Survey says: The games networks play

Friday, October 3, 2008

It's safe to say that any of the broadcast networks would like to have the kind of success ABC had at the beginning of this century with "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" While we're some years past its peak, you can't forget that the show was a cultural phenomenon and ratings juggernaut until it burned out -- thanks to overexposure -- and dragged a short-sighted network to the basement as quick as it carried it to the penthouse. (To be fair, the show is a decent-size success in syndication now -- but it's nowhere near the colossus it was.)

While I was on board with "Millionaire" from the start, I'm not a fan of NBC's "Deal or No Deal" -- there's no sport or strategy in it, it's merely a guessing game for cash -- but I have a slight warm spot in my heart for Fox's "Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?" if only because it has a more classic quiz show structure; it's something that Bill Cullen would have hosted in the Fifties. (Ten points for knowing who Bill Cullen was.) But while these are big hits, neither show has reached the dizzying ratings heights of "Millionaire."

So, perhaps in an attempt to find the next big thing, ABC's first new series out of the gate this fall is "Opportunity Knocks," an hour-long family game show from executive producer Ashton Kutcher, which airs Tuesdays at 7 p.m. The show's concept -- a normal, everyday family is quizzed over the details of their everyday life -- plays like a mash-up of "The Newlywed Game" and "Family Double Dare," poured out on to a massive stage, which is purportedly set up on the contestant family's front lawn in front of all their alleged friends and neighbors. It's supposed to be a block party atmosphere, I guess, but a lot of the fun seems to have been produced right out of the show, which has a smooth, professional, over-processed gloss to it.

Like a lot of the Seventies and Eighties soundstage-bound game shows, there's cash and prizes galore; indeed, this is the first show I can remember since Nickelodeon's long-gone "Double Dare" franchise that is as packed with family-friendly avarice. From Hannah Montana and Jonas Brothers tickets for the youngsters, to rumbly gas-guzzlers for dear old dad, the prizes are tailor-made for the live audience's huzzahs. (I have to admit that the absence of merchandise as prizes on most game shows is disheartening to me, a fan of the classics. Nowadays, it's money that matters, I guess, but wouldn't it be refreshing to have people playing for rocker-recliners or side-by-side refrigerator-freezers or five-piece bedroom groups more than once in a while?)

The contestants are TV-friendly and as energetic as humanly possible, and host J.D. Roth doesn't embarrass himself or make you want to throw a brick at your screen, but still ranks pretty low on the Barker-Rayburn-Hall energy scale.

This is a concept that calls for less obvious stage direction and polish, and more spontaneity from everyone involved. (A good example of what I'm talking about is offered weekday mornings on CBS's venerable "The Price Is Right," which benefits from feeling like a live -- and almost frenzied -- event, even though it's on tape, and produced with an experienced precision.)

As it is, the show's very genial and good-natured, but ultimately toothless. (I can only imagine -- and cringe -- at what the Fox rip-off would've been like if ABC had aired this during the summer, which is where this show belongs.) I don't hate it, but I don't like it either, which seems to be America's reaction, too, seeing what the ratings were for the first pair of episodes. Two stars (out of four).

Meanwhile, around the dial:

Fox's "The Simpsons" (Sundays at 7 p.m.) passed another milestone on Sept. 28, as the animated comedy began its 20th season, continuing its streak of being the longest running animated TV series and the longest running comedy series in terms of seasons on the air. The show isn't the hilarious hit parade it used to be; the best episodes of the series now can't hold a candle to the best ones from a decade ago -- but most live-action sitcoms from now (or even then) don't compare well either. The good news for fans is that the writers and performers still have their hearts (and wits) in the enterprise, and that makes a visit to Springfield worth the half-hour a week. Three stars.

"Desperate Housewives" (Sundays at 8 p.m. on ABC) closed season four in May by jumping ahead five years, and this season's premiere picked up right there. Happily for fans, the early results indicate that creator Marc Cherry's time-shifting gambit paid off pretty well. The characters have markedly more oomph and energy, and the usually tangled season-long mysteries are promising. Last year, the show finally seemed to find itself again after a pair of hot-and-cold seasons, and there's even more life in it now. I don't think the show will be near the heights of the dynamic first season even with the improvements, but that'd be a pretty tall order for any series, never mind this one. Three stars.

NBC's "Chuck" (Mondays at 7 p.m.) came back firing on all cylinders, delivering that unique burst of energy and sheer fun that I'd been missing since the show's inaugural season came to a premature end due to the writers' strike. Sharply written, well-produced, and smartly acted, it's a stand-out on NBC, which has far too few shows that fit that description. To their credit, the network has already ordered a full 22-episode season, even though the first week's ratings were rather lukewarm. I sincerely hope that will change; this show is too entertaining to end up as a cult item. Three and a half stars.

Speaking of series that shouldn't be missed by the masses, "Pushing Daisies" (Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on ABC) had its second season premiere as well this week, and I'm thrilled to report that the flight of fancy that I fell head-over-heels for last year is back with nary a missed step.

The ever-so-slightly dizzying exposition was handled right off the bat with as much efficiency as possible, the show's signature color and vitality remained as eye-popping as ever, and the dialogue still crackles with wit and intelligence. It's a sheer delight to have something this invigorating and effervescent back on TV, and I can't wait to see what's next. Four stars.

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