Thursday, November 5, 2015

TV VIEWING 101: CLASS #12: GAME SHOWS: QUALITY ANALYSIS

Good morning, Class, We're back to TV VIEWING 101 and the scores have all been corrected.

Okay, last time, we discuss the history and importance of game shows, particularly involving, well, mainly the parts where they basically screwed up so badly that they invented Standards & Practices, therefore in essence, causing network television in particular to be, what it is today, (Ahem) but this isn't TV History 101, this is TV VIEWING 101, so how do we watch and determine the quality of a game show? (Deep breath) This is where it gets a little tricky. For one thing, if it's a good enough game, it'll probably make a good enough show no matter what else, but you can't completely use that as the ultimate standard, 'cause a weak game can be made up for with other factors. Plus, not all games or game shows are the same. Now, this is basically true for every genre, but with game shows, the quantifying factors are a bit more unusual than others. We're not analyzing a plot, a story, or a sketch, or a conceptual idea really, usually, but game shows do have certain things they need, and the quality of the show, basically amounts to, how well do they do them.

Now, let's talk about the games themselves. Well, obviously the first thing is it should be compelling to watch people playing it, above everything else, (Again, that doesn't mean you dramatize and fix games, as we eventually found out the hard way) but even more than that, the game should compelling to play, from home, at least with most game shows. This is really what distinguishes the genre, from let's say a sporting event. No matter how fast you run, you can't really watch a 100m dash and emulate running on a track against the best runners in the world and say that you could've beaten Usain Bolt. No, the best game shows, have some aspect of interactivity, by that I mean, while the official contestants are playing the game, you yourself can be playing along. Quiz shows are pretty easily the best of this, and this is why I pretty much contend that "Jeopardy!" is the greatest game show of all-time. Not only does it have the legacy and longevity to back it up, on top of generally being the most difficult of the Q&A game shows, but it's simplicity inherently makes it a strength. It is just a knowledge test, not just knowing the answer, but coming up with many answers from the farthest depths of your minds, as quickly as possible. Some people have called it the nation's IQ test, I wouldn't go that far, there's things like skill with a buzzer, (Which isn't easy btw) that are also in play, but yeah, it's basically, a bunch of questions, rapidly coming at you, and you have to figure out the answer. (Oh, I'm sorry, a bunch of answers coming at you, and you have to figure out the questions) It's always compelling and yes, you really can play along with every game, and just be as fascinated, whether or not there's any particular drama with the people playing themselves that's being built up.

That's where, some of the weaker question and answer games, fail a bit. Back in the '50s, part of why the game show craze really took off, was because of the get rich quick aspects of it. "Jeopardy!" wasn't around then, to simply test your knowledge, and most of the big game shows, fixed and not, were Primetime shows, and they weren't about the skill and recall, so much as they were, the possibility of anybody possibly winning the big bucks. "Jeopardy!" is definitely a game of skill and knowledge, only a few people can really really do well on it and on a regular basis, which is what made something like Ken Jennings 75-episode run so remarkable, but that's 61 questions, an episode, and you're competing against two other people. What if, there was an easier way to win all that money. Say, fewer questions you needed to answer, and win more money in a shorter period of time. Well, this was the idea in the fifties as well, and that led to the fixing scandal as I've mentioned, but this certainly came back in a big way in the late '90s, most notably and memorably, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" This is the biggest difference between the traditional Q&A shows, whether the show is about the playing of the game itself, of the drama of the game. "...Millionaire" was and is basically a reworking of "The $64,000 Question", which was the biggest TV show, not just game show, show, of it's time, for a very brief period, and it was about whether somebody could answer the questions asked and win the money, and it helps if you can play up the backstory of the guy playing, making you want him to win.....

