a confession to make: I love game shows. I always have, and I suspect I always will. I could pretend that I was Mr. Sophistication as a kid, and all I watched was the Art Fleming incarnation of “Jeopardy,” but I’d be lying. I did watch “Jeopardy” and was especially excited when it was revived with Alex Trebek, but I also was a devotee of “Password,” “Match Game,” “Card Sharks” and “Family Feud,” as well as less heralded offerings as “Split Second,” “Joker’s Wild,” “Gambit,” and “Tattletales,” just to name a few. Pretty much, if people were trying to win stuff, I was there.

In fact, I am probably one of the few people on earth who was born in the 1960s and yet has still managed to see virtually every episode of “What’s My Line?”, which ran from 1950 to 1967, thanks to GSN, which has been running the show for years (many of the first year’s entries have been lost, but the rest remain).

Does my not-so-secret guilty pleasure translate to the modern prime-time game shows? Yes and no. In most cases, I’ll watch them if I’m around, but I won’t TiVo them. Unlike scripted series, you can kind of breeze in and out of the game shows without missing a story line. And, of course, there is only so much Howie Mandel, Jeff Foxworthy and Bog Saget any normal human being can take. But, much like in my childhood, I’m as apt to watch “sillier” games like “Deal or No Deal” as I am headier fare like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

So, of course, I tuned in last Friday to watch the premiere of the Jimmy Kimmel-hosted ABC game show “Set for Life.” The rules are fairly simple: There are 15 stations on a circular stage that looks like it was put together by the bastard child of the designers of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Total Recall.” Contestants walk to a numbered area and pull something that looks like a much shorter version of Luke Skywaker’s lightsaber out of a metal housing. Four of the lightsabers are red, the rest are white. If a contestant chooses a white light, he or she moves up one level on the prize board. A red light moves the player down a level. If all four red lights are found, the contestant is out and wins nothing. And, you can’t stop and walk away with what you’ve won after choosing a red light. You have to try again. You can only cash in your chips after picking a white light. The prize levels equate to lengths of time the show will give you your monthly paycheck, ranging from one month on the first rung to 40 years (“set for life”) in the top position.

Many observers have dismissed “Set for Life” as another entry in the “no skill” genre of “Deal or No Deal,” in which contestants don’t have to answer questions, sing song lyrics, or do anything else that would require a grade school education. In fact, the “Set for Life” page on the ABC website proudly exclaims: “This show does not require skill. There are no questions to answer.” Much like “Deal or No Deal,” which just requires you to know the first 26 numbers (11 more than “Set for Life”).

I think “Deal or No Deal” (and, by extension, “Set for Life”) has gotten a bit of a bum rap. Instead of focusing on what is not needed (i.e., any kind of knowledge), I look at “Deal or No Deal” as being about the wager, not the game itself. Think of it like Texas Hold’em, where you don’t make any choices about how many cards you want (like in five-card draw) or whether or not to take another card (like in blackjack), but only decide how much to bet and whether or not to stay in the game. The determining factor of whether or not contestants on “Deal or No Deal” make money is whether they correctly gauge the right time to get out of the game. Get out too early, and you leave a lot of money on the table. Get out too late, and you can lose hundreds of thousands of dollars (and maybe even your will to live, too). There is no doubt that playing the odds of when to take the banker’s offer and when to keep opening cases is a skill. And, ABC acknowledges this on the “Set for Life” Web page, writing: “It's all about knowing when to stop.”

“Set for Life” adds two interesting wrinkles to the “Deal or No Deal” playbook. On “Deal or No Deal,” you have friends and family members onstage to “help” you decide whether to take an offer from the banker or go on (the “help” generally involves two family members telling the hapless contestant to defy all the odds and continue on because it’s “their day” while one non-moronic family member pleads with the foolish player to take the money and run). On “Set for Life,” you have a friend or relative helping you, but that person goes into an isolation booth, out of communication range. The helper then decides, round by round, when it’s time for you to stop. Of course, we don’t find out if the helper has pulled the plug until after the contestant has completed the contest. Clearly, this can work both ways. If a player is reckless, a more sober-minded partner can save the day. Or, as happened in the premiere episode, if the person in the booth gets cold feet and pulls the person out of the game too early, it can cost the contestant money.

The second spin “Set for Life” puts on the “Deal or No Deal” formula is the host, Jimmy Kimmel. Where Howie Mandel seems to have bought 110% into the hype of the game, asking contestants if they have what it takes to stay in to the end to see if their cases have the $1 million in it, even though a four-year-old knows that at a certain point, the odds will make it impossible to do so, Kimmel offers a more realistic presence. He is funny, slightly sarcastic (enough that we know he knows he’s on a game show, not so much that we wonder why we are watching that game show), and, best of all, laid back. Mandel is in the middle of the action. Kimmel comments from the fringes, literally, as he patrols the outside circle of the game area. I like Kimmel well enough on his late night talk show, but on “Set for Life,” he really is a perfect fit.

I do like “Deal or No Deal,” as well. While I prefer Kimmel to Mandel and love the added layer of the helper potentially saving or ruining the day on “Set for Life,” I also like the simplicity of the game play of “Deal or No Deal” (take the banker’s offer or open up more cases). As the game goes on, it gets a little dramatic. Personally, I like rooting for most players, but against those that are either unpleasant or play the game really badly (“I’m here to win a million!” Uh, no, you’re here to win as much as you can without giving it all back ...).

And, of course, “Set for Life” doesn’t have the “ladies” (as Mandel calls them), the 26 models representing a Benetton advertisement-like array of races and ethnicities, who liven up the activities on “Deal or No Deal.” Sure, men like the models because most of them are pretty, but women, too, seem to react positively to the ladies, both onscreen and off. Female contestants often know the models by name and engage in friendly banter with them, almost like for a night they are members of the club. And, for whatever reason, female viewers seem to enjoy the models. Even my wife has a favorite (number 10, Anya, for those of you keeping score at home, mainly because she’s from South Florida near where my wife grew up).

I guess that makes “Set for Life” the vanilla ice cream to the chocolate of “Deal or No Deal.” The better one is all according to people’s personal tastes. Personally, I like both flavors, so if I’m around when either is on, I’m happy to pop them on my screen for an hour. But, either way, like vanilla and chocolate ice cream, they are both fun, if not particularly nutritious. Splurge every once and a while, and you’ll be fine.