Well, we’ve reached the end of our journey. Over the past five weeks, we’ve discussed the goofiness of dropping prizes off a conveyor belt, eviscerated revivals that sullied the material they revived, called to the carpet game shows that were light on the game and heavy on the show, and issued a concentrated blast to NBC’s post-Deal failings. In our fifth and final installment, we will reveal four more shows that are worthy of being on our bottom-20 list. We also have one last sidebar, which we’ll be saving for the end this time as it puts a nice ribbon on all of the sins committed by these shows. So without further ado, let’s wrap this thing up:
GIVING US ALL A BAD NAME
Game shows have historically been known for their tackiness. When your heyday took place in the ’70s, and the lasting image of your genre involves housewives being dressed as a giant chicken going apopleptic over winning a new refrigerator, or Jaye P. Morgan unleashing a well-deserved gong at a transvestite’s warbling cover of “You Light Up My Life”, you’re not going to be treated with the same sort of reverence you see offered to shows like 60 Minutes, M*A*S*H, or Breaking Bad. But just because game shows have a tacky reputation doesn’t mean that you have to feed into the stereotype. Among all of the shows that aired over the last decade, the following four are quite simply the tackiest of the bunch, in form and in function.
(Note: Not present on this list is ABC’s new Bet on Your Baby, in which parents attempt to predict what their toddler will do for college scholarships. This list was completed about two weeks before Part 1 was published, just to make sure I wouldn’t crap out and leave it unfinished halfway in. Rest assured, Bet on Your Baby would certainly qualify for this feature otherwise.)
Production History: FOX, December 2010 – February 2011
Host: Kevin Pollak
In the United Kingdom, Channel 4 has aired a quiz show for a few years called The Million Pound Drop. It’s actually an intriguing concept: teams of two are given £1,000,000 in bundles of real bank notes right at the start of the game, and have to wager that money on the answers to eight questions. Whatever money they have left after all eight questions are asked – if any – they get to take home. It plods at times, but at the heart of it the game is very solid, helped by the fact that the show is aired live, thus questions can be drawn from current events (including things that had happened mere hours before taping began).
Here in the United States, however, Million Dollar Money Drop landed with a thud.
I actually tried out for this show with my roommate Ben in the fall of 2010. That was an eye-opening experience for exactly what casting directors are looking for on these shows. Of the seven two-player teams that were in the production office that morning, we were the only two people who didn’t look and act like we had just walked off a sitcom. Situated between to bro-fiving BFFs and a professional poker player with his live-in girlfriend, along with the young lady with the gay friend who could practically set off the smoke detectors given how high the flames were burning, we promptly put the whoopfest to a screeching halt when we failed to produce some sort of trademark dance or catchphrase. (My roommate – then a world-champion punster – attempted to offer a few puns to the room, but since a pun requires a modicum of brainpower to understand, nobody in the room got them.) The actual gameplay part of the audition consisted of each team playing one question, talking it out, and settling on an answer. Sounds OK, until we tell you that everyone was playing the same question at the same time. That’s right; fourteen people, twelve of whom had a Red Bull Big Gulp before walking in the office, shouting over each other as they try to pick who ranked #1 in Maxim magazine’s Hot 100 – a magazine that lost its cultural influence not long after said question was asked.
It was no surprise, then, to see team after team after team bomb out on the real show. Even despite a major dumbing-down of the game – teams on the American version only dealt with a maximum of seven questions, had $20,000 bundles for more wagering flexibility, a ridiculous “Quick Change” lifeline, and longer time limits (and no time limit on the last question), not a single team managed to walk out of the studio with a dime. Of course, when you’re casting for caffeination over brains, you’re doing it for the precise reason of keeping from having to pay out of that prize budget.
