We continue on our journey to find the twenty most insipid, slapdash, and otherwise incompetent shows from the past decade with another four entries, but first here’s a recap of the twelve shows we’ve touched on so far:
Week 1 was all about the four shows that we weren’t able to find categories for, but still deserved to be called out (Downfall, Hole in the Wall, Merv Griffin’s Crosswords, Show Me the Money).
Week 2 took a closer look at four attempted revivals of previous shows that all fell flat (Temptation, American Gladiators, Chain Recation, Lingo).
Week 3 featured the four most prominent examples of game shows where absolutely no skill was required (Deal or No Deal, Set for Life, National Bingo Night, How Much is Enough?).
Before we go into this week’s quartet of fail, here’s our sidebar for the week:
THE FOUR BEST GAME SHOWS OF THE PAST 10 YEARS
It’s not as though the decade was a complete and total failure. Amidst the wreckage of Deal or No Deal and Temptation came a handful of enjoyable game shows, and these were the four best in this author’s not-so-humble opinion.
Grand Slam (GSN 2007)
I really, really wish that GSN could’ve found some way to make an ongoing series out of this event. It was nice that they were paying respects to some of the classic game show winners of the past (and finding a way to bring former Tic Tac Dough champ Thom McKee out of the mothballs), but better still was the actual gameplay, and how challenging the material was. While some people might have been intimidated by the material – which consisted of mental arithmetic and backwards spelling in certain rounds – I personally found the game riveting. It ended up being just a one-and-done tournament in 2007, but it was also some of the best television GSN has ever aired.
Minute to Win It (NBC 2010-2011; GSN upcoming)
I know, I know, we all wish that CBS had pulled the trigger on bringing the British stunt show The Cube stateside, but let’s give credit where credit is due. The stunts are brilliantly devised for their usage of everyday items (making it one of the few stunt shows you can practice without making a mess out the house). The money ladder works (especially since they put a safety net close to the end, guaranteeing big money for players who get that far and thus making the final stunt less of a gamble), Guy Fieri gives the show the perfect type of energy as host, and even the reruns hold up extremely well (something that just about every other big-money show fails at). If only Supercoin wasn’t so blinkin’ impossible…
Family Game Night (Hub, 2011-Present)
You would never think a branded show on a niche family network would be so sturdy and enjoyable. Although the format switch in the third season took away some of the competitive aspect of the show, Family Game Night is a fun, lively, creative, and most importantly, popular show on Hasbro’s Hub network. At last, we’ve found a suitable vehicle for workman Todd Newton’s zeal and energy. The games are engaging to the viewers and offer a fresh spin on classic board games like Twister, Connect Four, Operation, and Monopoly. They even manage a pretty decent prize budget, too. This is the show that production companies like Endemol and Lock & Key need to look at to see how a modern game show production can have prime-time energy without moving at a snail’s pace or requiring a six- or seven-digit jackpots to justify their game.
Catch 21 (GSN 2008-2011)
Yes, I’m incredibly biased on this one, I know. But let’s be honest here: this was one of the few game shows of the past 10 years that really felt a like show that would be on the air back in 1980. (Of course, it kinda was, but that’s the point.) While there are complaints about the scoring system putting more of an emphasis on answering questions than card play, and that bonus round was tough as nails to crack, this was an actual game, and not just a spectacle. It also proved to be one of the sturdiest shows of the decade, with four seasons in the can before GSN decided that, like Lingo, they had enough shows to rerun to infinity.
Well, enough accolades, Time to get back to the stinkers. And if it’s bad game shows you’re looking for, there was just one place to turn the past decade:
NBC – YES, THEY GET THEIR OWN CATEGORY
The Peacock network has been the butt of plenty of jokes in the television industry, boasting a lineup that now loses in the ratings to Spanish-language stations, shows that get bumped for Matlock reruns (which, hilariously, got more viewers), and the single biggest bomb in television history. Of course, they haven’t been all that hot with the game shows they’ve attempted in prime time either, although Lord knows they try harder than any of the other networks at it. Although Deal or No Deal gets most of the criticism, the following four shows weren’t any better.
