Loog Lambastes: Merv Griffin’s Crosswords and That’s the Question

It’s two, two, TWO reviews in one!

Merv Griffin’s Crosswords

After the debacle of Temptation, I was hoping even more that Crosswords was going to take the sour taste out of my mouth. And while it certainly doesn’t revolutionize the genre, I really don’t have much to say against the show that isn’t a nitpick.

The game is basically one big crossword puzzle. Words are played one at a time, for between $50 and $150 (depending on the length of the word). Host Ty Treadway reads a clue, and the players buzz-in Split Second style. (Meaning, everyone gets a chance to buzz in, with the podiums denoting who buzzed in in what order). The player who buzzes in first then attempts to solve the word, spelling it letter-for-letter (and incorrect spelling is ruled a wrong answer, for obvious reasons). If a player answers wrong, the value of the word is deducted. Once during each round, a “Crossword Extra” is played – essentially the equivalent of a Daily Double – and in the first two rounds, a “Crossword Getaway” is awarded to whoever solves a given word, and that player wins a small weekend trip.

Sounds really pedestrian, until the second round comes along, and three “Spoilers” are introduced to the game. (No, Lee Franz is not among them.) The Spoilers are stationed behind the main players, and if neither player is able to solve a clue, the Spoilers get a chance to solve it; the one who does gets to usurp one of the front-row podiums, relegating its resident to Spoiler status himself. Two notes to keep in mind: First, the main players get first dibs on a word; even if a Spoiler buzzes in first and a player buzzes in second, the player gets to try for it first. Second, if a Spoiler misses the clue, he’s locked out until either a switch takes place or the other Spoilers also miss one. The player in the lead after three rounds wins the game, keeps whatever money and trips are in his score, and moves on to the bonus round, which is basically a 90-second speed round to complete the remaining blanks in the puzzle for $2000 and a bigger trip. Typically, there’s about 10 words left to be solved in the puzzle at this point.

Presentation-wise, the show is quite nice. The set is on the spartan side, but a few little touches make things look a lot more slick, namely the plexiglass ramp at the back of the set where both the host and the Spoilers emerge; and the light “spokes” that chase along the floor. The graphics are also quite nice; snazzy without going overboard. The theme music is not as great as it could be, though. It’s a prize cue from Wheel of Fortune during the ’80s; I guess they figured they could save some money by not having to record a new theme. But the instrumentation just doesn’t do it for me. Maybe if they used a saxophone for the melody instead of what sounds like a panflute, it would sound less fruity.

As I said above, the game itself is decent. It’s a bit repetitive, but since I just got done bludgeoning Temptation for trying to do too many things, I’m not going to castigate Crosswords for erring on the vanilla side. There’s also an excellent play-along factor – almost a cross between Wheel and Jeopardy the way words are solved in such a rapid-fire manner. The difficulty of the words themselves varies quite dramatically; from softballs to words that only a crossword maven would readily identify, like “ABACI” and “LOUVER”. Requiring the contestant to spell the words sounds like it would just add drudgery to the proceedings, but it actually doesn’t interfere with the pacing too much, and given the nature of crossword puzzles, I think it’s a good thing that a premium is put on being letter-perfect. As for the scoring format, there is a bit of a Fire Drill* component to it, but there’s enough switching between players to mitigate it, plus I love the fact that at least four of the five players could potentially win the game on the last clue.

But there are a few nit-picks. First off, they need to do a better job explaining the rules. As I mentioned above, front-row players get solving priority over the Spoilers, but this isn’t really explained to the audience beforehand. Also, since the game is basically the same thing repeated throughout all three rounds, there ought to be some sort of demarcation of the rounds themselves. According to Ben (who was a contestant on the show), the Crossword Extra is intended to be a sort of two-minute warning, but there’s no mention of it at any point during the show. In the premiere, even Treadway appears to be caught off-guard by the fact that the round has ended – there’s no visual or audio cue to go with it, so we just have to take his word for it.

