Friday, July 11, 2008

Game Shows, Old and New, Dominate Summer Programming

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

I happened to glance at the television ratings for the week ending June 29, and I noticed that four of the top ten programs were game shows (and that doesn’t even include talent competitions like “So You Think You Can Dance” or “America’s Got Talent”): “Wipeout” (ABC, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. Eastern) was in second place, “Celebrity Family Feud” (NBC, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. Eastern) was fifth, “Million Dollar Password” (CBS, Sundays at 8 p.m. Eastern) was seventh, and “I Survived a Japanese Game Show” (ABC, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. Eastern) slipped into tenth.

It made me go back and check out the pilots of each of the three programs I had yet to watch (I reviewed “Million Dollar Password” on June 5). After all, I was raised on “Password,” “Match Game” and “Jeopardy” (and tons of lesser known entries like “Split Second” and “Gambit”); I bought whole-hog into the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” phenomenon, and I still regularly check out new offerings like “Duel.” So if game shows were owning the summer, I had to see why.

But I quickly learned that “Wipeout” and “I Survived a Japanese Game Show” bear less resemblance to the classic gamers of my youth than they do to the fictional "Ow, My Balls!" on the equally fictional (at least for now) The Violence Channel (as featured in Mike Judge’s flawed but prescient film “Idiocracy”).

But let’s start with the latest edition of the “Feud.” Al Roker steps into the host shoes previously filled by, in order, Richard Dawson, Ray Combs, Louie Anderson, Richard Karn and John O’Hurley. Where “Million Dollar Password” disposed of nearly everything from its earlier incarnations (save the idea of giving one-word clues to get your partner to say the password), “Celebrity Family Feud” is pretty much the same game it’s always been. Two teams compete to amass the most points based on guessing how survey participants answered certain questions.

The only little twist to the newest edition of the program is that instead of average American families playing against each other, the families are led by celebrities. I’m not sure if it’s a comment on the nature of stardom or just a coincidence, but of the four teams featured on the pilot, three were stocked with some non-family members (Joan Rivers included her assistant, Ice T recruited his best friend, and, most tellingly, Ravyn-Symone’s squad featured the two actors who played her parents on “That’s So Raven”).

The celebrity aspect kind of works. Let’s just say that I’m sure Richard Dawson rarely had to deal with the first answer of an episode having to be bleeped (Ice T’s suggestion that something that is slippery and hard to hold is the male sex organ, but Ice T used a less scientific word for it). I was never a huge fan of the original “Feud,” so having the train-wreck aspect of watching Joan Rivers and Wayne Newton pimp out their families for a few minutes of television time provided some zip to the proceedings.

Not that it really affects things that much, but Roker isn’t great as the host. While his bland, phony-congenial personality might be a good fit as the weatherman for a morning talk show like “Today,” it just isn’t enough to lead a prime-time network program. He just seemed to be trying too hard, exaggerating his vocal patterns in an effort (it seemed to me) to make everything seem more exciting. It’s not like Anderson and Karn were paragons of American comedy, but their versions of the show were syndicated and the bar was lower.

“I Survived a Japanese Game Show” is all about sensory overload, and in that way, it is the quintessential modern reality program. A hyperkinetic mix of “Survivor,” “Big Brother,” “Double Dare” and, well, a Japanese game show, “Game Show” can be accused of being many things, but boring isn’t one of them. Upon arriving at Los Angeles International Airport, 12 contestants think they are going to appear on a “conventional reality show” (as host Tony Sano tells us in a voice-over), only, their bus takes them to the next terminal, where they are sent off to Japan. Still unaware of the purpose of the trip, the crew of conventional reality show stereotypes (the mouthy New Yawk chick, the feisty African-American woman, the twangy Southern goofball, the energetic African-American guy, the wiseass pudgy dude, etc.), none of whom have ever left the United States before, find themselves on the stage of an over-the-top Japanese game show.

