We’ve reached the midway point of our list where we call the 20 most poorly conceived, poorly produced, and poorly executed game shows that have aired since 2003. In our first installment, we looked at four shows whose only common thread was how bad they were. In the second part, we focused on four revivals of previous shows that completely missed the mark. Before we get into part three, here’s a bonus list for your enjoyment:
THE FOUR WORST NEW HOSTS
In a rather odd development, producers and network executives handed over most of these new properties to people who had never hosted a game show before. (Of course, much of that has to do with the fact that the vast majority of competent game show hosts are north of 60 at this point – and let’s be honest, would Bob Eubanks really have been much of an improvement for Downfall?) While there were some diamonds in the rough – Bob Saget, Ben Bailey and Jeff Foxworthy come to mind – there were plenty of duds out there as well. Here were the four worst.
Penn Jilette (Identity)
I personally think Penn is a great comedian and entertainer. I’ve seen his magic show in Las Vegas, and actually got to take pictures with the guy. But he’s just the wrong type of guy to host a game show. His voice is too gruff, he towers intimidatingly over contestants, he seems incapable of standing still without his hands doing crazy gestures the whole time, and he’s just not a comforting presence on stage for the bundles of nerves they cast on Identity.
Rossi Morreale (Temptation)
In nominating Rossi, I’d like to also incriminate Dylan Lane, Ty Treadway, and Mark McGrath as four people who hosted their respective shows the same way – robotic, unconvincing, people who were clearly disinterested in the people playing their games. They leaned so heavily on script that every episode sounded interchangeable. They adding nothing to their productions – and given how most of their shows are on this list in some way, they needed hosts to contribute. Rossi ultimately gets the nod over the rest of the pack for being the most unconvincing behind the podium. Lots of love, Rossi.
Patrick Duffy (Bingo America)
The only reason I don’t lump Patrick into the list of drones above is because he was so bad at his job that he needs to be singled out for it. It’s one thing to be incapable of saying anything that’s not on the teleprompter in front of you. It’s another thing to look as though you’re even uncomfortable reading the teleprompter. His voice was so monotonous on the show that it could put viewers to sleep (and the utterly pedestrian game didn’t help matters much). When Richard Karn (who hosted the show’s second season) represents a marked improvement on your performance, that’s a pretty strong indictment.
William Shatner (Show Me the Money)
For the last two decades, William Shatner has been playing the character of William Shatner. Instead of following the lead of other actors-turned-hosts this decade, Shatner was totally incapable of breaking character when hosting Show Me The Money. His utterly lifeless and cardboard performance, hosting the show like he was hosting one of his Priceline commercials, ground the show to a halt and distracted from the game. Shatner used to be a regular guest on game shows in the 1970s; I just wish some of the personability and class of hosts from that era had somehow rubbed off on him.
Now that we’re done with that, let’s move on to our next quartet of shows on our list:
THIS IS A GAME WE’RE PLAYING… RIGHT?
You would think that when you’re dealing with something called a “game show”, that the word “game” would figure heavily into the production. And while the best game ideas are often the simplest, there is a difference between simplicity and sparsity. The following four game shows could probably be played in a third of the time it took to air an episode (and probably about 1/20 of the time it took to film it), but were so overwrought and so bloated with unnecessary filler that viewers could easily spot the lack of substance in each show. In other words, these four game shows took the term “game” very lightly.
Production History: NBC December 2005 – May 2009; Syndicated September 2009 – May 2011
Host: Howie Mandel
I don’t think there is any game show in the history of the genre that’s more polarizing than Deal or No Deal. Not just because of the way the game is constructed, but because of how the show has been interpreted across the globe. While the British and Australian versions of Deal or No Deal both serve as masterclasses on how to present the game in two very different ways, the American production of Deal or No Deal manages to whiff completely on both tempo and storyline.
