McGinnis: The British (Game Shows) Are ComingWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s a bit of a depressing time to be an American game show fan. The genre seems pretty far removed from the glory days of even a decade ago, where the after-effects of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”‘s blockbuster success could still be felt in the number of big-budget games sprinkled around the dial. Some of them were good, but most of them were ill-conceived contests, which tried to cover up a lack of interesting gameplay with splashy production values and dramatic music.
Things were better over on the cable staple Game Show Network, where the channel came loaded with reruns of classic programs, which by and large were just as fun to watch as they ever were. “Password,” “Match Game,” “Press Your Luck,” “The Price is Right,” “The $100,000 Pyramid” and on and on; not to mention a slew of lesser-known titles and original programming which was actually interesting, with games like “Russian Roulette,” “Friend or Foe,” the original “Lingo” and the underrated “Cram.”
Such an embarrassment of riches is now replaced by simple embarrassment. While the reality TV craze continues to cling to television like a parasitic tumor that refuses to be removed, the classic game show is all but extinct from the network airwaves. CBS continues to air “The Price is Right” and the rebooted “Let’s Make a Deal,” but neither have the same level of charm they had under their former hosts. Any game that catches fire in prime time (“Deal or No Deal,” “Weakest Link”) gets played ad nauseum and run into the ground faster than you can say Wink Martindale.
Things are even worse over on GSN, which is how the network prefers to be referred to now, in a SyFy-esque attempt to blur its original stated purpose. While its days of wasting airtime with reality shows have more or less passed, all the classic games get confined to a block in the morning hours, while prime time is dedicated to nearly endless reruns of the modern “Family Feud” (and hey, I love Steve Harvey, but 40 showings a week or so may be overkill). The channel’s original programming is basically limited to a reboot of “Minute to Win It” and “The American Bible Challenge,” which may be an uplifting experience for the faithful, but at its core is pretty lousy as a game show.
But there is still hope out there for fans of the genre, and quality games for those aching for something new. And like “Millionaire” and “Weakest” before them, they originate across the pond.
On Aug. 6, the American version of a hit British daytime game called “The Chase” will premiere on GSN. The original show, broadcast on UK network ITV, comes from a variety of inspirations — a little “Weakest Link,” a little “Millionaire,” a little “Win Ben Stein’s Money,” among others — brought together into a tremendously entertaining and exciting package which rewards brave gameplay, broad knowledge and quick thinking while matched against a tough opponent.
The game has run for years in its native land, becoming a daytime staple and making celebrities out of its “Chasers” — the trivia experts who contestants must beat in order to win cash. The American version will be importing the original show’s Mark Labett (nicknamed “The Beast” in the original version) as the lone Chaser, though one can hold out hope that future seasons could add more experts so the game can come closer to emulating its original counterpart. (I personally can’t wait for American audiences to get the chance to meet a Chaser named Ann Hegarty, who is referred to as “The Governess” — or, on occasion, “Frosty Knickers” — on the British series.)
There are many more potential imports that American networks should seriously consider plundering, as well. A primetime ITV game called “The Cube” plays like a souped-up “Beat the Clock” (or, if you must, “Minute to Win It”), but its sci-fi feel and dramatic use of camera angles make it something wholly new. (CBS produced a pilot for a U.S. version back in 2010, but there hasn’t been a peep since.) An addictive and glib quizzer on BBC 4 called “Only Connect” presents its questions in the form of lists of clues which all have something in common, requiring outside-the-box thinking.
All these shows and more have episodes posted on various streaming video sites. A viewing of them is enough to assure fans of the classic game shows that the genre is still alive and well, overseas at least — and, if some enterprising producers want to take a chance, perhaps domestically, as well.
Thanks to Sean Shannon for suggesting “The Cube.”