The horrible casting was just one of the problems the game suffered from. The set was dull and lifeless, compared to the light show that the British version featured. Kevin Pollak was practically a non-entity during the show, and even his catchphrase of “Step up and see what drops” was delivered with almost no energy. Most egregiously, they relied on subjective sources for many of their questions, and got burned more than once for not using due diligence in their research. In one instance, they botched a question about which of four items had been sold first. In another, they used a little-known website’s secondhand survey as the basis of a question on the most common computer passwords, and later discovered that the answer had not been an actual survey but rather an “assertion” based on a hacking incident. Since they didn’t do the show live (again, American producers are deathly afraid of spontaneity) they had to rely on the same stupid survey and esoteric trivia questions that turned another FOX show, Greed, into an inexact crapshoot, and clearly their research staff wasn’t up to snuff on those types of questions.
The Million Pound Drop is still going strong in the UK, now having completed its 11th series. Million Dollar Money Drop barely made it to 11 episodes before getting canned.
Production History: FOX, January 2008 – August 2009
Host: Mark L. Walberg
I shouldn’t have to explain why The Moment of Truth has a place on the list of the 20 worst shows of the decade, or why it’s in the category of the tackiest shows. I really shouldn’t. But I’m trying to write 500 words on each of these entries, so get ready to relive the most uncomfortable and unrewarding game the medium has ever seen.
A contestant starts the game by being strapped to a polygraph machine and peppered with 50 questions. Based on the player’s background, many of the questions will tend to focus on a specific part of the person’s life. For example, a personal trainer might get asked questions about his feelings on fat people, or a person who claims to have been abducted by aliens will be asked about details of the event or being diagnosed with mental disorders. Twenty-one such questions are then used for the actual game, in which the answers are verified as either true or false; one lie ends the game automatically. The early-level questions are sensational but mostly innocuous, but as the levels progress the questions quickly become more personal and incriminating.
If you can’t figure out what makes this show so repugnant from reading that paragraph, then clearly you don’t mind watching a person’s reputation get absolutely stomped on for the sake of a few quick bucks. Of course, friends and family are on hand to witness as the contestant shames them over and over with questions like “Do you blame your father for tearing your family apart?” or “Have you ever had sexual relations with two sisters on the same day?” Much like a guest on The Jerry Springer Show, anyone sitting on the Couch of Acquaintance has to know that their mere presence on the show is doing to drag their reputation through the mud. Sure, they have a button to press that punts a question they don’t want to hear answered, but if you’re pressing that button, it’s because you know what the answer is going to be.
The biggest problem with the show is that you feel so unclean watching it, and watching someone completely sell out their good name in the most literal of terms, that there’s absolutely no joy in anyone winning. The further they press on in the game, the more uncomfortable they look in the chair, the more anguish is on their face, and the more regret you can hear in their voice. One person actually did manage to answer all 21 questions truthfully for the $500,000 top prize, but you didn’t see any jumping for joy, confetti drops, or pyrotechnic displays. And why not? Because to win the money, she essentially had to accuse her father of statuatory rape. Sorry, but that’s not an occasion for a scantily-clad model to bring out an oversized check.
And of course, the authority for the truth value of the player’s answers is left to a polygraph machine, which is notoriously unreliable – so much so that they’re inadmissible in court. If you read YouTube comments of the video clips available for the show, accusations run rampant of the producers giving false negative results when they fear that a player might be en route to winning too much money. Obviously, they’re YouTube comments, so one should definitely add salt to flavor when reading them, but as we’ve mentioned about shows like Amnesia, when the audience has no frame of reference on the player, we have no way of knowing for sure whether the results that are coming back are indeed accurate. When the aforementioned alien abductee manages to give consistent accounts of the event, truthfully admits to the episode having “ruined his life”, and even wishes one of his co-workers had taken his place, then trips up on the very premise of being abducted in the first place, it’s hard not to smell a rat.
The Moment of Truth was the game show equivalent of a snuff film. There was no redeeming factor to the game, and every time you watched it your opinion of humanity sank. It was impossible to root for any of the contestants who played, because you were watching them admit to some pretty disgusting things over the course of the game. Fortunately, even though the show did manage to pull some decent ratings, FOX had a moment of clarity and axed the show anyway. Even the devil has a conscience sometimes, I guess.