When the show made its humble debut in the holiday week of 2005, the game purported itself to be a mindless exercise in risk and reward, but showed signs of promise in its presentation. Picking one briefcase out of 26, then whittling down the 25 that weren’t picked, showed real moments of excitement when big numbers managed to survive to the end, and heartbreak when a player’s luck was pushed too far and salvage money was all that was left to be played for. Howie Mandel cared enough about the players (despite his germophobia) to steward them through each of the big-money decisions, and used cliffhangers to great effect, such as leaving the banker’s phone to ring in vain while throwing to a commercial break. The show made it onto NBC’s regular weekly schedule not long afterward, and while there were a few cheap stunts thrown in (one deal was made for a sum of money and a pony, much to the delight of the contestant’s young daughter), the game for what it was managed to stay relatively intact.
Then the second season began, and that’s when the producers and network executives started getting nervous about the ultimately lightweight gameplay. Suddenly, there was no such thing as a regular game anymore. The premiere week gave us escalating jackpots, topping out at $6,000,000 in the last game of the week. Double Deal games multiplied all the dollar amounts by two. Special guests and prize package offers caused games to balloon well past the one-hour timeframe originally given to the show, a length of time that should be fully adequate for a game where a total of 36 arbitrary decisions are to be made. Players competed with each other one week for the sum total of everyone’s deals. In another, cases would be shown to home viewers over the commercial break to try and add a sense of anticipation to the ultimate reveal (when all it really did was spoil the outcome). Still another week forced contestants to make snap judgements on the banker’s offers, in a move that some viewers thought was a sarcastic riposte to the complaint that the game moved too slowly.
But the most ludicrous stunt that was pulled by the powers that be was the laughably desperate Million Dollar Mission. Because apparently it wasn’t good enough that the show had been on for a year and a half without a top-prize winner, each successive game would be played with one additional $1,000,000 case, until the entire right side of the board contained nothing but seven-figure cases. (And the contestant STILL couldn’t pick one of them.) It took two separate attempts at a Mission to crown a millionaire – in fact, two came practically back-to-back – but by then, the game had been irreparably damaged. While the show managed to soldier on for two syndicated seasons, with haphazard gameplay and production having moved to Connecticut of all places – Deal or No Deal had completely worn out its welcome with most viewers.
Why did the show do so poorly after showing such potential at the outset? The answer has to do with what the other two English-language versions of the show did so well, and the American version utterly failed to do. The British version embraced the game as a storytelling mechanism, having potential players come on the show for a few weeks first to serve as the box-openers, so viewers could get a taste of their personality and sensibilities before their time to shine. When their name was called, the show was all about them – the plans they had with their money, their families and friends cheering from the audience (but only coming onstage at engaging moments), and a banker that antagonized and prodded the contestants but rewarded courage and determination when it was warranted. The Australian version was a polar opposite – it made no grand gestures to suggest that the game was about anything more than picking numbers and knocking out sums of money, so they zoom through the game in half an hour, while audience members try to guess what they have in their case for a little extra cash. The banker is completely unseen and unheard, his presence only felt by the number that thuds onscreen at the appropriate times.
By comparison, the American version is slow – but only because of all the pageantry happening around the game and not the game itself. The contestant is given no time to acquaint themselves with the audience; cases are opened by mostly nameless models who mug and tease while making their reveals, completely stealing from the magic of a big climax. So much time is spent with satellite conversations with a spouse deployed abroad or reuniting with a long-lost relative or meeting a sports idol that the game almost feels like an afterthought. And most of the big wins were anti-climactic – one of the two aforementioned million-dollar winners knocked out the only non-million case with three still left in play – another side effect of the Million Dollar Mission: an absence of excitement when the top prize was actually won, replaced with a sense of impatient finality. There, we gave a million away. Now you can stop bitching about when it’s going to happen.
Both the Australian and British versions of Deal or No Deal are still on the air today. And if NBC hadn’t completely screwed it up, so might the American version.
(Note: I and several friends actually had the opportunity to attend a taping of DOND‘s second season premiere. It took eight hours to film two games. I asked my friends to help provide some details of the filming, but they were all too emotionally scarred from the experience to do so.)
Production History: ABC, July 2007 – August 2007
Host: Jimmy Kimmel
You know you’re in trouble when the game they’re showing you is so boring and so bereft of skill that they don’t even bother televising the first half.
