Last week, we began our look back at the 20 worst American game shows to air in the last 10 years. In that article, we covered shows where contestants squeezed themselves through styrofoam walls, watched prizes tumble off a so-called “skyscraper”, have victory spoiled on the last clue, and suffered through William Shatner’s ham-handed hosting style. This week, we’ll be crossing four more shows off the list, but first, here’s a little bonus for you:
THE FOUR (DIS)HONORABLE MENTIONS
Just because we’re looking at the 20 worst shows doesn’t mean that the rest of them were all that great. Here’s a quick look at the four shows that were just competent enough to miss the cut.
Stump the Schwab (ESPN 2004-2006)
While the gameplay for Stump the Schwab wasn’t terrible – three contestants attempt to match wits with the head of ESPN’s statistics department – it was impossible to get past the utterly amateur look of the show, which made everything look slapdash and arbitrary by comparison. Worse yet was the fact that only a couple years prior, they had cancelled another sports quizzer entitled 2-Minute Drill, which boasted much better production values and more engaging gameplay. If ESPN really wanted to do another game show, they could’ve just brought back the old one and been better off for it.
StarFace (GSN 2006)
There isn’t a show out there that better exemplifies the term “throwaway programming” than GSN’s attempt at a tabloid quiz show. A bland Q&A format, combined with bargain basement production values (the players’ scoreboards were monitors using Comic Sans as a font, for Pete’s sake) and a host who admittedly would do anything for a paycheck combine to make Starface look more thrown together than even the aforementioned Stump the Schwab.
Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? (FOX 2007-2009, Syn. 2009-2011)
What saves this show from the Bottom 20 – along with me being reminded about Hole in the Wall, a show I had completely forgotten about – was the first syndicated season, which actually got about as much right concerning the gameplay as they could have. Even though the show still dragged a fair bit, the pacing was smooth enough and the payout structure enough to forgive it. The network version, however, was dreadfully slow and suffered from sandbagged casting, and the second season of the syndicated run completely defeated the idea of the show by erasing the 5th-grade level questions, also slowing down the game by 20% in the process since now only nine questions were being asked per show instead of 11.
Don’t Forget the Lyrics! (FOX 2007-2009, Syn. 2010-2011)
5th Grader’s companion show in spirit, Lyrics proved to be inferior to the other karaoke-based show that premiered at the same time, The Singing Bee, by putting a million dollar jackpot on a game that shouldn’t be played for a million dollars (a pattern we’ll be seeing a lot of as this list progresses). The syndicated version of the show trimmed down the payouts, but grind the pacing to a halt as a maximum of five songs were to be played in each half-hour episode. And speaking off-the-cuff here, it’s generally not a good sign when it’s 2010 and your show is being sponsored by Myspace.
Now that those are out of the way, let’s continue on our list with the next four ignominious entrants:
LET’S TRY THAT AGAIN… ON SECOND THOUGHT, LET’S NOT AND SAY WE DID
No genre is immune to the reboot. TNT is currently riding high on a new series of Dallas, Nickelodeon has given us a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and next year we’ll even see the second coming of The Arsenio Hall Show. Game shows are no stranger to revivals; two of the three most popular game shows on the air today were revivals of past classics. But just because a show was good years ago doesn’t mean it needs to be brought back – especially if you’re going to mess them up like the four shows listed below.
Production history: Syndicated, September 2007-May 2008
Host: Rossi Morreale
Originally thought to be a promising revival of Australia’s popular retooling of Sale of the Century, this show quickly became part punchline, part cautionary tale. So many things were done wrong in Fremantle’s attempt to bring back the high-stakes quiz show that it’s hard to identify the mistakes individually; like a herd of zebras, all of the blunders run into each other so seamlessly it appears to a critic as a solid mass of failure.
Things looked bleak at the very outset, with a sneak-preview flight of episodes featuring American Idol castoffs playing for charity – and yet, the players were still being offered prizes for their own personal enjoyment at their causes’ expense. (Smartly, none of the bargains were bought.) Moreover, no consolation prizes were offered for the two celebrities that lost – again, defeating the point of playing for charity. The gameplay was shown to be schizophrenic at best; a frenetic mishmash of speed rounds, fame games (which now required a Hangman element for no discernable reason), and a Wipeout knockoff aptly titled “Knock-Off”.
Contestants could stay for no more than five days, even if they still didn’t have enough money to buy the car. Which, incidentally, turned out to be the highest prize level anyway – no option to stick around and buy the lot, nor was there the cash jackpot, two elements that made the original version sing with drama and tension. As a byproduct of lower prize budgets, luxury cars and three-week cruises were now replaced with midsize sedans and Orbitz travel vouchers. But perhaps the biggest oversight in terms of prize coordination was just how much of the offerings were obviously skewed in favor the female persuasion. It seemed as if male contestants were all but unwelcome, as the instant bargains consisted mainly of fashion accessories and other boutique gifts. Indeed, when this writer tried out for this show in 2008 (not realizing all of the changes they were making to it), I was one of only two auditioners to pass the initial quiz with a Y chromosome, and was gently advised not to buzz in against the two young ladies in the mock game we played.