Production History: NBC, December 2012
Host: Howie Mandel
In the very first episode of NBC’s most recent prime time game show, one contestant won over half a million dollars worth of cash and prizes by stealing everything from Santa Claus. That’s just about all you really need to know about Take It All, a show that took one of the most fundamentally flawed tropes of the genre to a level it had never attained before, and hopefully never will again.
Game show fans have grown to despise the logic puzzle known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma. In it, two prisoners secretly and independently make a choice to either incriminate their partner or stay quiet. If both stay quiet, both get small sentences. If one incriminates while the other stays quiet, the confessor goes off scot free while the quiet prisoner serves a massive jail term. If both talk, both get locked up for a long time. The idea is how willing you are to trust another person, knowing that they may betray you for their own personal gain.
It’s been tried a few times already in the game show universe. In the early 2000s, the GSN show Friend or Foe saw teams build up cash prizes which they eventually tried to split evenly between each other or take for themselves – knowing that if both players tried to take the whole thing, both would leave empty-handed. In the UK, a show called Golden Balls was built entirely on players bluffing as to how valuable their cash balls were so they could reach the end, build up a jackpot, and end with the same decision to Split or Steal. In Take it All, this very same decision came at the end of a game that closely resembled the “White Elephant” gifting game where you either took an unknown gift or took someone else’s prize.
With regards to the first part of the game, this is yet again one of those situations where 15 minutes of gameplay are being stretched out to cover 50 minutes of show time, complete with endless yakking between Howie Mandel and the contestant about what prize to take, how much they think it’s worth, and so on. This is done a total of 12 times – again, in 50 minutes – as what starts as five players gets narrowed down to two when the player holding the least expensive prize of the round gets booted. Each player gets one chance to “lock” their prize and prevent it from being stolen, which isn’t such a bad idea if there’s something that you really have your heart set on.
But as explained above, it’s the final decision that turns this game into a failure. The two remaining players select a cash envelope to go along with the three prizes they picked up in the front game. They now vote whether to “Keep Mine” or “Take it All”, with the standard Prisoner’s Dilemma consequences in play. Unlike Friend or Foe, where the pot in question was usually only several thousand dollars at most; or Golden Balls, where the prize fund only occasionally breached “serious money” territory, the final decisions on Take it All by necessity had hundreds of thousands of dollars at issue – which made the resolution sting a hell of a lot more when you realize that the aforementioned lady wasn’t happy enough with the enormous stash she already had, and felt it necessary to screw over Santa (or at least, an older gentleman who looked like Santa).
So what’s the fundamental flaw of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and why should it be relegated to the dustbin of game show concepts? Because game shows, by their very definition, are competitive, and the people who play them are looking to win. Sharing isn’t winning, taking it all is – and so you have players who are unwilling to settle for what’s in front of them when all they have to do is dupe the other player into trusting them and then snatching away their share. Combine that with the fact that players are helpless against a clearly dishonest or greedy adversary. If you’re convinced that the other player is going to try to take everything anyway, you have no chance to win. All you can do is be vindictive and prevent them from winning anything either, but that’s not what I’d consider the most desirable outcome. And if both players are convinced that person on the other side of the table is going to steal everything from them, then the downer ending is a foregone conclusion.
As luck would have it, I managed to meet one of the music editors for the show, and his experience with Take it All was rather striking. Apparently, the producers were shocked at the fact that players kept trying to steal from each other rather than happily part ways with what they originally won. My guess is that the game was playtested with hypothetical stakes (which defeats the purpose of trying to take everything) or with people who had a prior relationship (making it much less likely they’d try to pull a fast one on the other player). It seems to me that the people in charge of this show were hopelessly naïve when it came to anticipating what real players faced with potential wins of over half a million dollars would do.
It’s ironic that Take It All was yet another week-long event aired over the week before the holidays. What NBC thought would be a show about the giving spirit ended up being a lot more about just how much greed there is in our human nature.
Production History: ABC, November 2011 – December 2011
Host: Chris Harrison
This is likely to be the most controversial pick out of this 20 Worst Shows feature, especially since it’s in the category of the four tackiest shows. This was a show about helping out friends and family in need, after all – who could possibly find offense in that?
