The past 10 years have not been very good for American game shows as a whole.
Since 2003, a total of 65 traditional (or at least, semi-traditional) game shows have made their debuts on television for national consumption. Of those 65 shows, only three are still in production today: CBS’ revival of Let’s Make a Deal, ABC’s summer obstacle course show Wipeout, and Hub’s surprise hit Family Game Night. Even shows that debuted at the end of last year have already vanished from the airwaves.
Let’s not beat around the bush: a lot of the reason why so few shows have survived the decade is because a lot of them were outright trash. In fact, there are a lot of shows that you can probably think of that could conceivably be on this list of 20. But after several weeks of research and observation, I can now comfortably present to you the list of the 20 worst shows from the past 10 years.
The criteria was simple:
- The show had to have debuted no earlier than March of 2003.
- It has to be either a traditional, studio-based game show, or some other open competition that could be resolved within one episode or, if a game straddled over multiple episodes, started on one show and ended on the next. This would rule out most reality-type competitions.
- The game had to involve civilian contestants. All-celebrity shows like AMC Celebrity Charades and Gameshow Marathon were ruled out.
- It has to be a show that was especially bad. There were plenty of shows that were produced between 2003 and now that were basically throwaways: shows that neither aspired to be much more than schedule filler nor generated much attention.
- Finally, this list is not a countdown; there is no #1 worst show of the decade, mainly because a few of them are collectively among the bottom. Instead, they’re grouped based on the specific properties of the show: ill-fated revivals, for example, or shows that all originated from one particular network.
Along the way, I’ve asked a few of my friends to chime in with their own insights on these shows. In some cases, you’ll hear from people who were a contestant on the show, tried out to be a contestant, or sat in the audience for one of their tapings. If you’d like to make your opinions known about these shows (or any of the shows we’ll be revealing in the future), feel free to leave a comment.
And so, without further ado, here are the first four shows of our list:
THE FIRST FOUR FAILURES
Although later weeks will have our shows grouped into categories, the four shows we’ll be looking at this week didn’t really fit into those subsections (or four more suitable shows took their place). Think of this as an appetizer for the types of show you’ll be seeing on the list; and trust me, they ain’t getting any better. Let’s kick things off with:
Production history: ABC Primetime, June – July 2010
Host: Chris Jericho
We’ll be bashing NBC an awful lot on this list (six of the 20 shows on this list originated from the Peacock network), but that doesn’t mean we’re letting the other major networks off the hook here. The only network not present on the list is CBS, and that’s because they hardly aired any new game shows in the past 10 years. (The ones they did debut, like Power of 10 and Million Dollar Password, were at least passable if not earth-shattering.) The silver medalist for worst network overall is ABC, who has struggled to put a worthwhile game on their schedule since the original run of Millionaire ran its course.
At issue this time is the goofy guessing game Downfall, hosted by pro wrestler Chris Jericho during one of his frequent sabbaticals from the WWE, and staged on top of what’s purported to be a “100-foot skyscraper” in downtown Los Angeles.
(As someone who works in downtown LA, I can assure you that 100 feet hardly counts as a “skyscraper” in that part of town, and I can also guess that the show was probably taped in the southeastern part of downtown, where the Rows are decidedly Skiddier.)
The reason for the unusual location is because the game involves a giant conveyor belt which is loaded up with a series of prizes (or representations thereof, like a mirror ball to depict dance lessons or a replica SUV in place of a real one) and a box of cash at the end. The contestant has to answer a series of questions from a given category as the prizes get sent down the belt; in order to win the prizes on the belt, the player has to satisfy the goal of right answers (which starts at four and goes up each round) before the prizes go off the edge. If the money – the last item on the belt – gets sent off, it’s game over, and the contestant is dropped off the side of the building by way of a guywire.