Yeah, this is what led to the fixings, but don't think that strategy is dead by any means. I don't remember a contestant on "Deal or No Deal", who was a rich-as-hell prick who everybody hated including his family and friends and had a poor winner's attitude worst than Phil Hellmuth after a bad beat at the World Series of Poker. And that's not even a game show that requires much skill; that show is basically nothing but luck. Yeah, these recent trends, like multiple closeup cuts before a reveal of an answer, long pauses, this is not apart of "the game", this is a part of the "drama", which is completely manufactured and it's cool, when nobody else is doing it, but boy it gets old quickly when everybody starts doing it. That doesn't mean these are all bad shows, hell, "Deal or No Deal" is really twisted when you think about it. An unseen banker, multiple suitcase, a set that's circular and gold with lights rising like fire from the pits of hell, and Howie Mandel is guiding you through a game that's literally nothing but Vanna White wannabes opening suitcases. It definitely gets old quickly, but yeah, that's seems more like a game show Stephen King would've come up with than real one. But how do you compare a show like that, as a game, to a show that's not about getting rich and frankly isn't even about the contestants, or one that they're not even really playing?

Okay, there were and are other kinds of game shows and this is where we start getting into where we start transitioning into earliest versions of what would become reality television. Now, after the scandal in particular, quiz shows were mostly suspicious and not overly popular, especially if they promoted how much money they gave out or that you could win, that really didn't come back until "...Millionaire" and many shows actually limits at one point to how much you could win, even "Jeopardy!", but the game shows that started to thrive were shows that weren't based around getting correct answers, so this got the FCC off their backs. Now, the most notable shows like these are the panel shows. Probably the show that I'd argue is the best of these is "What's My Line?", and it really holds up well I must say. The most you could ever win on that show, at least in it's original version was $50, and I don't think it was much more in their later versions, 'cause it wasn't really about winning, it was seeing a panel of celebrity experts trying to figure out a problem they're given, in "What's My Line?"'s case, trying to figure out what the contestant does for a living.

The appeal isn't the game itself, it's seeing these other people playing and being entertained by watching them, playing. That doesn't mean that the game doesn't have aspects that people at home can't participate in, "To Tell the Truth", is a good example of this, where we at least get to see the celebrity panel's questioning of three people each claiming to be the same person and then guess along with them which one is the real person but more often than not, these games are really just excuses for the shows existence, when really the show is an entertainment show, disguised as a game show. Chuck Barris's shows are probably the most noteworthy of these sort of games, "The Dating Game", "The Newlywed Game", "The Gong Show" among his most infamous, although his main invention was the idea that the average person, the contestants if you will, can be entertaining in of themselves.The next-door neighbors and the things they do, our voyeuristic aspects almost, are just as interesting as peering, ever-so-briefly into the lives and minds of celebrities. This is, essentially where we tend to think of as the main influences of modern reality television, although to be fair, this dates back a lot further as well; we could date this back to other shows, game and otherwise that used this idea that normal people can be entertaining, for instance, "Candid Camera", or to some extent, "This is Your Life", or "Queen for a Day", which is just horrible and we'll talk about next blogpost.

But, still the main idea was mostly that the moderator or the panel would be interacting with the relatively normal person, and that would be entertaining. The most blatant example of this formula, is "You Bet Your Life", at least the Groucho Marx version. (We're gonna pretend the Bill Cosby one doesn't exist, for multiple reasons, although the main one is that it was pretty bad.) The way that game was played was...-, um, uh..., yeah, I don't remember either. I've seen episodes, and I remember the secret word duck and whatnot, and there's a question and answer part of the game I believe, but the show was for all intensive purposes, just Groucho talking to other people, and that's all you needed. I mean, as entertaining as that is, and look a few episodes up sometime, they are entertaining, but how do you even compare that kind of Q&A game, to a "Jeopardy!" or even a pseudo-"Jeopardy!" game, which basically has the same formula but a slight twist, say "Debt" or "Win Ben Stein's Money" to name some memorable recent ones. I mean, there's comparing shows that, may for all intensive purposes technically be in the same genre but have nothing in common, but holy hell, there might not be a more further divide than comparing game shows, at least when you try to compare them on their own terms.

So let's see where we're at so far, how compelling is the game to watch, how compelling is it to play, (at home) and I guess the next standard is, "How much should either or those two factors matter in the particular show they're in?" Hmm, well, maybe it's best that we look at two shows that do take these two different approaches, but play the same game. Better be a simple game though, hmm....