ABC’s hastily-conceived answer to Deal or No Deal was an exercise in picking a tube, then picking another tube, then picking another tube, and so on and so forth. At least Deal had mathematical strategy behind its otherwise mindless machinations – Set for Life was nothing but the same activity done over and over again, with no opportunity for the audience to engage themselves in the action.
As mentioned at the outset, the game was actually played twice – first to determine the base value of each tube, and then a second time to determine how many monthly payments of the base value the contestant would get. Situated on the stage were 15 light tubes, 11 white and four red. Finding a white tube moved you up the prize ladder, while a red tube moved your down, and only after a white tube could you call it quits. But because even the producers thought that might be a bit plain, a wrinkle was added in the form of a family helper, who’d be locked up in a soundproof booth and could also stop the game without the original contestant knowing if they felt the bottom was going to drop out of the game.
While the Guardian Angel element helped serve to limit the number of bomb-outs the show would suffer, and I imagine there may have been a few cases where the sequestered helper actually did save a player from catastrophe, it also had the reverse effect of a helper chickening out way too early, costing their friend or relative tens of thousands of dollars in the first place. It leaves just as sour a taste in a viewer’s mouth to see someone’s quarter-million end up being significantly less just because of someone else’s interference with the game.
There isn’t a whole lot else to say about Set for Life, mainly because the game itself was so thin that there was literally no reason to watch more than one game of it. Jimmy Kimmel served as host, and you could practically hear him waiting for his paycheck to clear as he droned on about the rules, the impish personality that made his tenure on Win Ben Stein’s Money so great and ultimately helped give him his big break conspicuously absent from the proceedings. The main takeaway from Set for Life is that even the most mindless games have to have just a little thought put into them, or else it turns into an exercise in inanity.
SECOND OPINION – Travis Eberle: “I’m puzzled as to why Set for Life was relegated to the dustbin of history while Deal or No Deal flourishes. SFL (or as I call it: Jimmy Kimmel’s Flashlight Derby) is the kind of thing you’d see on game shows of the 80s where the champ could win a prize package by ducking the resident bad guy. The problems I have are that they could have done something like choosing from 15 answers (if Temptation can crib from Wipeout why couldn’t SFL), and the Guardian Angel. If I’m on a game show I want to play it my way, with risks I’m comfortable taking and strategies I’ve developed. I don’t want my game to be in the hands of a well-meaning family member who isn’t as good at statistics as I am or might be more risk-averse as me. If the show had made different choices (that’s a tall order for Endemol anyway) it might have at least been a passable show that lasted a season on ABC.”
Production History: ABC, May 2007 – June 2007
Host: Ed Sanders
For much of the 1980s and 1990s, local television stations aired game shows produced by their state’s lottery. The one thing that stuck out within all these productions was that, by law, the games had to played with no element of skill whatsoever. The true genius of these lottery shows was finding ways to put different masks on their same decisions, be they coinflips, picking numbers off a board, dropping balls down a pachinko table, or what have you. Even if every game had exactly the same mechanic, they could get away with it because they made each game look like they played completely differently. National Bingo Night could have taken a page from the Big Spins, Flamingo Fortunes and Cash Explosions of the lottery world by incorporating different variations on drawing lottery balls. But they didn’t, and by the end of the first episode, the bloom was completely off the rose.
A total of three different Bingo draws were held each week, with one studio contestant racing a trough of audience members to complete a series of predictions about each number drawn before one of the audience players could get five in a row on their card. Again, this is where even a modicum of creativity could have saved what would otherwise be an incredibly vanilla production, but the games given to the studio player were mind-numbing in their plainness. In one game, a player tried to guess whether each draw would be odd or even. In the next, they’d try to predict whether the ball would have black or white numbers (which were arbitrarily distributed among the balls). In a third, they didn’t even get to make any sort of guesses – they just tried to draw as many balls with the number 5 on it as they could. All while audience members started popping up out of their seats to indicate they were just one number away from thwarting the contestant, and a tacky Indian referee plucked straight out of Dell tech support announced, “Nooooo Bingo!!”