Production History: NBC, December 2006 – April 2007
Host: Penn Jillette
…it possible for an otherwise intriguing concept for a game to be utterly ruined by a network’s need to turn every prime-time game show into a high-stakes gauntlet? The answer is clearly yes, as evidenced by Identity, a show that was brought to air mainly because of the wide swaths of prime time real estate left open by the writer’s strike. While Deal or No Deal was still pulling good numbers for NBC and 1 vs. 100 was hanging on like a trooper, Identity was the first serious flop of the mid-2000s.
To start, the contestant is introduced to 12 onstage personalities, serving as living statues for the contestant to identify. Twelve identities, such as “Celebrity impersonator”, “NFL player”, “Blackjack dealer” and the like are then presented as a list, and the contestant has to match the identities to the people onstage. Each correctly matched identity moves the player up a money ladder that tops out at $500,000.
…was the first of many serious red flags the show had. Granted, some of the identities were more easily sussed out than others, which made the game progressively harder, possibly justifying the need to escalate the payouts as the game progressed. But this isn’t a game of intense trivia or nerve-wracking stunts, it’s figuring out which one of them is the kindergarten teacher. Why not play up the potential for comedy here, have a few laughs, give out $5,000 for each right answer, and play for double at the end?
But no, it’s a game show and it’s prime time, so that means we got all the trappings of a big-money quizzer, like Lifelines, dramatic musical stings and lighting effects, and of course, long pauses after a player has “Sealed Their Identity” and is waiting for the mannequin in question to fess up.
…patience will wear thin the first few times host Penn Jilette – looking painfully uncomfortable and awkward in his first and hopefully last hosting gig – asks for confirmation, followed by a good 15 seconds of cutting silently back and forth between the player, then the suspect, then the player again, then the player’s family, then a wide shot, then the suspect again, the music telegraphing the precise moment when they’ll actually say the player is right or wrong. Repeat a total of 11 times, and you’ve got one of the the most languishingly slow-paced hour-long game shows the medium has ever conceived. In one case, at the end of one player’s game, it took a good minute and a half after the final guess was locked in before Penn even threw it to a commercial, and another minute and a half (including 35 full seconds of nearly dead air) before the win was finally revealed.
The final identity deserves special mention for one of the assiest moves ever made on a game show. Throughout the game, the contestant is granted a “Mistaken Identity” – an extra life, for all intents and purposes – in case they make a mistake during the game. But even if the player makes it to the end with the extra life intact, they arbitrarily rescind it for the final two. With no safety nets anywhere within the money ladder, players are suddenly forced to risk a quarter-million dollars to play the last stage of a game that boils down exclusively to observing wardrobe, facial expressions, and posture. For as inexact a science as profiling is, these people are being forced to risk an awful lot of money on what can never be anything more than a hunch.
With smaller payouts, less risk, and a more inviting atmosphere, the show could have fared much better. But thanks to the networks’ obsession for monster payouts, the game was turned into something it never should have been. Years later, its only legacy is in how game show fans look back on the production and say, “Is there a show out there that mishandled its premise any worse than…”
Production History: NBC, February 2008 – April 2008
Host: Dennis Miller
One of the things I’ve been hammering home in a lot of these articles about the worst shows of the past decade is just how important it is for the home viewers to be able to play along. It doesn’t necessarily need to dominate the proceedings, but if you can give us a game that we can play with the contestant onscreen, it helps in going a long way towards making your game successful. Amnesia failed for a number of reasons, the biggest of which was its inability to engage the viewer with the game they were playing.
Amnesia was, for lack of a better term, an attempt to make a game show out of the classic television chestnut, This Is Your Life. One contestant was brought up on stage, and faced with a series of questions and other challenges, all based on the player’s past experiences and history. There could be questions about which picture was found on a certain month of the contestant’s homemade calendar, or which of the people brought onstage was the player’s old high school gym teacher, or if a longtime friend remembers a particular event from long ago the same way the contestant does. Successful challenges adds money to a “Memory Bank” (har har), which is then risk at the final round for three big money questions.
