Thursday, April 29, 2010

Whose Interpretation Of A Japanese Show Reigns Supreme?

This is probably hard to believe, but there was once a time when Iron Chef was a novel idea. While the franchise does continue in the form of Iron Chef America (which is pretty much the same format as the original Japanese show, but somehow doesn't work as well), the fact is that such shows as Top Chef and Hell's Kitchen have taken over the cook-off role, while shows such as MXC and Ninja Warrior have lead to Japanese game shows being associated with messy obstacle courses, not cooking. The fact that Food Network was eventually forced to introduce a reality-competition show - The Next Iron Chef - that is essentially Top Chef with the Iron Chef name on it says a lot in my book.

The show is not a household name in Britain however, although Channel 4, which premiered Iron Chef UK on Monday, is no doubt hoping it will become one. The basic setup of Iron Chef, for the few of you who don't know it: in each episode a chef from somewhere in the world enters Kitchen Stadium to take on one the show's invincible regular Iron Chefs. A flamboyant chairman reveals a theme ingredient that must be included in every dish cooked, then gives the Iron Chef and challenger one hour to cook four or five dishes while commentators cover the preparation like a sports broadcast. When time runs out, it falls to a panel of three or four celebrity judges to decide "whose cuisine reigns supreme."

Well, that's the bare-bones description...there's obviously a lot more to it than that. Certainly in the British version there is, as it is a five-day-a-week daytime show and works on a week-long tournament format that no version of this show has ever had before. There are four challengers who stay on for a whole week, going up against one of the four Iron Chefs each day. Yes, that's four against one - in each episode, each challenger cooks only one dish, while the Iron Chef must cook four in the same amount of time. Two of the dishes are designated starters and are judged at the halfway point of the show (breaking up the flow tremendously), while the other two are main courses and are judged at the end. At the end of the show, we not only find out if the challengers outdid the Iron Chef, but equally importantly, we find out which challenger the judges decided did the best, and that challenger gets a star. After four days, the challenger with the most stars gets to compete against an Iron Chef one-on-one on Friday for a cash prize of 1,000 pounds.

Seriously. That's the format, and somehow, it doesn't feel right. The whole point of this show was that a challenger would come in and face one of the invincible Iron Chefs on a level playing field...this is about as lopsided as you can get. Making matters worse, the budget...I'm not saying Iron Chef is supposed to have a huge prize (most versions have no prizes), but Iron Chef is supposed to have huge production values. This is, after all, the show that became famous for putting the Iron Chefs in elaborate color-coded costumes and having them dramatically rise up from under the floor when introduced, while as many as five commentators looked on. The British commentators (Olly Smith and Nick Nairn) do a perfectly acceptable job, but when Olly has to keep running out from the commentator's booth to interview the chefs (other versions have a separate floor commentator), you know something's wrong. There are also only two judges who stay on for the entire week like the challengers. I'm guessing the show tapes a week's worth of episodes in one day (which is true of most five-day-a-week game shows, but that's a lot of cooking!)

Honestly, I think the real problem here is that Iron Chef is one of the few game shows that I think should never be broadcast five days a week. It's just too much. This is supposed to be a big primetime event. Perhaps if Channel 4 had stuck with the straightforward once-a-week Iron Chef format, they would have been able to concentrate their budget better...but they didn't. I suppose if you had never heard of Iron Chef this would be entertaining, but as I said at the beginning, in the age of Top Chef and Hell's Kitchen, this isn't going to work.


Thursday, April 22, 2010

Hopes For The Hub

I talked on April 1 about The Hub, a new kids channel that Hasbro is going to launch on October 10, taking over the channel space filled by Discovery Kids. I said then that I sincerely hoped that Hasbro would shy away from adapting their board games for television - that just doesn't seem like something that would work to me. Well, it still doesn't - but we all know it's going to happen, so I'm going to take two famous Hasbro games and let you know of a foreign game show that epitomizes each of those games. I should stress that this is merely my opinion and that these are two very unlikely things to actually happen, but the way I see it, if Hasbro wanted to make a game show out of these two games, it's already been done in everything but name.

The first of these is one I'm sure everyone who read my April 8 post will have guessed - Scrabble. Now, I can hear you saying "There already was a game show called Scrabble!" This is true, and it was a great game show...but it had virtually nothing to do with Scrabble, and frankly, there's another show I like even better. That's right - I'm talking about Countdown. The fact is that, while I flat out adore Countdown, it would never work on American TV - heck, it would never even get on American TV - without a name Americans Scrabble. I fully realize this is something that will probably never happen because...well, if you were the owner of the format rights to Countdown, which has already been a huge success in many countries, would you want it tied in with a separate property that already has a game show named after it? I would, but I'm not the owner of the format rights to Countdown.