This was yet another example of a show where the contestants were tailored such that the producers would not be expected to award much in the way of winnings. Of course, being on the roof of a 100-foot building, close to the edge yourself, playing for money while watching additional prizes slide by you in an inevitable march to their doom likely had a lot to do with the players’ struggles with finding the right answers. But again, if your contestants think Kentucky Fried Chicken sells the “Italian BMT” (as one contestant playing a fast food category guessed), then you’re probably not casting for skill, in which case you probably shouldn’t be playing this game for a $1,000,000 top prize. It also seemed rather unintuitive that prizes that you saved from the belt in earlier rounds were still at risk later on if you dropped the money – especially since many of the prizes they offered were of the sort that you didn’t expect most contestants to keep them anyway.
Another weird rule was its Panic Button, which could be used twice during the belt to stop the round and start over (losing any prizes still on the belt in the process) and trying a new category. Each time, you’d have to place an extra item on the belt to compensate, whether it be a relative or friend (who could help you with the answers up until the point they dropped off) or a personal item of value that you had to risk. I don’t mind the helper being on the belt, but the personal item? Forget the fact that someone could easily go to a swap meet, buy a $50 “family heirloom” and call that their personal item, but I get really uncomfortable with the idea that a contestant on a game show could potentially end up with less net worth than they started the game with.
This is to say nothing about the horror stories that arose from the tapings of the game. Due to the nature of taping a game show outside under a nighttime skyline, both contestants and audience members were expected to be onset through the wee hours of the morning. The city of Los Angeles refused to close off the streets where the prizes met their untimely end, and were required to have the area clean and ready to receive traffic by sunrise. With taping sessions now running several hours to tape one hour worth of game show (or worse yet, one game in said one-hour show), I can’t imagine them being able to shoot more than one game a night. And of course, while contestants were threatened with being dropped off the building if they lost, it turns out that they were gently lowered down to ground level while the tape was sped up to make it look like a freefall. Granted, 100 feet really isn’t that tall of a height to fall from for very long, but it does beg the question why you’d go through the trouble of hooking the player up to so much safety equipment if they could’ve just as easily taken the stairs.
If Downfall had one positive, it was that the show moved at a decently fast pace. Of course, that had a lot to do with the fact that while six episodes were originally ordered, ratings were so poor that they actually decided to edit all the games into five shows. (This became apparent when Jericho would open a show by saying “Welcome back to Downfall, as if he were coming out of a commercial.) It’s rather amusing that the one concerted effort by any network to make their game go faster was out of a desire to burn off their shows more quickly.
Production History: FOX Primetime, September 2008 – March 2009; Cartoon Network Primetime, October 2010 – January 2012
Host: Mark Thompson and Brooke Burns (FOX), Teck Holmes (CN)
Back in 2007, when YouTube was really starting to gain momentum as America’s source for video entertainment on the internet, a particular group of videos garnered a lot of popularity. The videos showed a segment from a Japanese game show where teams of three decked out in wetsuits and helmets attempted to pose their bodies so as to fit into the holes cut out of a giant styrofoam wall that sped toward them. If they were out of position, the wall would knock them into a pool of water behind them. This goofy idea, coupled with the manic shouting of the contestants and overdramatic presentation that often came with game shows from the Land of the Rising Sun, became an internet sensation. In actuality, this game was just one segment of a larger show with other challenges, but since these videos were the only ones scoring millions of hits, FOX decided to base an entire game show around this one single challenge.
The reason why shows like ABC’s Wipeout succeed while FOX’s Hole failed has everything to do with variety. If Wipeout was an hour of nothing but people trying to navigate the Big Balls, it would get tired very fast. But no, they get it right by having all sorts of different obstacles over the course of the show, switched out week by week, and slowly ramping up the tension until the final gauntlet where the $50,000 prize finally came into view. Meanwhile, Hole in the Wall is the same song being played over and over. Two teams of three competed in a series of four rounds, where teams scored points for clearing a wall, and the winning team then faced one final wall for $100,000.