First, a brief summary of the game. A player was brought on stage with a chance to win a large cash prize for a friend or relative who needed the money for one reason or another. For example, a son playing for money to help his widowed mother pay her husband’s remaining outstanding medical bills, or a daughter playing for her mother’s charity organization. The beneficiaries have no idea about the game being played until the end, when they surprise the recipient of all the money with the good news. The game itself consists of a series of word puzzles, where clues must be bought to reveal the identity of a person, place, or thing. More obvious clues deduct more money from the value of the puzzle, but they’re necessary as an incorrect guess scores zero for the round.
Like several other shows we’ve discussed on this list, the base premise of the show is not something I object to. Something like this would work on a smaller scale, perhaps in a competition between two players who have to weigh the pros and cons of reducing the value of the puzzle for more information. But You Deserve It does something in its concept that really rubs me the wrong way, and it’s right there in the title.
Let’s flash back to the 1940s. I’m sure we’ve all heard with the radio and television game show Queen for a Day. In it, housewives would regale audiences with tales of woe and hardship regarding their family life. The audience would crown the woman with the most pathetic story as the titular Queen, who would be showered with prizes for their plight. It was a massive hit for the time period, but in hindsight it was pure, unbridled exploitation. There was nothing redeeming about the program: just a parade of housewives begging for attention and sympathy. It was hard not to think of Queen for a Day as I heard the premise for You Deserve It.
Now let’s move forward in time to the year 1999, when Who Wants to Be a Millionaire made its American debut. Contestants on the show answered questions for the chance at life-changing amounts of money, and there were definitely some stories of contestants on the show wanting the money for very noble purposes. In just the first two-week flight of episodes, an unemployed fiddler from West Virginia won a quarter-million dollars. In another, a pastor won the $32,000 that he sorely needed to complete the legal process to adopt a child. But they weren’t put on the show because of their need for the money, they made it on because they proved they were good at the game.
It’s a symptom that’s been creeping up on many game shows nowadays. Perhaps because of the dumbing down of material since Deal or No Deal essentially removed any element of skill from its gameplay, perhaps because of the economic downturn and the resultant hardships that many families now face, game shows don’t seem as willing to challenge their contestants any more than they look for contestants worthy of a challenge. Millionaire stopped using its telephone qualifying game a couple years into its run, due to the high number of middle-aged, mild-mannered, affluent white men who continually made their way into the Hot Seat. Contestant searches now combed the nation for more diverse and lively players, and while they certainly brought more energy to the show, they also put much less of a strain on the prize budget. Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to become a contestant on any show, much less a big-money prime-timer, without having a particular reason of why you deserve the money they’re offering. Whether it’s the wife of a soldier about to deploy to Iraq, or a young man trying to set up a non-profit in his brother’s honor, contestant selection stopped being about finding good players who could showcase your game, and became a quest to find the most compelling human interest story.
That’s what I find so distasteful about You Deserve It. Game shows are not supposed to be about who deserves to win because they have the worst circumstances back home. It’s supposed to be about who plays the best game. Stories of loss and hard luck have always been a part of game shows – witness John Hatten, the Blockbusters contestant in 1980 who won $120,000 despite his house having been completely burned down due to a local brushfire. The difference is, the show never dwelled on the fact that he had lost his house; they were more interested in how brilliantly he played the game.
I may be coming off as cold-hearted when lambasting what is otherwise a fairly pedestrian show, but it’s a disturbing trend that You Deserve It highlighted more clearly than any other show in recent memory: how game shows of today are less about rewarding good gameplay and more about gifting money to people who supposedly “deserve” a windfall. If we’re to see any overall improvement in the quality of shows in this genre, this needs to stop.
So there you have it. Twenty shows that failed to live up to their potential, many of which failed to last more than a handful of episodes. Many of these shows had certain elements in common, and it was those things that doomed the productions from the word go. Thus, the final sidebar of this series involves:
THE FOUR THINGS GAME SHOW PRODUCERS NEED TO STOP DOING
Like a cellar-dwelling baseball team that keeps signing the wrong free agents and hiring the wrong managers, modern game show producers have been committing the same cardinal sins over and over again with their recent productions. Here are the four most glaring problems, and what can be done to fix them.