Ty Treadway’s hosting job is pretty much par for the course. He’s more of a traffic cop than an emcee, but he doesn’t do anything that outright annoys me. The prize money is on the low side, but this is a game that I suspect most people get on for the enjoyment of playing the game rather than the allure of a big prize. I do like the fact that they throw in an extra $2000 for winning the bonus round, just in case a trip to Mazatlan isn’t your thing.

The scores are as follows:

Gameplay: 3/3. The play-along facet to this game is the deciding factor in this score.
Host: 2/3. Treadway started off a bit squeaky, but I’m sure he’ll improve.
Presentation: 1/2. Like the set, don’t like the theme.
Execution: 1/2. They really need to be clearer about some of the nuances of the rules.

Total score: 7/10. Far better than the other syndicated offering, and hopefully it’ll catch on enough that we can rely on it being on the air for a few more years.

* – The Nickelodeon show Make the Grade included “Fire Drill” challenges, in which the winner got to choose the desk he wanted to play from, since the grade levels and subjects cleared were attributed to the desks and not the players. Thus, an absolute hollowhead could win a Fire Drill, take the previous leader’s desk, and win the game answering just one question.

Moving on to That’s the Question:

Players compete in a word game for a chance to win $5000. The sad thing is, unless I told you which GSN show I was reviewing, you’d have no clue which one I was referring to.

In TTQ, two players compete in a game that’s part Wheel of Fortune, part trivia, and part word scramble. Each puzzle consists of a question and an answer (which may or many not be revealed as a clue). Players take turns stopping a randomizer that selects one letter present within the question and highlights each occurence of that letter within the sentence. That letter then serves as a decoy within a scrambled word or phrase which the player must solve by answering a question asked by host Bob Goen. (Here’s an example. The scramble is “ODLRG”, and the question is “What kind of medal is awarded to winners of an Olympic event?” the answer is “GOLD”, and the R would be the extra letter.) Correctly solving the scramble earns the player 1 point for each time the extra letter appears in the main question, plus the right to solve the question if so desired for an additional 5 points. Two puzzles are played with a visible answer and players alternating control, then two more puzzles are played for double score with the answer also being hidden, with players retaining control with each right answer.

Whoever has the most points then wins $500 and a chance to add a zero on the end by playing the bonus round. Whatever points they earned in the front game are converted into seconds with which they try to solve one final puzzle. After their time complement expires, they then have 10 seconds to solve both the question and the answer.

One of the biggest things they corrected about the show is the question writing. Since the original flight of episodes was taped in the Netherlands (much like Lingo), the writers there made several errors. Some of them involved improper spelling, while others were factually wrong (such as Hydrogen being the most abundant element in the Earth’s atmosphere, or both Mario and Luigi debuting in Donkey Kong). So far, only one episode of the new run has aired, but that’s further into the season than they got last year without making a mistake.

I don’t know why, but I just feel uncomfortable watching this show. It almost feels as if you’re attending a party that you weren’t invited to. The lack of motion on the set (with the sole exception of the marquees along the top and bottom of the set which admittedly look very nice), compounded with the periods of dead air that result when a player is blanking on a question, gives it a very stoic feeling that I find very hard to overcome. It’s not tense, it’s not really animated, it’s not fast-paced, it’s not really challenging; it’s just there. Granted, any show that GSN puts on which can get more than 10 households watching at the same time is considered a hit over there, but I honestly don’t see what about this show would endear anyone to watch it on a night-to-night basis.

The scores:

Gameplay: 1/3. There’s just one way to descibe it: Meh.
Host: 2/3. Bob Goen is just about this only bright spot on this show.
Presentation: 1/2. As I said before, the set is a bit plain to my liking. I am glad they got rid of that insipid “Question!” sound bite they played repeatedly in the first season.
Execution: 1/2. But I guess we can’t expect them to give away more than 5 grand.

Total score: 5/10. Which, for GSN, is a pinch above average.

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