Granted, the show only went half an hour (can you IMAGINE nine walls being played over 60 minutes?) but even though some of the pictures made by the wall cutouts were cute, that’s not why you were watching the show – you were watching to either see people climb through the walls, or get knocked into the water. Once you’d seen a half hour of it, you’d had your fill and there really wasn’t much reason to watch the following week. On top of that, the show boasted a laughable lack of self-awareness. Japan’s set was colorful and vibrant; they knew this was a joke and played it as such. FOX, with their penchant for overdramatics, filled the set with all those big-money trappings: dark set pieces, whooshing spotlights, and announcer Mark Thompson with one of the most hilariously oblivious catchphrases in modern game show history: “It’s time to face… THE HOLE.”
The YouTube videos showing the original Hole in the Wall concept were only a few minutes long, and edited so that a half-dozen or so walls were shown over that span. The actual show was half an hour long with the same amount of content. Although the game managed to survive as a family game show for some time on Cartoon Network after FOX had decided it had had enough, its network incarnation was silly, yet boring; whimsical, yet tedious.
Production History: Syndicated, September 2007 – May 2008
Host: Ty Treadway
The moral of the story for this show: If people are telling you that a particular rule on your show is broken, you should try to fix it. One single rule was all it took to turn Crosswords from a staid but inoffensive word game into a travesty.
The game starts as two players are shown an empty crossword puzzle, and are charged with filling it in, one word at a time. A correct solve earned money; a wrong guess deducted it. There’d be little bonuses along the way, like a “Crossword Getaway” which offered a small vacation to the player if he won, and the “Crossword Extra” – this game’s version of the Daily Double. Again, it’s not the most creative or revolutionary game show, but it was easy to play along with and moved quickly.
Then the second round would begin, and all of a sudden three more players would be introduced out of nowhere to enter the game as well. These new players – deemed “Spoilers” – could usurp the podium of one contestant if they managed to solve a clue that stumped them both. You see, the money and prizes were not attached to the players, just the podiums, so a leading player could find himself on the outs after just one clue… even if it was the very last clue of the game. Needless to say, this eccentricity in the rules was quickly spotted by observant viewers, and the question of how fair it was to snatch victory out of someone’s hands after not doing a damn thing beforehand arose. Of course, it would be one thing if this was a rule thrown in just before production started and never got a chance to be tried out before it was implemented. But as the friends of mine who helped do play-throughs of the game before the pilot was even shot can tell you, the whole idea of the spoilers was in there the whole time, they were told of its game-breaking properties, and they left it in anyway, pretty much in its original state. (At first the rule was a spoiler who guessed incorrectly was automatically out of the game; they changed it so that you would be knocked out until the next swap, or all three spoilers got one wrong.)
Not that there was much to write home about the show anyway. Host Ty Treadway was a drone, who added no ad-lib content whatsoever to the game (I even remember him saying verbatim, “We’ll be back right after this!” on a throw to commercial in the first episode). The prizes were small in scale, and the bonus round was not the most forgiving idea ever conceived, since there were usually a good 12-15 clues left unsolved when the front game ended. And I HATED the theme music – an old prize cue from Griffin’s music library – as it seemed utterly aimless and generic. Granted, the show was pretty aimless and generic, but you don’t want the viewers at home to be alerted to that before the game even starts.
Merv Griffin clearly loved his crossword puzzles – the 1990 attempt to bring Monopoly to the small screen used crossword clues as its main questioning hook, and to this day Jeopardy! continues to use the concept as a category. Crossword puzzles have been used as the basis for game shows in past – witness The Cross-Wits and Scrabble. But the execution was way off on this show, and while it may not have been that great of a show without having the Spoilers in play, they certainly didn’t help.
