Over the past few months, I’ve been caterwauling about the fact that game shows have gotten steadily dumber and more reliant on whizzbangery than actual game. Fortunately, GSN – for all of that network’s missteps and miscalculations – have come forward to bring us a show that’s not only smart, but novel as well.
The premise to Grand Slam is simple: 16 of the genre’s biggest winners, from legendary champs like Ken Jennings and John Carpenter to obvious shills like Victor Lee from Michael Davies’ World Series of Pop Culture and Amy Kelly from Lingo, compete against each other in a series time-trial matches. Seeded by their money winnings on the shows they were on, they compete in a single-elimination tournament for a $100,000 grand prize.
Gameplay takes place over the course of four rounds. In each round, both players start with a timer of one minute hovering over them. While a contestant is in play, his clock ticks down; when the player answers a question correctly, his clock stops and his opponent’s clock starts. Each player is also equipped with three “switches”, which passes the question to the other player. However, the other player can then switch the question right back, as demonstrated in one of the matches played last night.
When one player’s clock runs out, the round is over, and any time still remaining on the winner’s clock is banked for use in the final round. In that final round, both players receive one additional minute and one extra switch. The player who hangs on to their clock the longest in this round wins the match and advances.
But what sets this show apart from any other show we’ve seen thus far is the type of questions they give to the players. Round 1 is a general knowledge round, with pretty much an even split between academic material and pop culture. Round 2 is a numbers and logic round, and this is where things really start to get hairy. We’ve all seen these guys rattle off trivial facts; never once has a game show asked questions like “What’s 8² plus the square root of 144?” and “What time is exactly 3 hours and 46 minutes after 3:45 PM?” Things get even crazier in round 3, the words & letters round, where contestants must now deal with solving anagrams, finding embedded words in a sentence, and finding the middle letter of “ACKNOWLEDGE”. The final round is a mixed round, where questions can come from any of the three phyla.
Most people I’ve seen discuss this show have complained about the performances of commentators Dennis Miller and Amanda Byram, saying that Miller looks for the erudite joke a bit too often and Byram repeats herself too often. Honestly, I didn’t have a problem with either. I only spotted one obvious reach from Miller, and the rest of the time he managed to remain at least somewhat low-key and on topic. Byram was innocuous enough, although I’ll admit that I probably spent more time staring at her beauty mark than I did listening to what she was saying. Pat Kiernan, the “questioner” during the game, is quickly emerging as one of the genre’s most reliable personalities, able to read questions with Perry-like accuracy. Sadly, in all three of the shows he’s done thus far, he’s pretty much been given the role of second banana; I’d love to see how he could handle a show all by himself.
The format itself is brilliant. One of the problems I noticed in the original show done in England was that the player who lost the previous round would start the next one. Unfortunately, this would cause a snowball effect on the losing player that gave him a much more pronounced disadvantage than what was probably reasonable. They fixed this rule in the American version, however, as players alternate the responsibility of starting the round. And let’s face it – all of us have wondered how Contestant A from Apple Show would stack up against Contestant B from Orange Show, and this is the first (and perhaps only) opportunity we have to see such comparisons in action.
I do have one complaint, although it’s pretty small and maybe steeped in a bit of sour grapes. Watching the match between Kevin Olmstead and Michelle Kitt in the first episode, I couldn’t help but shake the notion that Olmstead was getting a lot of real brain-blenders, while Michelle got quite a few softballs, especially in the last round. I certainly don’t think it was intentional, but at the same time it might be a little more fair to have it so that each player gets one question from the same subject before moving to a new one. (Then again, it might have served Dr. Olmstead well to have gotten one of those spelling questions right.)
As for the scores:
Gameplay: 3/3. This is probably the best format possible for the caliber of players we have on this show.
Host: 2/3. This is mainly given in praise for Pat Kiernan; I can take or leave Miller and Byram.
Presentation: 2/2. The angled screens showing the close-ups of the players’ faces was an excellent touch, and really gives the show a dash of intensity.
Execution: 1/2. As I said, the question difficulty is a tad on the inconsistent side. I don’t have much quarrel with the $100K top prize; given GSN’s habits as of late, I’m surprised they aren’t offering $5000.
A total score of 8/10. A very, very admirable effort by the folks at Embassy Row. It’s a shame that this format probably won’t return any time soon given the nature of the show’s contestants, but you can be sure I’ll be watching intently the rest of the way. (Oh, and I’m going with Leszek Pawlowicz as my pick. He probably would’ve been capable of stringing a double-digit win streak on Jeopardy! too, if the rules had allowed for it when he was on.)