The 12 (sometimes Ugly) Americans share an apartment (the “Big Brother” aspect), with a dash of the expected drama (“Why is she always late? It’s not fair to the rest of us!”), and compete against each other (in two teams) in messy stunts (in the premiere, team members had to climb and then maintain themselves on a conveyor belt while a teammate ate a Japanese rice delicacy (described as being “gummy”) out of bowls strapped to their heads, before dropping down and letting the belt drop them into a giant box of flour), with the winners getting a reward (a tour of Tokyo, including a helicopter trip), and the losers getting punished (a two-hour shift as rickshaw runners). And, in the “Survivor” element, the losing team has to nominate two of its members to compete in an elimination game, with the loser going home. In the premiere, the competition involved the players wearing fly suits with green goo on their stomachs, and then jumping on a trampoline and trying to smash themselves onto a drawing of a windshield as close as possible to the target.

The last remaining contestant at the end of the season wins $250,000.

Let’s get this straight right now: The show is ridiculous. It’s ridiculous to watch a bunch of naive Americans willing to engage in such a competition (after the contestants follow the directions of the host of the Japanese show on several occasions, the host wryly notes to the Japanese audience in Japanese how the Americans will do anything he tells them to). It’s ridiculous to watch the petty arguments and politics. It’s ridiculous (and depressing) to watch how ignorant these Americans are in the face of another culture.

But having said all of that, “Game Show” is undeniably entertaining. For starters, it’s a fascinating look at a small slice of Japanese culture. That country’s television networks feature many of these kind of competition game shows (with adaptations of a bunch of them in the pipeline at U.S. networks), and it’s interesting to learn a bit about them. And the stunts are entertaining in a voyeuristic, slapstick kind of way. I especially liked the production touches added by “Game Show,” including cute sound effects and clever and entertaining computer animations of how the competitions will work.

I don’t think I’ll become fully invested in which competitor wins and how the competition unfurls, but I do know that if I do tune in again, it will be to just enjoy the dumb fun of the whole spectacle.

I can assure you, though, that I will never again tune into the pure idiocy of “Wipeout” (which is an American adaptation of a Japanese game show). It is as close to “Ow, My Balls!” as American television has ever ventured. At one point during the premiere, host John Henson says “Wipeout” is “the show where people risk bodily harm so you can laugh.” It was supposed to be a joke, but, really, it nails this moronic program on the head. It’s like “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” only the program provides the forum for the accidents. Like “Home Video,” the show features people crashing into water, the ground or large objects, with incredibly lame jokes provided in voice-over narration by Henson and his co-host, John Anderson. Think I’m exaggerating? After an English contestant says that something was “daft,” Henson and Anderson engage in this exchange: “What does daft mean?” “I don’t know. I failed British in high school.”

“Wipeout” involves a group of people trying to win that day’s competition, with a $50,000 prize at stake. Yes, that’s not a lot of money by game show standards, which makes you even less sympathetic to the fame-whores who have agreed to humiliate themselves on national network television. (The bonus for winning one of the competitions was $1,000. Uh, note to the producers of “Wipeout”: It’s 2008, not 1972.)

All the contestants compete in a water obstacle course from hell that is designed not to find the best athlete, but to provide the most falls and crashes that can be endlessly replayed in slow motion. The course includes a wall with boxing gloves randomly lashing out to punch the contestants. Yes, it’s “Ow, My Balls!” coming true. The competitors are whittled down through subsequent competitions that all involve water and objects to crash into (with multiple slow-motion replays, of course), until the final four compete in a land-based obstacle course to find a winner.

As much as I didn’t really care about the 12 contestants in “Game Show,” you at least get to know them before they engage in the silly stunts, and you know you will be staying with them for the whole season. In “Wipeout,” the competitors are nearly anonymous, with only a profession and an occasional one-minute interview to give you any insight into who they are. And where the stunts in “Game Show” are messy, inventive and fun (the whole fly thing rose to a sort of surreal elegance, as weird as that may be to read, and when it went into overtime to break a tie, it was genuinely exciting), the “Wipeout” contests are just sadistic and not very inventive, generally just variations on knocking people into water with padded objects.

Game shows may be dominating the summer, but, for the most part, these programs represent a whole new breed of programming. In the case of “Wipeout,” it’s “Ow, My Balls!” coming to life. “Idiocracy” might have been a commercial failure as a movie, but I’m afraid it will end up being viewed as an insightful take on where we’re going as a society. Scary thought. If that bums you out, go watch the “Game Show” contestants fall in a pile of flour. It’s funny.