Here’s the problem: the audience has literally nothing to do for the entire hour. There’s no way that anyone sitting at home will have the same experiences that the contestant has, and the challenges themselves are so specific to the contestant’s life that there is no shared context at all. Sure, you can cheer the player on as they try to win money, but that’s all you can do. Even in the jackpot round, it’s impossible to tell a player to keep playing or call it quits, because again you don’t know the extent of their memory so you have nothing to gauge their ability to answer the tough questions at the end.
Hosting was done by the highly sardonic Dennis Miller, and while he didn’t stink up the joint, his lowkey hosting style made his work ultimately forgettable. (See what I did there?) And one final note – whoever came up with the idea of adding lyrics to the theme song should be strung up by the thumbs, especially since I couldn’t even understand half of them.
It’s clear in hindsight that NBC did not have lofty plans for Amnesia. As yet another game that was used to plug in holes left by the writer’s strike, there was practically no reason to keep the show on the air any longer than absolutely necessary. While it’s not a crime in and of itself to be a potboiler, a stronger game may have had a chance to survive past the initial order of episodes.
Production History: NBC, July 2011 – September 2011
Host: “Cedric the Entertainer”
If for no other reason, this game deserves a spot on the list for trying to spawn the catchphrase “I’m Sure Sure” when locking in an answer.
It’s Worth What? was essentially a network prime time version of The Price is Right, only that CBS has already done prime time episodes of The Price is Right so the pricing material for It’s Worth What? was all antiques and rare collectibles. I’ll let that sink in for a moment as you realize why The Price Is Right has been on the air for over 40 years in its current incarnation, and why It’s Worth What? flopped like a diver slipping off the board.
You see, the difference between a show that’s based on pricing grocery items, small gadgets, big prizes and cars is the amount of variety you can have in the games played during the show. But when everything you’re wheeling out is coming from the same stash of artifacts and celebrity memorabilia, you’re not going to be able to do more than picking which item is most expensive, or putting items in order of price, or matching prices with items. And the other major difference between “Price” and “Worth” is that the contestants actually want the stuff they offer on “Price”, so of course they’re going to have at least a ballpark idea of what those things cost. “Worth”‘s items are all esoteric and one-of-a-kind; only someone who really knows anything about antique furniture or vintage comic books are going to have any grasp on their values. Thus, it’s nearly impossible to play any of the games with the slightest degree of skill. It’s all gut instinct – which, as we saw with a game like Identity, should not be the only thing used to play a game with a potential million-dollar payout.
The final round itself was nightmarish in its obscurity. The team was given four items, and had to correctly put them in order of worth from least to most, comparing each item to another set of four that represented the House. The more items that outpriced their house counterparts, the more money that was won, and getting everything right multiplied their bank by 10. But once again, that whole problem with the home audience being unable to play along rears its ugly head. Since viewers are going to be just as lost as the contestants when it comes to pricing movie props, dinosaur fossils and custom sports cars, it all turns into a crap shoot, and it doesn’t make for good television to see players just take blind stabs at everything.
NBC aired It’s Worth What? as a summer replacement series, and once again it was clear that there was not going to be much of a future for this show beyond the episodes they originally taped. I can easily say that nobody really missed It’s Worth What? went off the air – in fact, I’m Sure Sure of that.
Production History: NBC, December 2011 – January 2012
Host: Ben Bailey
Not on this list is NBC’s second foray into game shows in the mid-2000s, 1 vs. 100, a quiz show that I found to be rather clever and entertaining, even if it was the setting for my first – and quickest – experience as a game show contestant. The main hang-up I had with the show, however, was the preferential treatment it gave the singular player whose goal it was to knock out all of the mob members. They get cheered as they walk onstage; we get boos. They get 10 minutes to answer a question; we got 10 seconds. They got lifelines; we were the lifelines. They got the money all to themselves if they walked away; we had to split the money between everyone else who had made it to the same point if the player bombed out. All because of the fact that that one person impressed the casting directors more than the rest of us. It didn’t ruin the game, but it does leave a bad taste in a viewer’s mouth to see a clear division between those with the bouncy, cartoony personalities that get all the attention, and the normal people whose only hope is to get on camera for half a second.