Home viewers that managed to stay awake throughout the whole proceedings could print out their own bingo cards and play along, which was the intended purpose of the show from the start. Look, it’s nice that we’re trying to find ways to get the folks watching at home involved, but you can’t make it the crux of your show, and National Bingo Night is a prime example of why you can’t: because you’re dealing with potentially tens if not hundreds of thousands of home entries, the proceedings have to be dumbed way down to allow them to all keep up. You probably couldn’t do any games more elaborate than Odd/Even or Black/White, because then the audience isn’t part of the game anymore. And it was especially insulting when a studio player won their game before a Bingo could even be legally completed, resulting in mercy draws for the home viewers to try and catch up. (Naturally, plenty of draws would be edited out of the game to make it that much harder for a home player to win – they can’t give away too many of those Rascal Flatts CDs, now.)
Amazingly, the show was reformatted and brought to GSN as Bingo America, where the audience play-along element was completely scrapped and the game amounted to nothing more than toss-up questions to spell BINGO. The saddest thing about it is, that game was an enormous improvement over what ABC subjected the country to. And when the better show had Patrick Duffy as its host, that’s saying something.
Production History: GSN, January 2008 – March 2008
Host: Corbin Bernsen
The short answer: One episode.
Y’know, I think Corbin Bernsen is a fine actor. He’s also a fine game-player; his appearances in both seasons of Celebrity Mole made for some of the most entertaining moments in the series’ all-too-short history. And I could certainly see him hosting a game show with some heft if one ever came his way. But in How Much is Enough?, Bernsen’s role was less about hosting the game and more about padding for time. We complain nowadays about game shows wasting time with needless vamping and silence and tense music so that they can stretch the proceedings to the next commercial break. But in the case of How Much is Enough?, all that vamping turns out to be very necessary – otherwise, the show would be over in 10 minutes.
The game is played in five rounds, each with a “money clock” either counting up or down, to or from a maximum of $1,000 to $5,000. The four players secretly lock in the amount they want to bank from the clock in play; whoever tries to take the most gets nothing. In fifth and final round, both the greediest and the most cowardly player get snubbed, and the two players with the most in their banks after that compete in a staredown where one final clock counts up to the combined total of their banks; first to hit their button takes whatever the clock stops at.
And that’s it. That’s the entire game. I know there’s the theory of a game show needing to be explained in just a few sentences in order to have any chance of holding a viewer’s attention, but usually there’s some nuance to the premise. This is just chicken with money, and that point was drummed home again and again as Corbin tried fruitlessly to elongate the end-of-round reveals. And with no play-at-home element, there really wasn’t anything for viewers to do but watch the laborious game play out.
The funniest thing about the game was watching its footprint on the GSN schedule gradually shrink as viewers got hip to the dearth of entertainment that How Much is Enough? offered them. Originally slated as a 5-a-week strip, it didn’t take long for the airings on Monday and Friday to silently disappear from the schedule, then get relegated to weekends, and finally vanish entirely.
With the advent of Deal or No Deal, it became chic for game shows to issue no direct challenge to the contestants. But without stunts, word puzzles, trivia questions, or other tasks to complete, all you’re really left with is a few people on a stage staring at each other. Interpersonal strategy only works if there’s a premise behind the strategy; if you’re only doing it for its own sake, then the whole exercise comes off as limp and pointless. They could’ve done the same thing without the money clocks and the show would’ve had the same effect.
Next week on The 20 Worst Game Shows of the Past 10 Years, we’ll be devoting the entire article to one particular network’s repeated failures at putting a decent game show on the air and keeping it there for any length of time. Among them:
- A forgettable show about a contestant’s life experiences
- Cedric the Entertainer tries and fails to add “I’m Sure Sure” to the American vernacular
- A game show I didn’t get on, but all my roommates did – and I’m the lucky one
- The… Most… Obnoxious… Catchphrase… Ever
All that, and we’ll take a little edge off the proceedings by highlighting four shows that were actually pretty competent for the time period. See you next Saturday!