The second game I'm going to suggest here is one that will probably surprise you...Dungeons And Dragons. I can hear you saying "OK, I give up. I can see Scrabble working, but how on earth do you make a game show out of Dungeons And Dragons?" I can answer that question in one word: Knightmare.

A truly unique and ahead of its time television show, Knightmare is a British format that ran in its native country from 1987 to 1994. It had a format very much unlike any other, yet when described, it sounds like a horrific variation on The Money Maze. A team of four kids would enter a medieval antechamber, whereupon the designated dungeoneer would put on a blindfold helmet and enter the show's computer-generated fantasy dungeon. The dungeoneer can't see anything, and even if they could, it would just be a blue-screen room. Fortunately, the three other team members are seated at a screen in the antechamber on which they are shown the completed dungeon image. It is their job to guide the dungeoneer through an endless series of puzzles, characters, traps, and whatever else towards their ultimate goal of walking out of the dungeon alive.

If that description doesn't make sense...well, there's probably no way I could describe this show that makes sense. This team wasn't competing against another for the fastest time out of the dungeon or something...they were just against the dungeon, and this dungeon was big enough that the show had rollover, meaning that games could be carried over from one episode to the next...and some teams lasted three half-hour episodes or more. It was a slow-paced show that managed to build up the kind of suspense that Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? had in its heyday. It also had such a complex medieval atmosphere that there were no prizes and even the gaps between episodes were explained as "temporal disruption." In short, this was certainly a game show, but it had a genuine fantasy feel to it. As it involved a large cast to portray the denizens of the dungeon and must have had an incredibly complex production process, it's probably too much for a new, unknown cable channel replacing Discovery Kids - but if they do decide to give this a try, I'm guessing it would be a lot more like Dungeons And Dragons than the cartoon called that.

There you go. As I've said, this is simply my opinion, and neither of these things is probably ever going to happen. All I'll say now is this - Hasbro, if you do try to develop Scrabble or Dungeons And Dragons for television, do it right. These are games that have very devoted followings of people who hold tournaments and take the game very to them! Get the show approved by the tournament governing bodies (the National Scrabble Association, the Role Playing Gamers Association, etc.) Wishful thinking? Yes...but there's no news this week.


Thursday, April 15, 2010

Musings On Millionaire

I've been watching Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? this week, for a specific reason. Meredith Vieira is taking a week off (something that's close to unheard of nowadays, but this isn't the first time she's done it) and the guest host is Steve Harvey. As Steve will be taking over Family Feud in the fall, I wanted to see if he's any good. Well, he isn't. He's trying way too hard to be funny...but that's not what I'm here to talk about. I want to talk about the show itself.

Today, of course, Millionaire has become the standard, to the point where I frequently describe new shows by saying things like "stereotypical post-Millionaire set" and "generic post-Millionaire music." Four of the most famous game shows of all time - Wheel Of Fortune, Jeopardy, The Price Is Right, and Password - were forced to introduce $1,000,000 jackpots simply to stay relevant. Indeed, it seemed that the only thing Millionaire couldn't change was itself - after the primetime version burned itself out, the show went to daytime, with a new host but everything else was pretty much the same way it had always been. That is, until it started changing.

I don't actually need to explain the rules of Millionaire, do I? You must remember. All together now: "You're just fifteen questions away from winning $1,000,000. You have three lifelines: 50\50, Phone A Friend, and Ask The Audience. Once you reach the $1,000 or $32,000 level, you are guaranteed to leave with no less than that. Are you ready? Audience, are you ready? Let's play!"

Well...that's how it used to be, anyway. Let's try again with today's rules: "You're just fifteen questions away from winning $1,000,000. The category for each question is now being displayed. You have fifteen seconds to answer each of the first five questions, thirty seconds for each of the next five, forty-five seconds for each of the next four, and on the $1,000,000 question, you have forty-five seconds plus any time left over. You have three lifelines: Double Dip, Ask The Expert, and Ask The Audience. Once you reach the $5,000 or $25,000 level, you are guaranteed to leave with no less than that. Are you ready? Audience, are you ready? Let's play!"

Let's be honest, it's not the same, is it? For starters, the lifelines, which were lopsided enough to begin with (did 50\50 ever work out?) are now... well, Double Dip might be useful if you had more time to think. Ask The Expert is usually an idiot has-been actor accessed via a video link sponsored by Skype. Ask The Audience, now more than ever, is the only useful lifeline. If the show would just give up on the other two and let you Ask The Audience three times, contestants might have a chance at reaching a six-digit number - but of course that would mean upping the show's budget, which I'm guessing is the real reason for all this.