Enter Who’s Still Standing?. If there was ever a show that more strongly highlighted the gap between the favored player and the also-rans, this would be it.
One contestant (referred to in the show as the “hero”, because again, casting thinks they deserve to win more) faces off against ten other contestants to try and win a million dollars. The ten challengers are known as “strangers”, probably because the term “misfits” or “placeholders” was a bit too on the nose. A stranger is nominated, and the two players go back and forth answering questions with a hangman puzzle serving as a clue (with fewer and fewer letters filled in as the duel progresses) until one of them doesn’t answer in time. Whoever loses drops through a trap door under their feet much like they did on the GSN sleeper classic Russian Roulette, and the player that’s still standing wins money. Victorious strangers win $10,000 flat, winning heroes get a wildly-varying bounty associated with the stranger (because clearly the only thing less clichéd than a money ladder is a DOND-style random money distribution, so dammit, they’re going to run that into the ground too).
I’ll be honest – I don’t despise the game. The question format was interesting, and the dynamic of two people battling back and forth to stay in the game had the potential for some exciting rallies. But the execution of the game is where things absolutely fell apart.
For one thing, the producers didn’t trust the host – a very competent Ben Bailey, formerly of Cash Cab – to shepherd the game effectively, so much of the setup was done by using ridiculous and unnecessary animations to spell out how many people have dropped out so far and how many are still standing in the way of the hero’s million. For another, they had no idea what to do after the hero left and there were five strangers still standing. Their response was to hold a incongruous bonus round between the remaining strangers, as they took turns answering questions to build a pot which the last remaining stranger won. Of course, the obvious, holy-cow-why-didn’t-they-think-of-this resolution would be to randomly pick one of the strangers (or, if a stranger felled the hero, just pick that one) and have them take their place in the center of the circle. But no, we can’t have these people put in the limelight when there’s another hypercaffeinated single mom or bombastic high school football coach hand-picked by the casting director waiting in the wings.
Of course, those types of stereotypical contestants is just one of the trademark offenses committed by Who’s Still Standing, and one of many. This being NBC’s sixth attempt at a prime time game show, you can practically guess everything else they did wrong, because it’s the same things they did wrong with every other show they’ve aired since 2005. Obnoxious cliffhangers in the middle of gameplay? Check. Indecisive format changes midway through the run? Check. Editing the show within an inch of its life, because God forbid anything spontaneous happen that the producers didn’t anticipate? Check.
Much like Deal or No Deal, Who’s Still Standing first aired the week before the holidays, mainly so we would have something to watch while wrapping Christmas presents. But unlike “Deal”, which managed to parlay its one week of shows into four years of network and syndication, “Standing” did so poorly in the ratings that the network quickly burned off the rest of their games in the following month. Another show that may have done much better in the hands of a capable production team, Who’s Still Standing? instead became another example of how current producers have no idea how to properly execute a game show.
(The following is a firsthand account of one contestant’s experience on Who’s Still Standing?. It’s a long read, but it casts a bright light on just how scattershot and unorganized prime-time game show productions have become.
I WAS THERE – Adam Nedeff, “Stranger”:
I auditioned for the show early in 2011, in response to a Craigslist ad. I went along with a friend of mine, Victoria. We took a written trivia test and then we were both asked to stay for an interview on camera and then some mock games. Both of us got the call to be on the actual show, but Victoria bowed out when she read the contract they wanted us to sign. It’s standard for game show contestant forms to say you cannot have appeared on a game show one year prior, you cannot appear on a game show for one year after; what baffled Victoria, as I recall, was an item in the contract that said you had to get written authorization from the production company for any television appearance you might make in the following year. Victoria’s a budding actress and quite correctly bowed out after reading that. I went ahead and signed, although I found the contract odd, too. I guess the production company didn’t want to go to the trouble of drawing up a different contract for every type of show they might ever produce, so there was a stipulation in the contract requiring me to acknowledge that the program I’m appearing on may be of a hidden camera or prank nature and the entire show may be a ruse as part of a prank being played on me.