And just in case you didn’t think the whole presentation wasn’t tacky enough, the coup de grace was the home shopping segments sprinkled liberally into each episode, where viewers could purchase similar shlock to that they were trying to foist on contestants. Clearly, this was an attempt to supplement the show’s income, as Temptation struggled to muster a full ratings point most weeks, but all it succeeded in doing is to drop the show’s credibility even further than it was already.
This is not to say that Temptation would have succeeded if they had straight-up imported the Aussie version, complete with six-digit jackpots and potential million-dollar wins. The landscape of American television is not good for a quiz show that wants to offer high-end prizes; hundreds of cable channels have diluted the audience and dirt-cheap talk shows are constantly competing for the timeslot clearances that syndicated shows like Temptation want. But even just a few tweaks, like more gameplay continuity, more desirable prizes, or a presentation that didn’t seem quite so half-assed and sterile may have given the show just enough energy to perhaps survive into a second season. Sadly, it seems that the original concept of Sale of the Century may have to wait a long time for such a sincere attempt to be made.
(Note: the above essay was written before GSN acquired 13 weeks worth of episodes from the 1989 season of Sale of the Century. If you want to see the game done right – or at least partially right, since the Winner’s Big Money Game was arguably the weakest of the series’ final acts, give these episodes a look.)
Production History: NBC, January 2008 – August 2008
Hosts: Hulk Hogan, Layla Ali, Van Earl Wright
I absolutely adored the original American Gladiators. Every Saturday night as an adolescent, I would count down the minutes until 10:00, when Mike Adamle and his stable of Amazons and He-Men would pelt hapless contenders with pugil sticks, cannon-fired tennis balls, Atlaspheres, and of course, themselves at high velocity. The novelty wore out in the mid-1990s, but the nostalgia quickly made Nitro, Zap, Viper and Sky icons of a time when people could whop each other in the head with oversized cotton swabs and nobody ever brought up the word “concussion”.
Upon hearing that the show was returning in 2008, due largely to a desperate need to fill time during the Writer’s Guild strike, the immediate reaction was the 12-year-old Tim Connolly inside 30-year-old Tim Connolly pumping his fist in anticipatory zeal.
Sadly, the 2008 incarnation of American Gladiators patterned itself way more off of the British production of the show than the one stateside fans remembered so fondly. Everything was bombast and shine, Gladiators were now cartoon characters, music cues had to frame every event, and at the helm of it all were Hulk Hogan and Layla Ali, two personalities so incapable of impromptu speech that they had to bring a third person – the slick-talking Van Earl Wright – to serve as the faceless play-by-play guy.
But it was the events that truly suffered. The presence of a pool in the arena meant that most events involing potential falls had to be staged above it, which made Hang Tough and Assault look like they were being played in a shoebox. The Eliminator had been completely retooled, and most Eliminator runs stalled out at the incline treadmill, with contenders simply too pooped to climb it after the nine levels of Hell they’d just been through. It took only a few episodes to realize that the Travelator was the only obstacle in the entire course that actually mattered, since nearly every race would see the two contenders struggling to combat the 3mph conveyor belt simultaneously.
A special note is due for Powerball, the trademark event of the original series, as it became host to one of the most horrific injuries in series history… in the first episode or the revival. Worse yet, none of the officials had the presence of mind to halt the action while the contestant writhed in pain, clutching his buckled knee for a good 30 seconds. I still say it was a miracle that the action managed to stay away from that area, or else that guy might not have had a leg at the end of it all – and the production would’ve been sued to oblivion in the aftermath.
But no, the show managed to survive for a second season, one that was larger in scale (production moved to the LA Sports Arena instead of a Sony soundstage), and duration (13 episodes, compared to a ridiculously short eight episodes for season 1). While the larger habitat gave the events more room to breathe and the format had more time to gain momentum, none of that seemed to matter because every episode was premiering yet another new event and still another new Gladiator. (Season 1’s champions returned as Gladiators themselves, a prize that was originally conceived in the show’s very first tournament – and after seeing the newly-crowned Gladiators be restricted to only certain specialist events, it’s not surprising why they originally scuttled the idea.)
When fans of a show hear of its return, their brains immediately flashback to the way the show was in its golden years, not thinking that a different production staff, different resources and a different culture surrounding the show are obviously going to turn it into something completely different. The 2008 revival of American Gladiators demonstrated how television had changed in the 12 years since the show had left the air; those changes doomed the show before my fist ever finished its pump.
SECOND OPINION – Travis Eberle: “I adore this show in the original format. I would set up the Assault course and wrangle neighborhood kids to play with me. The 80s/90s version found the perfect mix of serious athletic competition and a nod and a wink (after all you have people swatting each other with enormous Q-tips). All of that personality was traded for eXtreem! over the top yelling, games that were either pointless (Hang Tough was so short it didn’t get a chance to build up momentum) or Powerball (if you can score with a fadeaway jumper into a meter-wide bucket instead of engaging or ducking the Gladiator, that’s stupid dumb) and hosts who shouldn’t have been there.”