Then there's the clock, which has to one of the worst ideas anyone has ever had. It starts before the choices are read, meaning that takes about ten seconds...then the contestant takes five more joking with the host before actually starting to consider the question. Like I said, it was probably all about the budget. Once upon a time, there was a genuine feeling that anyone who walked on that stage had a chance at winning $1,000,000. Now, if anyone does reach a six-digit number, it's promoted heavily and leaked to game show news sites weeks in advance.

So there you have it. People are amazed when I tell them this show is still on, and I'm guessing that if they actually watched, they'd be mortified...but the fact is, eleven years, huge changes, and countless ripoffs later, I still hold my breath when those lights circle around the contestant. Millionaire has gone from a great show to a good one, but we'll take good shows where we can get them.


Thursday, April 8, 2010

High School Word Game?

Well, I've been promising it for weeks, now at last the episode I saw has aired. What do I really think of High School Quiz Show?

I'll tell you: I think the contestants are geeky, the host is annoying, the set is tacky, and the lack of prizes is cheap. The problem is, the exact same thing could be said about one of my favorite game shows of all time.

High School Quiz Show, for starters, has a terrible name. I've heard rumors that WGBH chose to call it that because they figured kids would equate it with High School Musical...let's just say I hope that isn't true. My next observation - and this is true of most of the local high school quiz bowl shows I've seen - the contestants are (A) really geeky and (B) don't really seem to want to be there - they look like they were just dragged into this by their teachers.

The I said on March 25, it's "a pretty straightforward local high school quiz bowl show." The host - I'll certainly applaud WGBH for hiring a young woman stand-up comedian rather than the professor-types who populate most of these shows, but Dhaya Lakshminarayanan comes across to me as more annoying than anything else. There are no prizes, the set is tacky, and I've already forgotten what the music sounds like (not a good thing). Why am I not declaring this show awful? Well...I'd be contradicting myself. One of my all-time favorite game shows is Countdown.

If you haven't heard of Countdown, there's a reason: it's a British show, and has never had an American version (to be fair, it's actually a French format, but the version I'm used to is the British version). It's a word game vaguely akin to Scrabble (the board game, not the game show), and it fits nearly every one of the tropes described above. Geeky contestants? Oh yes. Annoying host? The current one, Jeff Stelling, sure is. No prizes? The season champion gets a complete Oxford English Dictionary. Tacky set? You bet. So what's the difference?

Well...Countdown is just that unique and enjoyable a game. It's the one international format that I want to come to America more than any other...but a game show with no prizes would never work on national television in America, and I somehow can't see Countdown giving away $1,000,000. Now I'm starting to wonder - does a local high school game show have to be a quiz game? Even if you couldn't get the rights to the name Countdown, would a similar word game work in America on a local, area-by-area basis?

Of course we're never going to really know this. Countdown isn't coming to America (although it is launching in Australia soon, again with no prizes), and a local high school game show is never going to be anything other than a quiz game. All I can say now is that since WGBH considered me for an internship on High School Quiz Show...I really, really hope they aren't reading this.


Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Game Show Fan Hub?

This is probably far from news, but now that we have a firm premiere date it just seems like the right time to talk about it. Hasbro, the toy company that owns pretty much every famous board game, is starting a TV channel. This channel is called The Hub (really!) and it will premiere on October 10, taking over the channel space currently filled by Discovery Kids.

First things first: Hasbro is making no claim that this will be a game show channel. In fact, well, there's a reason they're replacing Discovery Kids - they're pushing The Hub as a kids channel. There's no guarantee that it will have game shows on it - but at the same time, they've reportedly hired several veteran game show producers and former Game Show Network executives. The channel won't be exclusively game shows, but it's pretty clear they're going to be a large part of it.

"Well, of course," I hear you say. "They're a toy company. They're trying to develop their board games for television." If that's the case, I sincerely hope they think again. Adapting a preexisting property into a viable game show - let alone one kids would enjoy- is far from easy. Out of a fair number of attempts, I can only think of three that achieved any measure of success, namely Scrabble (which bore little resemblance to the board game), Trivial Pursuit (which was successful enough to be revived, but none of it's versions lasted very long) and Carmen Sandiego (which isn't owned by Hasbro). Otherwise, we're left with such disasters as Taboo (which adapted a perfectly enjoyable board game into one of the worst game shows I have ever seen) and Monopoly (ditto).

So what's going to happen here? It's probably just too early to tell. Frankly, I'm wondering less about whether there will be any game shows - there's bound to be at least one - than about how on Earth you fill twenty-four hours a day with stuff owned by Hasbro.

My advice: be prepared for a lot of Transformers reruns.