I’ll go into the gory details of my time as an intern/craft service guy for the film shoot tomorrow (or, more accurately, later today). But for now:
When I wrote my review for Identity a couple of months ago, I voiced my worries about a genre in which every recent entrant is so overbaked that Betty Crocker would shed a tear. Well, now it’s time to see just how bad it can get.
Like Identity, 5th Grader has the potential to be an amusing show, and a way to put a nice bright spotlight on how much the American population has forgotten everything that was jammed into their mushy little brains during elementary school. But also like Identity, the producers of 5th Grader decided that this had to be a high-stakes, big-money quiz show. And for that reason, I can’t recommend it.
The gameplay works as such: the contestant is shown ten categories, two of each grade level from 1st to 5th. The player selects a category and is asked a question accordingly. Each right answer moves the player one step up the money ladder, of which the highest rung is $500,000. At that point, one final question of indeterminate subject (and difficulty, for that matter) is asked for a million-dollar top prize. (And if the big warning claxons aren’t going off in your head yet, they should be.)
Meanwhile, the contestant chooses a 5th grader from a class of five to serve as his partner when the time comes to ask for help. The player has three helps, known as “cheats”. He can “Peek”, meaning he can see what the student wrote down for an answer and then accept it or go off on his own; he can “Copy”, in which he commits himself to whatever answer the student wrote down (tantamount to “Trusting the Mob” on 1 vs. 100), and he can be “Saved”, meaning that if he gives a wrong answer but the student got it right, he still gets credit for a right answer. A player can “Drop Out” any time he chooses, but in order to do so he must look into the camera and admit, “I am not smarter than a 5th Grader!” Naturally, a wrong answer that goes unsaved results in a game over and loss of any money earned.
See, here’s the thing. This show was obviously not intended to be anything more than a potboiler, and if that’s all it made itself out to be, I really wouldn’t have any qualms with it. Problem is, seeing as how the climate of game shows has become such that every show has to have a huge jackpot and absolute gambles at every turn, those elements got foisted on to this show, and they’re completely inappropriate for a game of this nature. This is a show that’s built on humor – hell, they signed a comic as the host whose entire shtick involves pointing out the less erudite members of our population – not an intense challenge of nerves and skill. Why are we dangling a seven-figure jackpot in front of people when the show should be played just for laughs?
The biggest problem with a game that involves an Absolute Gamble – one that forces players to risk all of their winnings in order to continue playing – is that it cuts games unnaturally short. The Absolute Gamble killed Greed, since any team lucky enough to survive the first multi-answer question was almost certain to chicken out when they heard the category for the next question would be “Popular Dinner Entrees” for fear of punting the $40K or $80K they had in their pockets already. The Absolute Gamble kills Identity, because there are no hard facts to draw from when you risk your money on that show – just snap judgements. And it kills this show, because all the humor is borne out of how much these grown men and women don’t remember what a trapezoid is – but because they risk losing everything with each question, they get to bail out without embarrassing themselves too much. The first contestant on the show was a UCLA grad who couldn’t answer a single question on his own – who wouldn’t have enjoyed watching him flounder his way through the whole stack? Alas, he got to slink off with five grand before we got to see the full extent of his ignorance. (And given the nature of the subject matter and the amount of money at stake, you can be sure they’re weeding out the Einsteins during the contestant tryouts.)
Ultimately, 5th Grader gives us an excellent rebuttal to the argument that every great game show needs to have that moment where a player either wins everything or loses everything. Some games would do just fine to offer small prizes for every success than boast some huge pot of gold that required gambling your entire stake at every juncture, and this is one of those games. It’s too bad, too, because there are some elements I like about the show. Jeff Foxworthy was surprisingly enjoyable to watch as a host: he knew when to lay in a zinger and when to just focus on the game. The students were animated without being cloying. And the pacing of the show was actually quite good – probably because it was only half an hour, meaning that they didn’t have a lot of time to sit on reveals (not that it would do much good, since most viewers would probably know the result of the question as soon as it was locked in).
As for the scores:
Gameplay: 1/3 (Again, there is no reason at all to have an absolute gamble on this show.)
Host: 2/3 (Not a bad job at all for a rookie host.)
Presentation: 1/2 (The set looks decent enough, although it’s kinda oversized.)
Execution: 0/2 (One point is knocked off for having a million-dollar prize that’s totally out of place. The other point is knocked off for the apparent indiscretions regarding the casting of some of the students [and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, read this].)
Total Score: 4/10
I don’t think anyone predicted this show would last beyond this week, and I don’t expect anyone will miss it when it’s gone, either.