Casting to cut costs
I honestly don’t know enough about television production to know how much of a show’s budget is devoted to contestant winnings, or how much pressure it puts on the show when that element of the budget goes over, but when I see obnoxiously hyperactive contestants hoot and holler while simultaneously showing an inability to play the game properly (witness prime-time 5th Grader and the most recent reboot of The Pyramid, for example), it turns me off on the whole program, because it reveals just how disingenuous the producers are about giving away their prizes. It’s one thing to make the material challenging and then finding contestants who have to rise to that challenge in order to win, but when the material is dumbed down and contestants still struggle with it, it suggests that the casting director is dodging the talented folks to avoid the big payouts. As any good game show fan can tell you, a good game played well makes for the best showcase of your game, and hence the most successful portrayal of it.
Abusing commercial breaks and episode endings
In the first week of ABC’s Duel, they did something that I never thought I would ever see on a game show: they actually ended an episode after the two duelists locked in their answers, forcing both them and the audience at home to wait for the next episode to see who was right. This is an epidemic in modern game shows – most obvious is NBC’s incessant use of the “On your mark… get set… we’ll be right back!” tease on American Gladiators and Minute to Win It. Tense moments should absolutely be milked for as much value as possible, but when the whole episode feels like it’s taking its sweet time getting to the reveal just so it can tuck a few more ads in before we find out if they’ve won, it’s a gross case of audience manipulation. It also feeds into the above complaint about trying to cut corners on contestant winnings, because you feel as though they could probably speed things up and fit in more games if they really wanted to – but they don’t, because that would mean giving more money away.
Overdoing the productions
Adam’s account of his time on Who’s Still Standing?, along with Travis Schario’s time on the set of Show Me the Money and my experience at the Deal or No Deal taping, sheds a harsh light on just how overboard production teams are going to try and control every element of a show. Organic moments simply don’t happen anymore. Big wins have to be shot and re-shot and re-shot from seventeen different angles, when the first one was the most natural and likely the best. Contestants are told to bring five times as much clothing as they’re going to wear, only to have their entire wardrobe rejected as casting assistants try to groom them into the perfect caricature. Tapings drag on for hours and hours even though the game itself only takes 20 minutes, because most of the audience is paid and they have to stay the whole time in order to get their check, so they’re going to be kept in their seats for hours on end without any breaks so the production staff can get their money’s worth on them. Decades ago, producers could bang out an entire week’s worth of shows in about 5 hours, and there were no attempts made to reshoot or mask something unless a mistake actually affected the game. I realize that shows are much more complicated to produce now than they were in the ’70s and ’80s, but that doesn’t mean you have to micromanage the spontaneity out of your show.
Overdoing the stakes
Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? was at its best in syndication, where contestants played for $25,000 (which they could then multiply by 10 with an optional bonus question) rather than a million. Identity may have been more enjoyable – not to mention a hell of a lot faster – if they gave the contestant a flat prize for each correct guess and then played the last two identities for a multiplier. You Deserve It could’ve worked with lower stakes, a competitive element, and without the focus on exploiting a family’s sob stories. Downfall was a dopey show that had no business having a seven-figure jackpot. Maybe if producers emphasized their game and not the monstrous cash prizes they purport to offer, they might not be so worried about having to cast hyperactive nimrods to keep the prize budget in check.
The good news is, things might be getting better for a genre that was taking its lumps the past few years. GSN has just greenlit an American version of the brilliant British quiz The Chase. NBC is going to try their hand at another game with The Million Second Quiz, a game where strong online competitors will be flown to New York for a chance to compete, circumventing the casting process altogether. Reruns of the ’80s Sale of the Century are now on GSN, and while it’s arguably in its weakest format, just the presence of a fast-paced quiz on the schedule is something to hang our hat on. There may be hope yet for this genre that we all love so much.
Let’s just hope Bet on Your Baby doesn’t get renewed.
Thanks for reading!