I get a call the week before taping asking if I can be there for Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday. I tell the coordinator, “Any of those days will be fine with me.” She says “No, you don’t understand, we need you there for all three days, because we don’t know how many games we’re going to tape.” This was a chance at a lot of money for me, so I went along with it, and then spent the rest of the day trying to creatively finagle time off from work since my schedule for that week was already set in stone.
I get another call before the taping days roll around and this time the staffer asks me to bring some Hawaiian shirts with me for the taping. I had mentioned during my audition that I collect Hawaiian shirts as a hobby so they wanted me to wear one for the show. I come to learn that they are costuming the show, basically. My roommate was used as a standby contestant for one day of taping (he didn’t get on) and once they found out he had an accounting job for a hotel, they fixed him up with a very nerdy shirt & tie ensemble with a pocket protector.
I arrive at the studio complex very early—they gave us something like a 7:00 call time, and I wait in a cold garage with a few other contestants until we’re whisked inside the slightly warmer basement of the studio, which they’ve sort of turned into a holding pen/dressing room complex. They have a bunch of board games set up for us—Monopoly, checkers, Yahtzee—basically any game that doesn’t require knowledge, which makes sense. No fair giving some contestants an extra chance to study. They also have a big screen TV set up, playing episodes of “Minute to Win It” all day, and they even had some props in the room, so we were recreating some of the stunts ourselves to pass the time. And this was my first experience as a game show contestant in which catering was provided. Sandwiches and chips from Panera and all the fizzy drinks you could stomach. So if I can say nothing else about this show, I will say this much, we the contestants were treated like kings.
We’re all given forms detailing the rules of the game and we’re asked to sign them, and we all sort of scratch our heads at the heading of the form, which reads “Who’s Still Standing? Rules V20.” We sign off on it, but the idea that this is a brand new game show and this is, I think, the fifth taping, and the format already existed in other countries before it got adapted here, and somehow they had already gone through 20 modifications of the rules is just a little disquieting. I mean, even the people in the room who weren’t die-hard game show fanatics were taken aback by that.
The first thing that jumps out at me is that there are just racks and racks of all kinds of different clothes surrounding us, which I found odd for a game show. A member of the wardrobe department asks to see my Hawaiian shirts and kind of makes a bit of a face as he’s looking at them and he just kind of puts them aside and says “We’ll work something out for you.” Ninety minutes later, they round up a Hawaiian shirt for me. Apparently, none of mine met NBC’s high standards for Hawaiian shirts, so the wardrobe department had to rustle one up for me.
One of the other contestants at this taping is a surgeon and he has the most annoyed look on his face. We wound up having a conversation and he explains to me that he had come to a previous taping and he immediately figured out what they were doing with wardrobes on this show and he told them, “I can go to my hospital and get some scrubs.” They said, “No, don’t bother, just wear a nice shirt and slacks.” So that’s what he was wearing.
And then he says “Right now, they’re checking the rest of the costume department. They want me to wear scrubs.”
We have another contestant, a woman who won some sort of beauty pageant. So we’re all thinking “evening gown” for her. Well, they give her a skin-tight hoochie mama dress that comes down only to about mid-thigh. And then they say they’re not happy with how she looks so they cover her in a layer of make-up and false eyelashes. And they’re still not happy so they give her a set of falsies. And they’re still not happy so they give her a set of something called “cutlets,” basically an artificial ass. And they give her three sets of cutlets. Well, the result of all of this is that in the space of an hour, they have obliterated this woman’s self-confidence. She goes into a hallway and cries and the other women go to various staffers and complain, and basically say they don’t want to participate if contestants are going to be treated this badly. And it actually seems to get through to the staff. This woman still has to wear the slutty outfit, but no more fake ass for her, and they go ahead and remove the make-up. But still, they have destroyed this woman on the inside in the space of one hour.