I WAS THERE – Ben Ziek, contestant and runthrough participant: “Initially, I liked the idea of the show. We played a few sample questions, and then we went into the actual format. I was fine through round one. I even liked the idea of the spoilers in round two. However, when it came to round three, I started to have problems. When they asked our thoughts, I told the staff that since the crossword puzzle is 2/3 filled in at the beginning of round three, the two players ‘in control’ could easily fill in the words hangman style, whether or not they understood the clues. Therefore, the spoilers at the beginning of round three had a very slim chance of getting to one of the front two podia. I suggested that the third round should be a free-for-all, with every clue being available to everyone. I knew that this might be a logistical problem, with people switching back and forth, but I also thought it would give a slight change of pace from the previous rounds. I will have a happy memory of this show, however, because while play testing, I got to meet Merv Griffin before he passed away.”
Production History: ABC Primetime, November – December 2006
Host: William Shatner
I’ll fess up here: This is the one show out of the entire group that I never actually got a chance to see. My experiences with Show Me The Money are limited to the one video of the show that’s available on YouTube. So rather than pontificate on a show I’ve never actually seen the whole way through, I’ll let some of my friends tell you exactly how bad it was.
Brandon Foster-Gray: “In the fall of 2006, Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner, became the latest celebrity to try his hand as a primetime game show host, with ABC’s Show Me the Money. Like fellow Endemol USA program Deal or No Deal, it featured beautiful models revealing dollar amounts to hopeful contestants. Other than that and the trademark goofball Endemol contestants, the similarities pretty much ended there. For no apparent reason whatsoever, the models on this particular show occasionally danced in a hula/go-go routine that looked like something straight out of Laugh In.
“The show was a complete clusterf**k; it was hard to take the show seriously (despite the producers trying to pass it off as such), considering how Shatner would stop everything for a Sexy Party straight out of Family Guy. The stereotypical contestants were irritating and probably borderline offensive; the premiere episode featured a highly effiminate man who proudly bragged about his ‘man purse’ or ‘murse’. Shatner’s dancing was only the icing on this upside-down cake.”
Travis Eberle: “No other show on this list had more potential to be awesome than Show Me The Money. Contestants would choose a money amount as held by one of 13 gyrating dancers. A right answer added that money to the pot, a wrong answer deducted it. There’s many other nuances which didn’t help, but I think what was worst of all is the melding of variety show and quiz show. On one night after a contestant was knocked out of the game host William Shatner bade his loser adieu only to entreat everyone on stage to join him in a mambo. It had no business being played for over $1,000,000, but the dancing was even less appropriate.”
I WAS THERE – Travis Schario, audience member: “The game, in and of itself, is solid. However, the execution was horrible. Shatner cannot host his way out of a wet paper sack. His reliance on the teleprompter killed the delivery and killed the performance. He had at least three teleprompters around the rotunda stage. He’s relying on screens to tell him what to say.
“The game goes along, the player’s got some ups and downs, and he’s down to his last plus sign. He gives the answer, picks the dancer… then we wait. Natural pause… extended natural pause… Is he right? (Waiting… waiting…) Flash it green! Total it up! Natural response! Family rushes on stage! Dancers go nuts! Stop tape, we gotta do it again! They put the values back up, they reduce the player’s pot back to where it would’ve been, family goes back to their seats. Shatner and the contestant take their marks. They look at the screen – they know what’s going to happen – contestant a little less excited, family sort of runs onstage, yay we’re all happy dancing, stop tape we gotta do it again. I know what a natural win looks like; I’m going to react to that. This is now staged, for whatever reason. By this point, I have been in this taping for three hours. It’s 11 o’clock at night. I’m exhausted. I want to go home.”
As I mentioned at the start, I never saw much of Show Me The Money, but the clips that I have seen certainly lend credence to the opinions given above. William Shatner has become someone who gets away with playing some sort of caricatured version himself as a character, and it served to overshadow a game that may have been stronger had the pacing not been so slow, the contestants so dim, or the host so hammy.
Next week on the 20 Worst Game Shows of the Past 10 Years:
– A Temptation that just about anyone could resist
– Three guys, three girls, one troll doll hosting
– An athletic competition of old boils down to who’s less pooped at the Travelator
– A 5-letter word game produces 4-letter results
See you guys next week!