Well, here's an interesting example, this is a random episode of "Tic-Tac-Dough", I think based on the date and Imdb.com, this is from "The New Tic-Tac-Dough". "Tic-Tac-Dough"'s got a very interesting place in game show history, because it was one of the shows that was caught in the fixing scandal, and you can actually find a fixed episode or two on Youtube, but it was also the first notable show that got caught up in that scandal, and then got brought back, as a legitimate show, several times. (Most shows, either didn't like "Dotto", or were not successful when and if they did come back like "Twenty-One" and the multiple attempts to bring back "The $64,000 Question" most of which never materialized) and, well-, I'm told it became more legitimate, although if there was ever a game show after the scandal that I would suspect might've been fixed long afterwards, it would be this one. There's a few things famous about "Tic-Tac-Dough", one of them is that the questions were usually extremely easy, not always, but it did always seem a little curious even to me when I used to watch the 1990 version, the last time they tried to bring this show back, and I was five. ("Joker's Wild" is the other show that's notorious for questions being too easy) That said, it's not a terribly bad game conceptually, it's basically just tic-tac-toe with a question and answer element. But then again, so is this show:



This is "Hollywood Squares", and it takes a slightly different approach to "Tic-Tac-Toe", you might notice some of the differences. I would've liked to have picked a better episode here, but I didn't want to go through all of Youtube looking for one, but you'll notice that this is more-or-less an entertainment show more than a game show, and in every format of the show, that's basically the intention. Instead of a direct Q&A, a celebrity is asked a question, and then they provide an answer, probably one that's been pre-given to them, which is not fixing in this case, because it's up to the contestant, to determine whether the star is lying to them or not, and that's how they play tic-tac-toe. The game is the same, it's Q&A playing tic-tac-toe but a different approach to the game completely, and outside that, the game itself is used as a catalyst to entertain, and not-so-much the main aspect of the show. So which is better?

Well, "Tic-Tac-Dough" is definitely more game-focused, but is it that good a game? The fact that it is so game-centric, makes the fact that they're playing tic-tac-toe, a little focused, and let's face it, watching two people play tic-tac-toe is not that interesting. That said, if you don't have the right group of entertaining people or personas in the squares to ask questions to in "Hollywood Squares", that can also be a little boring as well, as anybody who sat through the Henry Winkler-produced seasons of the show's most recent incarnation will tell you. That's the main lesson here, is that, A. it has to be a compelling game, or make it compelling enough, but short of that, you need to have something else to make a show compelling.

This is the other way to separate game shows, there's shows that are game-based, your "Jeopardy!"'s, your "Wheel of Fortune"'s, etc. (Although having a good host is still important, it's not coincidence that Alex Trebek hosting "Jeopardy!" for almost twenty years longer than it's original run with it's host Art Fleming, is no coincidence, although you could argue also that, the fact that that's also when they decided to make the contestants start standing up instead of sitting behind the desk, probably helped a lot as well. Yeah, despite everything conceptual and theory-based that we're talking about here, sometimes things just look and play better on TV, cosmetically. It'd be nice to ignore this, but there's definitely an aspect of production design or lighting and whatnot, that can also trump other factors, and don't think it's unintentional either; it takes a lot of skill to realize a simple change like, getting rid of a buzzer sound when people ring in, is needed to improve a show, any show, and with game shows, those differences really can distinguish between good and great.) and then there's shows that are more, uh, we usually call them "Host-based" shows, although panel-based, celebrity-based, also work here. The emcee of course, is definitely a make-or-break aspect of any game show, and it's a very unique job, we could do a whole class on what it takes to be a good game show host, but let's say there's a reason why the same people usually get game show hosting jobs over and over. Trebek, as good as he is on "Jeopardy!", in my lifetime, also hosted "Classic Concentration", (Which btw, that's a tough show, guess the rebus that you can barely see, before the other guy; I'm amazed that people could ever do good on that show) as well as "To Tell the Truth", and he hosted such shows as "Double Dare", (Different one, than the one you're thinking of,) and I'd argue his best game show hosting job was for hosting "High Rollers", a game show that's basically, contestants rolling dice. I'm dead serious, I don't even think there was a Q&A part of that game; it was basically modified craps. That said, there's game shows that depend on the game and gameplay being interesting, but then there's shows that depend on the host or panel pulling out the entertainment from the contestants and/or the game/gameplay.

