ABC has been known for bringing us the show that for all intents and purposes legitimized the game show as a genre viable for prime time. They’re also responsible for three of the biggest abortions from the genre to splatter onto the screen. So while Duel appeared at first glance to be a novel concept, the network’s handling of similar shows didn’t give me a lot of confidence. I tuned into the premiere on Monday night, and I was content, if not blown away, with what I saw.
The game begins as one player is randomly chosen from a pool of 24 contestants. That player is then given the choice of challenging one of three opponents (also chosen at random) to face off in the eponymous Duel. Each candidate, when chosen by the randomizer, gives a little blurb about themselves. This in itself is fine and dandy. One gripe, though – roughly 80% of the time, the players basically regurgitated what was displayed on their “bio” screen. I guess they may not be aware of what supplementary info the producers decided to attach to their picture, but when you’ve just been introduced as Jim, a fire captain from El Segundo, I don’t think I’d be asking much of you to say something other than “Hi, I’m Jim, and I’m a fire captain from El Segundo.”
The Duel starts with each player getting 10 chips, each worth $5000 for either themselves or the jackpot. These chips are used to essentially bet on the answers to multiple-choice questions. Players secretly place one chip on as many answers as s/he pleases, with the caveat that any chips placed on a wrong answer are forfeited to the jackpot, and if the correct answer is left uncovered, that player is out (unless they both miss it – more on that later). There’s no hard time limit, but twice during the game a player can “press” an opponent, giving them seven seconds before any covered answers are automatically locked in. Play continues until someone misses a question; that player is out of the game, while the winner gets to take home $5000 for every chip they had left. If both players miss a question, a sudden-death tiebreaker is played where the player who answers the following question covering the fewest answers wins (but gets no money).
Players who win their duels are then ranked on the leaderboard based on how many Duels they won and how much money they’ve banked, and then choose a new opponent out of three more players from the gallery. At the end of the week, the four players atop the leaderboard will advance to the finals, where the winner will eventually pocket whatever money is in the jackpot by then (which, based on the ads for the show, will eclipse the $1,000,000 mark).
The game itself is actually constructed very well. There’s a premium on knowing the right answer and being 100% sure of it, but there’s no shame in covering all four choices either (although you handicap yourself later on). The option to “press” an opponent is a great idea – not just because it adds an element of quickness to the game that this genre desperately needs right now, but because some of the questions require a little bit of second-level thinking, and having a giant countdown going off next to you is going to short-circuit that and force players who don’t know to panic. It’s not completely clear how the rankings will work, whether Duels won or money banked will take priority. I certainly hope it’s the former, because someone could potentially win $50K and vault themselves into the lead just by virtue of their opponent pulling a llama.
I did have one small nit-pick, though. In the third match of the night, both players missed a question and the game went to a tiebreaker. The chips they placed on wrong answers (2 each) were added to the jackpot, but all of the chips they had left (and they both had at least 6 in stock) were completely removed from play. I could understand the fact that the players were no longer entitled to the money those chips would win them if they had won the Duel outright, but why not just put them in the jackpot instead of letting them go completely to waste?
Mike Greenberg, ESPN anchor best known for his morning radio show with Mike Golic, performed hosting duties, and he was one of the more refreshing demeanors that I’ve seen from hosts in recent history. He wasn’t a ham, he didn’t try to run off one-liners at every opportunity, and he didn’t look at all out of place. He had a couple of nice spontaneous moments – notably when a player made a rather lengthy mention of his hometown – but for the most part he kept everyone’s focus on the task at hand. I’ve always had an inkling that sportscasters would make better game show hosts than the people who typically get the job (stand-up comics, former actors, etc.), and Greenie certainly bears that theory out.
There was, however, one giant problem I had with the show, and it’s a symptom of many game shows that have debuted over the past two years. On no less than five occasions during the 90-minute premiere, they cut to a commercial after both players had locked in their answers. I’d like to pass along a suggestion to the powers that be who make the decision to resort to these cliffhangers several times a show:
YOU’RE ANNOYING THE HELL OUT OF US.
THEY LOST THEIR POTENCY TWO YEARS AGO WHEN DEAL OR NO DEAL OVERUSED THEM TO DEATH.
WE AREN’T GOING TO WATCH YOUR DAMN COMMERCIALS. WE’RE GOING TO CHANGE THE CHANNEL OR FAST FORWARD THROUGH THEM USING A TIVO OR OTHER RECORDING DEVICE.
JUST TELL US WHAT THE ANSWER IS AND GET THE FUCK ON WITH IT.
The funniest thing was that during one Duel, both players caught Mike vamping into a cliffhanger, and they both voiced their annoyance at the tactic. I can’t wait for the day that one of these contestants gets so restless about having to wait for their game to be resolved (remember, these shows take far longer to tape than you see on air; three minutes for us is probably at least 10 minutes for them) that they have an anxiety attack that forces them to go to the hospital. This is not a question of if it will happen so much as a question of when – especially given the hypercaffeinated players we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on these shows recently. Ironically, back in 2000 when WWTBAM was in its heyday, I castigated Regis for killing all the suspense by waiting all of two seconds after a player gave a final answer to say “He’s won a million dollars!”. But there’s a difference between suspense and tedium, and forcing people to sit through another ad break under the guise of building tension has gotten incredibly tedious.
One final note about the show’s set. Players enter the game by way of an offstage hatch, where a bridge extends for them to cross over and reach the circular stage where the game is played. But as Mike Greenberg talked about the aforementioned hometown of a player, he walked directly into the player’s gallery by way of a staircase between the gallery and the main stage. Now, I’m all for pomp and circumstance here, but what’s the point of having the grand entrance when players could just as easily walk up the steps onto the stage?
Now for the scores:
Gameplay: 3 out of 3. Excellent mixture of testing players’ knowledge, daring, and nerve.
Host: 3 out of 3. I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing Greenie on another project of this sort.
Presentation: 1 out of 2. The onscreen graphics were a little tough to read at times (particularly players’ names), and the music was pretty pedestrian, but the set looked nice enough.
Execution: 0 out of 2. And I will give this score to any game show in the future who abuses the cliffhanger, no matter how well the rest of the show is executed.
Total score is 7 out of 10, which is certainly better than ABC’s more recent fare. No telling if we’re ever going to see this type of thing again after this flight of episodes has concluded, but I certainly wouldn’t mind watching it. (Or trying out for it, either.)
ADDENDUM: On the show’s second episode, Duel basically sent the Cliffhanger technique over the shark by ending the show after both players had locked in their answers. Not even at a particularly suspenseful point, either; one guy had four answers covered, the other had only three. And given the previews they showed for the next episode, it’s clear that they both got it right anyway. Seriously. This has gone from the insipid to the repulsive. If it continues any further, I’m just going to start walking away/changing the channel as soon as someone locks in an answer.