Thursday, December 20, 2007

“Duel” and “Clash of the Choirs” Give a Taste of What a Writerless 2008 Will Look Like

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

ABC and NBC have decided to give us a taste this week of what January will look like without writers. Based on “Duel” and “Clash of the Choirs,” you can count on seeing a lot of ordinary people dancing, singing, or trying to win money (or some combination thereof).

On Monday, ABC launched a weeklong run of “Duel,” a new game show hosted by sports anchor Mike Greenberg (best known as half of the radio/ESPN2 morning sports gabber “Mike and Mike in the Morning”). The four top players will return on Sunday night to vie for a jackpot of more than (cue the Dr. Evil voice) one million dollars.

After watching the first three episodes of “Duel,” I came to the conclusion that the show was conceived as the anti-“Deal or No Deal.” That is, whereas “Deal” is often viewed as being mindless, “Duel” might be the most complicated game show in the history of television (not that there’s anything wrong with it, as the cast of “Seinfeld” would say). Seriously, running down the rules could take up an entire article in itself, so, if you really want to know the details, visit the program’s official website. In a nutshell, two contestants go head-to-head, not only answering multiple choice questions, but also managing their $5,000 chips based on how many choices they cover to a question, all while deciding when to “press” their opponent (that is, making them decide in seven seconds what to do). The winner plays on, the loser goes home (unless he/she is in one of the top-four places at the end of the week).

“Duel” combines the trivia aspect of shows like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and “Jeopardy” with the strategy of games like “Deal or No Deal.” In a network landscape where we are asked if we’re smarter than a fifth grader, “Duel” asks us if we’re smarter than a belly dancer with a 4.0 grade point average or a self-described hillbilly with a photographic memory, while also maintaining the strategy skills of a chess master or Texas Hold’em champion.

While the dramatic lighting and sound effects, hyperbolic scene-setting by the host, and suspense-inducing commercial breaks are painfully familiar to anyone who has watched a game show in the last five years, the strategy aspect of the game is truly unique and really gives the program a lift. Where shows like “Millionaire” and “Deal” rely on the drama of whether or not the contestant will win (or blow) a lot of money, “Duel” has the added aspect of competition. You often find yourself rooting for one player or the other. When someone experiences a tough loss after a well-contested game, you feel like you’ve just watched a 1-0 pitcher’s duel in baseball or a five-set match in tennis (on a smaller scale, of course).

The added strategy aspect of the game allows the producers to use different types of questions, since, given the players’ ability to cover more than one response, there is no harm in the producers offering a question for which neither contestant is likely to know the answer. I would break down the queries into three categories: Those you should know (e.g. the number of nights of Hanukkah added to the number of Santa’s reindeer, including Rudolph), those you might know (e.g. which clothing designer is the mother of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper), and those you couldn’t possibly know (e.g. from how many feet away can a mosquito sense a human’s presence).

The producers also seem to have a different agenda than most game shows in selecting players, in that part of the game is openly about bursting stereotypes. If a contestant wins a duel, he/she then selects one of three randomly selected individuals from the player pool as his/her next foe. The only pieces of information provided on the candidates are their names, ages, hometowns and occupations. But, in every case, the person is not who they seem to be. As I mentioned, for example, the platinum-blonde belly dancing bombshell is an honor student in college and the used care salesman from rural Kentucky has a photographic memory. Similarly, the stay-at-home mom has a Mensa-level IQ (she resigned from the organization, wondering why she should pay money to be around other smart people), the mountainesque African-American high school football star is a verbally gifted telemarketer with a love of “Grease” and “Dirty Dancing,” and the rocker dude (who looks like the result of a science experiment combining the DNA of Johnny Ramone and Steve Perry) played baseball for eight years.

I find the show’s gimmick of referring to the contestants by their occupations rather than their names entertaining. (e.g. “If the answer is Minnesota, the used car salesman wins the duel, but if the answer is Maine, then the belly dancer will play on.”) Europeans often say that Americans are obsessed with their careers and define the people they meet by their jobs. “Duel” will do nothing to dispel that argument. Greenberg’s use of the players’ vocations only serves to reinforce the idea of playing on and dispelling stereotypes.

And while the producers are in no way subtle about it, this kind of sociological experiment in expectations based on appearance does have its appeal. One contestant, a woman from the Bay Area, admitted she was only selecting women to play against in a show of female solidarity, and the only African-American woman in the contestant pool, after winning a duel, didn’t try to hide that she was selecting the only other African-American contestant because he was “her brother.” Even more interesting was watching people exercise their biases in choosing opponents. Flying in the face of the traditional ageism of television, several contestants respected (feared, actually) their elders, zeroing in on the youngest available candidate. And there was no doubt that white males in intellectual professions (e.g. software developer, children’s author) or positions of authority (e.g. military officer, fire captain) were avoided like the plague, with each being passed over multiple times. The whole concept of selecting one’s opponent is just another little addition to the formula that makes “Duel” interesting television.