So we’re all still waiting for our turn to go onstage and a bunch of us potential contestants sit down and begin discussing the rules and the terminology and everything about the game that’s been laid out for us, and again, I am the only game show fanatic here. But you’d be amazed at the way everybody was just picking apart the rules of the game and looking for ways to fix it.
First of all, the game pits a “hero” vs. ten “strangers.” And one of the contestants sitting across from me immediately points out, “Hero and stranger aren’t opposites.” And by this point, they’ve actually told us what groups we’re all going to be a part of so we know who in the room will be our fellow strangers, and they’ve also told us that our opponent is a bartender.
And that’s when one of the other contestants pointed out how truly silly the jargon was. I’ll never forget this: “I don’t have anything against bartenders, but it bothers me that our team includes a surgeon, a firefighter, and a teacher, and the ‘hero’ is a bartender.” That cracked me up, and the guy was absolutely right.
It was at this point that the conversation that chit-chat turned to nitpicking the format of the game. And every single one of us had the same problem with the game. Again, it was nothing personal against the bartender who would be “the hero” in the game, but the biggest issue with the game was “Why her?” There was nothing for the audience or the viewer to see that would explain why she had a chance at a million bucks and the rest of us could only hope for $60,000 tops. And then once she was done playing, the remaining players would play this last-man-standing game. I’m telling you right now, game show geek or not, EVERY SINGLE PERSON in that room suggested the same repair. We all said the game should start with eleven people playing the last-man-standing game, and the winner getting the shot at the million dollars by playing against the other ten.
We’re getting closer to the time to tape our game and I get pulled aside by wardrobe. By now, I’m wearing the NBC costume department’s Hawaiian shirt, and they give me this big, thick fishing vest to put on over it, so now you can’t even see the Hawaiian shirt. And then it gets weirder. One of the contestant coordinators, after watching me get fitted with this Hawaiian shirt and vest, talks to me about what to say if/when I get called on during the game. And the coordinator goes over one part of my original application where I list my previous jobs, and he says “So you used to be a pro wrestling ring announcer; talk about that and do, like, an announcer’s introduction for yourself.” So after asking me to talk about my Hawaiian shirts, asking me to bring my Hawaiian shirts, rejecting all of my Hawaiian shirts, providing a Hawaiian shirt, and then providing a vest to hide the Hawaiian shirt that they want me to talk about, now they want me to talk about a totally unrelated subject during my interview.
And this discussion is happening in the middle of all the racks of costumes that they still have set up for all of us, and once he tells me to talk about being a pro wrestling ring announcer, I point to one of the racks and I say “Well, then shouldn’t I be wearing the tuxedo over there?”
And the coordinator looks at the tuxedo, and it’s like an awkward pause in “The Office” where you can see the character thinking. The coordinator just stares at this tux and then says “I’ll get back to you about that.” Needless to say, I went onstage in the Hawaiian shirt.
We played the game and unlike a lot of prime-time game shows in this era, this taping went fairly close to real time, which I think actually has a lot to do with Ben Bailey. I remember when are game started, Ben did an intro, and the director asked him to do the intro again into a different camera. And Ben says “Did I flub? Did I mumble? Did I do it wrong? No? So we’re just doing it because we need me saying that from two different camera angles?” And it was funny, but there was a VERY passive-aggressive tone to it and by golly, they buzzed right through the game after that.
All in all, I called my experience very mixed. Like I said, I ate like a king and they really did try to make it a pleasant experience for me, but you couldn’t help thinking that the left hand had no clue what the right hand was doing through this whole thing.
Next week is our finale, and there are still plenty of worthy candidates for the list. In our final installment, we’ll be focusing on the four shows that most insulted the intelligence and sensibilities of the audience, including:
- The single worst contestant tryout I’ve ever been a part of
- A show where contestants literally sold out their good name
- Definitive evidence that the Prisoner’s Dilemma does not work as a game show
- The most sanctimonious and exploitative game show since Queen for a Day
See you next week for part 5!