Well, they got me. They finally got me.
When the game show craze came back to television, I took a look at them. I watched at least one episode of each of them. Twenty-One, Greed, the various other imitators and the ubiquitous Who wants to be a millionaire. All but Millionaire have, of course, long since bit the dust. Every great great once in a while, I may catch part of Millionaire, but it's not the sort of thing I'll make any time to watch. The format isn't quite interesting enough, and Regis grates.
When the reality shows hit, again, I took a look. I saw an episode of Survivor, CBS' Big Brother, MTV's Fear (think Survivor as channeled by Blair Witch), bits and pieces of Boot Camp, MTV's Real World and Road Rules and most of the rest (Temptation Island was that one step WAY too far for me). And, interestingly, most of them are still around; it's much easier to keep a show on the air if the season is, in fact, brief, after all. But none of them caught my attention for very long. The concept of putting people in extraordinarily artificial situations, forcing them to both cooperate and then betray each other ... it just didn't work for me.
And then along comes NBC's Weakest Link.
Viewed objectively, the questions aren't really much more difficult than those on Millionaire; in fact, with a slight focus on pop culture, they may overall be easier. They seem to be harder, however, because the round is timed and because they're not multiple choice; you don't get to sit there and consider and hem and haw, because on Weakest Link, time is literally money.
There are two aspects that make the show work. First, they have managed to distill the essence of the cooperate/compete ethic of Survivor down to a one hour show. I'd wondered how they would prevent the strongest contestants from being voted off immediately; the answer is that the game is structured so that you need the strongest people at the beginning to answer questions accurately and keep the money rolling in. Near the end, the only ones left are the strongest, and the cream, more or less, rises to the top. The two left standing then get to slug it out first in a standard round like the ones they've just been through, followed by a one on one untimed round where they answer five questions each; the oen with the most correct answers wins.
The second aspect that makes the show work is the host, of course. Anne Robinson is a host like none seen before on American television. Most game show hosts are kind, genial ... pretty much interchangeable, really. Ms Robinson's game face is rather startlingly nasty by comparison; she insults the contestants and the structure of the game encourages them to insult each other as they evaluate their strengths and weaknesses for the audience. To be sure, the nastiness is no less staged than anything you might see on the various "reality" shows; it's highly unlikely that most of the people they get for these shows would really be that despicable to total strangers as a matter of course. The lines are almost certainly fed to them, at least as a setup.
Frankly, based purely on the one show I've seen, I rather agree with her own assessment that she thinks she seems mostly impatient, rather than nasty. Then again, she has been condemned by the Welsh parliament. It will be interesting to see if she makes such missteps here, and if NBC decides to leave them in the show--they have already replayed one round due to some sort of production error, according to the end credits. Can you imagine what that must have been like? Ms Robinson declares, "You are the weakest link. Goodbye!" And then the producer says, "Wait, no ... there's something wrong. We've got to do that round over. We need a new set of questions." The entire outcome changed.
In short, Weakest Link is a show that appeals to the game show snob in me while also appealing to my extremely low sense of humor.
The Survivor aspect of the game is going to be highlighted during May sweeps (of course) when the first season Survivor cast takes part; Richard Hatch is reportedly the first one off. The potential for celebrity shows a la Millionaire will be great, of course; imagine Ms Robinson versus the cast of Friends or Frasier, for example. (Shooting fish in a barrel, really.)
However, there is one problem. Her tagline, "You are the weakest link. Goodbye!" is repeated at least seven times per show, one for each contestant dismissal; additionally, some variation of it is used to go into and come back from commercial. She says it exactly the same way each time a contestant is dismissed, and the variations for commercials are strikingly similar. Already, it's working my last nerve. I predict that I (and a significant chunk of the rest of the country) will be thoroughly and completely tired of hearing the damn thing no later than the end of the April 17 show. (I don't know why it's so much more irritating than Regis' "Let's find the next person who wants to be a millionaire", unless it's just that it's repeated so much more often and her on-screen personality is designed to be so much more irritating. Which is an impressive feat, all in itself, really.)
For the record, the most difficult game show on television is not Weakest Link, nor Millionaire, nor even Jeopardy; it's the History Channel's HistoryIQ. I'm a political history major, and frankly, two episodes of that show left me feeling like I didn't know anything. The host is relatively innocuous, and, unliike Weakest Link or Millionaire or many other game shows, the host isn't really part of the point. The focus actually is on the game and the contestants.
They've actually got an online version of the game up at their site. Go. Play. Be humbled.
But you wuz warned.
© 2001 Iain Jackson, after-words.org