Even the host sets “Duel” apart. Rather than going for a comic (like Howie Mandel, Drew Carey, Bog Saget, et al) as so many game shows do, or a bland television “personality” (another word, apparently, for someone with no discernible talent aside from looking hip and not blowing lines, such as Ryan Seacrest or Dominic Bowden) as many reality shows do, “Duel” went for a sports anchor and radio host with experience filling hours of airtime. Why was the choice so smart? Because the game is so complicated, the host has to be part master of ceremonies and part craps croupier, as well-versed with the complicated strategies and betting rules of the contest as with the camera cues, player introductions, and faux dramatic narration. Greenberg is certainly up to the task. While he is forced to stifle much of the sly wit he demonstrates in his morning radio show banter with Mike Golic, he flawlessly keeps the proceedings moving, both with the players and the game itself. He seems to be the perfect master of ceremonies for a game that can lean towards wonkishness (again, not that there’s anything wrong with it).

If the ratings are strong this week, it seems like a no-brainer that ABC will order more episodes for next year. If that’s the case, “Duel” will make a nice addition to the post-strike schedule.

Meanwhile, over at NBC, the network started Monday with a four-night run of “Clash of the Choirs,” another program that will undoubtedly return next year if the ratings warrant it. “Clash” takes five past-it singers and sends them back to their home towns to assemble a 20-person choir (Nick Lachey in Cincinnati; Michael Bolton in New Haven, Conn.; Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child in Houston; Blake Shelton in Oklahoma City; and Patti LaBelle in Philadelphia). The teams then reconvened in New York to perform on live television. The winning group gets a six-figure donation to the charity it is representing.

As I watched the two-hour premiere of “Clash,” it occurred to me that this was truly the quintessential amalgamation of the reality shows that have dominated the first decade of the 21st century. It slavishly follows the “American Idol” playbook, showing auditions (some great, some terrible), featuring live performances, providing a panel of judges to analyze the recitals, letting audiences vote, and then dropping low-rated contestants. The producers then sprinkled in some “Survivor” moments, showing the celebrity singers going through the process of assembling the choirs in only two weeks. They then added the secret “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” ingredient and gave each team a sob story. Finally, they applied the jumble of formulas to a new setting, in this case choirs, which is a kind of wacky and inspired choice, as far as these kinds of shows go.

“Clash” is certainly a feel-good entry on this well-trodden ground. There are no Simon Cowell-style harsh criticisms anywhere to be found. In fact, the judges are not outsiders. The panel consists solely of the other celebrity singers. Where some producers would go for cattiness, egging on the competitors to take swipes at each other, “Clash” is one big back-patting exercise. The five leaders bent over backwards to do nothing but praise the performances (literally in the case of Shelton, who did the “we’re not worthy” bow after LaBelle’s choir performed).

Does it work? Well, if you don’t like “Idol” and/or “Extreme Makeover,” it’s unlikely that “Clash” is your cup of tea. But for those who enjoy the singing and the sob stories, “Clash” is certainly good television.

For one thing, when the five leaders praise the other groups, they’re right. Considering that the performances are live, and that the rehearsal time was limited, it’s actually pretty impressive how tight and professional the choirs are.

And the behind-the-scenes, making-of material manages to mix in some truly entertaining moments with the sea of “Extreme Makeover” tales of tragedy (Lachey’s team has a father and daughter whose wife/mother is suffering form cancer, Rowland selects a woman who lost everything but her iPod in Hurricane Katrina, you get the idea). My favorite segment was LaBelle’s trip to Philadelphia. She is touched when the long line of aspiring singers serenades her with “Lady Marmalade,” but by the time the auditions start, she gets more and more fed up as performer after performer launches into the song, until she finally can’t take it anymore and stops a woman mid-performance and tells her to sing something else. Similarly, Bolton seems taken aback that so many of the singers chose his songs for their tryouts. He notes that it takes guts to sing an artist’s hit to him. Watching Bolton and LaBelle, you couldn’t help thinking that every artist probably has to live with fans singing their favorite hits to them, whether it’s in a restaurant or (heaven help them) on an airplane. It was observant and made for good television.

For what it’s trying to be, “Clash” certainly works. My quibbles are actually quite few. Mainly, I think the show was afraid to really embrace the idea of a “choir.” The first four groups to perform chose pop songs and added Broadway-like choreography, making me feel like it was more a battle of theater companies than a clash of choirs. The point was driven home when LaBelle’s team went last and stole the show, basically nailing “He's Got the Whole World in His Hands” with minimal dancing (mainly hand gestures while moving in place). It was, to me, what a choir should be. In his critique, Lachey said he felt like he was going to see a collection plate coming down the aisle during the performance. I thought to myself, “That’s what a choir is, Nick.” I like songs by Tom Cochrane (Shelton’s group) and Bon Jovi (Lachey’s outfit) as much as the next guy, but it just seemed like on a show about choirs, I wanted to see, well, choir music. And LaBelle certainly delivered that.

After the first episode, the performances of the groups move front and center, and the behind-the-scenes footage becomes less prominent, and I suspect the audience, well-trained on these kinds of shows, from “Idol” to “The Next Great American Band,” will be up for the ride, especially since the choirs are so good. I’m not sure “Choir” will attract the kind of rabid audience “Dancing With the Stars” does, but I’m sure it will do fine.

This week let us peek into what 2008 will be like without the striking writers. While game shows like “Duel” and reality shows like “Clash of the Choirs” don’t come close to filling the gap left by the lack of new episodes of “30 Rock,” “The Office,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Pushing Daisies” and other great scripted shows, they certainly beat the likes of “Wife Swap” and “Dance War: Bruno v. Carrie Ann” that the networks are about to unleash on us. And besides, I’m in favor of any show that can make one of the “Mike and Mike” Mikes into a prime-time star.