Yeah, this is where a show like "Match Game" (Which I think is called "Blankety Blanks" in some countries, for those overseas) or "Hollywood Squares" come into play, although those are panel or star-driven stars, a better example would probably be "Family Feud". That game show, basically lives or dies on whether or not the host can pull off the show. Sure there's comedic aspects built into the game, but basically it's the host reacting to the contestants, and he's the one moving around from one side of the stage to the other, towards the audience, towards the answer board, it's pretty much host-based. A bad host, for the show, and you're might as well move on 'cause it won't work. "Let's Make a Deal", was once the longest-running continuous game show of all-time in America, and it's not even a game. It was literally just conceived as Monty Hall does some improvising with the audience, and they added the deal conceit, and the three curtains, and the minigames and the zonks, later on. (The costumes, oddly were a creation of the audience themselves, not a requirement for the show) But, he can actually do it, and Wayne Brady's pretty good at it too, despite the styles and strengths of those two hosts being pretty different. It's definitely important how good the host is, a good host can salvage a rather mediocre game show or game show idea, and a subpar game show host can definitely turn even a good and even an established show into a terrible one. Game show host, despite appearance is a tough job and good ones are few and far between, even today, even during the peak of game shows on television; this is why you'll often see the same people continually get hosting gigs. Tom Bergeron is a natural and once he proved that on "Hollywood Squares" he proved it on "America's Funniest Home Videos", (Not a game show really but...) which then helped him to host "Dancing with the Stars"; there just aren't that many people out there like him who can naturally do that, male or female, (And yes, females have only recently gotten even a fraction of the hosting opportunities that they probably should've gotten decades earlier, until recently I could literally list the female national game shows hosts on one hand. I'd be hard-pressed if I didn't mention that.)

Same goes for the panel shows too, no version of "Match Game" since the one in the '70s that had Brett Summers and Charles Nelson-Reilly has ever even come close to that show in terms of quality, "Hollywood Squares" needs one of two good consistent people to be regular squares at least, especially a good center square like Paul Lynde, or Joan Rivers or Whoopi Goldberg, and even "What's My Line?" can be a bit of a disaster if there's regular guest panelists who simply don't quite get or understand the game, you need not only an entertaining panel for that one, but you also need a smart panel, who's absolutely up on their modern world, social, and pop culture, if they're not too busy being apart of it. This is why, despite easily being considered among the best game shows ever on television, and if you're like me, you've constantly spent time watching old episodes on Youtube, which are basically these incredible time capsules of many of the best known names and stars of the time, past and of the future, there's been almost no attempt to bring that show back in forty years, and the times they have tried, were blips of a footnote at best.

Figuring out the strengths of a good TV game show and figuring out it's weaknesses can be a lot trickier than it looks, especially when you consider what that show is going for, but generally, this should be enough for you guys to look through them, so that's you're assignments this week.

You're homework, take at least a couple game shows, preferably one you like or consider good, and one that you don't, and use these shows to try and figure out why they're good or bad. Question 1: Is it a compelling game to watch? Why? Question 2: Is it a game that can be played at home while watching the show, Why or Why Not?, Question 3: How much or how critically do the answers to those first two questions, that they are relevant in the quality of the game show, and/or how much is se game show trying to have those aspects be relevant. That's the tricky one. Question 4: What other aspects to the game show itself, can you single out as being things that improved or add and/or subtract or detract from the quality of the game show, and specifically, why do these aspects help or hinder the show? You don't have to use a modern show, you can use one or two from the past, hell, you can use different versions of the same game show if you want, like-eh, comparing "Family Feud" from the Richard Dawson-hosted seasons to the modern one that Steve Harvey is hosting. That could be fun, but try to answer those questions for at least two game shows, try to do more if you can, but at least one you think is good and one that isn't.

Next class is gonna be a weird one, 'cause it's gonna start with more on game shows, or things that seemed like game shows, but are really things that eventually lead into, our next topic, the Reality show. Yep, the realization that "Queen for a Day" actually existed. What's that you may ask? Ugh, well, we'll talk about it. Anyway, come back next time, we'll have two new challengers to go up against the champion; and we'll be back, in two and two.
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