Production history: GSN, August 2006 – June 2007
Host: Dylan Lane
I really, really don’t want to bash GSN for sticking its neck out to put together an actual game show production. I really don’t. Nowadays, GSN’s idea of creativity is airing two hours of Family Feud episodes hosted by someone other than Steve Harvey. And especially since Michael Davies did everything he could to keep the show true to its roots by bringing back the original elements of three-player teams (albeit with no celebrities filling the rosters) and the polarizingly unique one-word-at-a-time bonus round. But ultimately, the 2009 revival seemed to do more to highlight the game’s failings than trumpet its strengths.
Chief among those failings was the game format, which turned the scoring system into a play-for-cash affair. Granted, the speed chains at the end of each round provided some much-needed variety to what would otherwise be a very tiresome cycle of letter-guess-letter-guess-letter-guess-next chain. But where the wheels came off the trolley was the woefully ill-advised gambling round, where the teams would risk the money they’ve already earned to guess the words in one final chain. Clearly, it was intended to give trailing teams a chance to catch up if they made gutsy wagers and guessed the words right. But that almost never happened – scores eroded because of the fact that most words took three or four letters to be guessed, and while the team that was behind did tend to be more aggressive with the bets, they weren’t smart enough to pay them off, and the result was the final margin being larger than where it was when the round started.
The problems didn’t end with the gameplay, though. The writing was incredibly lazy; instead of having each link in the chain relate to its neighbors, the show insisted on limiting things to two-word phrases with connecting words. The master of ceremonies was one Dylan Lane (who fellow roommate Ben Ziek loves to refer to as a “Troll Doll”), and whether he was specifically directed not to exude any personality during the show or he had none to exude, his hosting style came off as horribly robotic and stiff. And don’t think the contestants get off the hook here, either – much of the reason why games became boat races was because you were lucky to have one player on each team who could guess any of the words without needing most of it spelled out for them.
Chain Reaction lasted two seasons on GSN, which is something of a coup for a network that practically has a religious objection to taping more than 40 episodes of a show. In the second season, the only change made to the game was a dumbed-down bonus round. That’s probably the most disappointing thing about the show: that it had chance to make halftime adjustments, and the best thing they could come up was breaking the one thing that didn’t really need fixing.
Production history: GSN, June 2011 – August 2011
Host: Bill Engvall
I think it’s a safe bet that when GSN decided to revive the word game Lingo in 2002 – a game show that ran for exactly six months in its original 1987 incarnation and was notorious for not paying a cent to any of the winners – they probably didn’t expect it to turn into the network’s most durable show, making a mascot out of host Chuck Woolery in the process. But lo and behold, as season after season after season of the show churned out, Lingo gave the network a sense of continuity when such a thing was considered a high luxury. While not boasting the production value of originals like Russian Roulette or Cram, Lingo had its biggest strength exactly where it needed to be: a simple, challenging, and addictive game that home viewers could easily play along with.
Lingo was cancelled in 2007 for much the same reason that the Nickelodeon kids’ show Double Dare stopped production in the mid-1990s; with so many episodes already in the can, the network could just go ahead and rerun old episodes without viewers really noticing. But much like Double Dare getting a revamp in 2000, GSN couldn’t help but come back to their most successful and most recognizable original show, and a new series of Lingo was commissioned in 2011 with comedian Bill Engvall as host.
The result was disastrous. All of a sudden, they felt it necessary to add nebulous, double-entendre clues to each of the words when originally the first letter was all teams had to go on, and indeed, all they really needed. But while the original GSN run of Lingo demonstrated that the concept of the game could be grasped even in an era of game shows where most of the challenge has been nerfed out of the game, teams struggled again and again to solve words that teams just five years ago were mowing down with half as much help. Most telling was the bonus round, which now awarded a whopping $100,000 to teams that could solve five words in under two minutes. If they had offered that kind of money in 2003, the prize budget would’ve been wiped out in two weeks. But since it’s a lot easier to offer a giant cash prize when you know that nobody is going to win it, the casting staff took pride in parading team after team that could barely muster three words in the same amount of time that Chuck Woolery’s contestants scored ten on multiple occasions.
Only 40 episodes of the second revival of Lingo were produced before the show was quietly euthanized. In other words, the 2011 revival did worse than the version that welshed on its contestant payouts.
Next week on The 20 Worst Game Shows of the Past 10 Years, we’ll be covering the four weakest game ideas ever devised, including:
- The most laborious version of “Pick a number between 1 and 26” ever conceived
- Jimmy Kimmel’s not-so-glorious return to game shows
- ABC’s ill-fated attempt at turning Bingo into a national craze
- The first – and hopefully last – use of the term “Money Clock”
Plus, we’ll take a quick look at the four people who hosted a game show for the first time this decade, and will hopefully never do so again. See you then!