I finally got a chance to watch an episode of the show tonight, and I’m now ready to opine about it.
I, personally, am starting to grow very concerned about the future of this genre. Ever since Deal or No Deal, game shows have been less about playing a game as it’s been about exploiting excitable, sob-story contestants, and shoveling money in front of their faces as they play a nominal game that’s more filler and pregnant pause than it is actual gameplay. It works for Deal or No Deal, simply because that’s a show that places its sole premise on gut decisions and suspense. It works less effectively on 1 vs. 100, because of the flaw in the format in which 101 people answer the same questions but only one person has any real control over the game, not to mention that in order for the audience to root for the hero, they have to root against 100 other people whose only crime has been not having a missing relative or charity organization to whore out to the viewers. And on Identity, it doesn’t work at all.
Never has one hour of gameplay felt so laborious to watch.
The premise is quite simple: 12 strangers stand up on numbered pedestals. The contestant is then shown 12 identities (pro football player, belly dancer, preschool teacher, etc.). All the player has to do is match each identity to each person one at a time. Each correct identification moves the player one step up the money ladder; the top prize is $500,000 for 11 correct identities (as the twelfth would be obvious). To aid the player along, he’s given three helps: “Mistaken Identity”, meaning the player can make one mistake before his money’s in danger (more on this in a bit); “Tri-dentity”, which narrows a chosen identity down to three candidates; and “Ask the Experts”, in which three experts (a body language expert, a psychologist, and an FBI officer) advise the player on their most likely candidate for a given identity.
The sad thing about this is that the concept itself is pretty neat. But the execution of both the format and the show itself is a disaster.
First off, I think we’ve hit our saturation point for dramatic pauses and breaking before a reveal. The purpose of sitting on an outcome is to build suspense, not kill time. But in the case of Identity, it seemed pretty obvious to me that the 15 seconds of ominous music between every guess and the reveal was nothing more than a strategy to push the action closer to the next commercial break, especially since the music pretty much gave away the timing of the reveal. I would much rather see three quick games with a smaller top prize (say, $100K) than one long, drawn-out, half-million-dollar campaign, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that sentiment.
Also, this may be nit-picky, but I’m getting rather tired of all of these shows looking the same. Every show seems to have the same opening sequence, the same graphics, the same supplemental information popping up on the bottom of the screen, the same overbaked editing (the identity choices would glisten as the contestant mentioned them. Is this really necessary?), and the same family holding pen. When three shows on the same network have the exact same elements, that just reeks of laziness on the producers’ part. Again, it lends itself to my argument that these prime-time shows nowadays are more about watching people jump around and scream in front of a light show than actually playing a game.
But either of those things would not make this a show that I would feel malevolent towards. True, I probably wasn’t planning on watching the rest of the show’s run, but that’s more out of indifference than antipathy. However, when the game has a format that’s so flawed that the rules have to change in the middle of the game to accomodate it, that’s when I have a serious problem.
As mentioned above, one of the aids a player has is the “Mistaken Identity”. Basically you can get one guess wrong for free, and only afterwards do you have to decide at each level whether to continue or stop and take the money. I will bet you dollars to donuts that the only reason why that help is there at all was to prevent the inevitable: players chickening out before the end because they didn’t want to risk all their winnings on a situation that’s supposed to grow more and more difficult as they progress.
In the episode I watched, the contestant had little trouble in identifying 10 of the 12 strangers without making a mistake. That means he’s got the half million locked up, right? I mean, if there are only two players left and two identities left, and he can get one wrong with no penalty, then he’s pretty much guaranteed to win the top prize, right? Wrong. If you still have the Mistaken Identity when you get to the end, it gets taken away for the last identity, for no better reason than to manufacture some extra drama as the player decides to take the money or go for it one more time.
I don’t say this word often, but now’s a good time for it. That’s bullshit.
A player should not be penalized for playing the game well, and that’s exactly what this rule does. Sure, it would be a bit silly to have a money ladder in place and give the contestant a way to vault past the penultimate rung, but you know what? That’s not the contestant’s fault, and it shouldn’t be his problem. When Super Millionaire offered its two extra Lifelines for the upper tier, everyone knew that if a player could hand on to his 50:50 that far, that it in conjunction with the Double Dip would essentially grant the player one free right answer. But the producers didn’t respond by taking away the 50:50 after question 10 to prevent that from happening. And the other quarrel I have is the reason why the Mistaken Identity gets taken away – to provoke the contestant into making an all-or-nothing decision that otherwise wouldn’t come up, when I don’t really see a need for that sort of risk at all, seeing as it’s not pertinent to the game itself. Why not let the player play the game from the start, give him $5000 for each correct identity, and bump it up to $100K if he goes 11 for 11? Or why not give him some amount to fall back on, like 1/2 or 1/4 of the money he’s earned to that point, if he is wrong? I’ve said it before (once already in this article) and I’ll say it again – if you force people to risk everything they’ve earned, few people are going to take that risk. If you give people the choice to risk most of what they’ve earned, but still give them something if they lose, you’ll see your players get much more aggressive.
As for host Penn Jillette, it was obvious that the people who cast this show were looking for someone who didn’t fit the mold of a game show host, and Penn certainly passes that test. But as the show wore on, something about him just didn’t sit right with me. Maybe it was the way he kept repeating the dollar figures over and over when asking the strangers if they were correctly identified. Maybe it was the hand gestures that made it look like he was flashing gang signs during the show. Maybe it was the staccato delivery he used. But as entertaining as Penn is outside of Identity, he was an overall negative influence on the show.
So, to wrap it up:
Gameplay: 1/3 (Neat idea, but the yanking of the Mistaken Identity at the end is an absolute sham.)
Host: 0/3 (Towards the end of the show, I couldn’t stand to hear his voice.)
Presentation: 1/2 (The same glitz and graphics as all the other NBC shows.)
Execution: 0/2 (This game should take 15 minutes, not one hour.)
Total Score: 2/10
Notice to Endemol, Scott St. John, or whoever else is going to make the next one of these shows: Speed things up, focus on the gameplay, and stop making everything an all-or-nothing gamble. You’re killing the game show with this shlock.