We gave it a B-
Once a wasteland of repeats, a dumping ground of busted shows, and a back alley of guilty pleasure (good ol’ Big Brother, sweet as a ripe dumpster), summer TV has been gentrifying into a hipper, greener place over the years. 2015 was ritzy with vibrant cool: Mr. Robot, UnREAL, The Carmichael Show, and Documentary Now! This summer has been trying hard, but the results have been mixed. BrainDead, the broad, horror-tinged political satire from Michelle and Robert King, creators of The Good Wife, tickles my noggin; it’s worth watching just for the meta musical “Previously on…” recaps and its unabashed love for the spectacle of exploding heads. Less compelling so far: American Gothic, a tonally wonky murder mystery soap, and Days of Summer, an impish but modest homage to woodland camp slasher flicks like Friday the 13th. Coming soon, a Netflix show I’ve spent the past few days sneak-peeking, Stranger Things, an affectionate pastiche of Steven Spielberg sci-fi thrillers and John Carpenter and Stephen King creep-pop. A review to come, but I’ll say it’s better at being Days of Summer than Days of Summer.
The nostalgia pop of Days of Summer and Stranger Things would seem to suggest that TV execs think the only people watching the tube these days — at least during the heat wave months — are graying, stay-cationing Gen Xers and their parents. People like me, who still use phrases like “the tube.” (As soon as I throw out my back and take to a cane, my metamorphosis into The Simpson‘s Hans Moleman should be complete.) Another proof: ABC’s “new” Sunday night block of celebrity-enhanced, ’70s-brand game shows, Family Feud, The $100,000 Pyramid and Match Game. A few trends are at play here, actually. Gaming narrative has been good business for TV since Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and Survivor re-captured our imagination for it during the summers of 1999 and 2000, respectively. Celebrities playing games is more of a recent thing. Thank you, Jimmy Fallon, Jane Lynch (Hollywood Game Night), and Lip Sync Battle. Zany, buzzy game shows are also good fodder for networks that practice the strategy of turning prime-time line-ups into tweet-along events (think: Shondaland Thursdays; Walking Dead Sundays). ABC’s “Sunday Fun & Games” line-up turns us all into snarky sportscasters, a nation of gleeful Dick Buttons.
But what I see in Match Game, et al. – and maybe it’s just me, a narcissist of a certain age – is the strong retro bent, another example of networks trying to resurrect genres or formats that mean something to their adult demos. See: Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris and Maya & Marty, i.e., The Great Variety Show Revival Bust of the 2015-2016 Season. Their theme songs, sound effects, and motifs are true enough to period that each show should come with a trigger warning for anyone who doesn’t want to be reminded of their childhood. The gentle, high-pitched “whoo-hoo” on The $100,000 Pyramid – emitted whenever anyone makes an error – ripped a wormhole in my brain and sent me psychically spiraling back to 1975, when I watched game shows religiously and dreamed of being Bob Barker. Oh, well.
A cynic, prestige snoot or grumpy critic person might see ABC’s aggressive Sunday night play as a step back, wayyyyyy back, for summertime originality, especially after last year’s unreal bumper crop, and TV innovation in general. (Nostalgia-driven franchise reboots? Isn’t that the soulless, gutless business of movies these days?) A TV-loving romantic might argue that ABC’s maneuver actually upholds the new summer spirit of novelty and risk-taking. Watching “Sunday Fun & Games” last week, I found myself roaming between those two extremes. Game shows? Not what I want from TV. An entire evening of them? Yeesh. And yet, I did enjoy the premieres and the second episodes I previewed for this review, and even found some aspects of them rather admirable.
Family Feud is no revival. The guessing game about the tastes and trivial preferences popular mind has been surveying America and roaming syndication for most of three decades, and the current Steve Harvey-hosted edition has been on the air since 2010. It’s an itinerant institution, the vagabond cousin to pre-primetime fringe fixtures Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. I never liked Family Feud as a game or wish-fulfillment. It embarrasses the people who aren’t good at it — and I know I wouldn’t be good at it. I watched it, anyway, mesmerized by Richard Dawson’s sly dog hosting — the way he flirted with the ladies, the way he turned the “Fast Money” bonus round climax into high drama, and often and anticipated and embellished the winning answer. (“Survey says… BAM!”)
Harvey has been a worthy heir. He dominates the proceedings with his blinding smile and even bigger personality, part muggy, devilish ham, part motivational speaker/charismatic preacher (like this spiritually-framed pep talk he once gave a studio audience after a taping.) He’s even loosey-goosier in the celebrity edition. He doesn’t do much to let the famous contestants shine — this is his star vehicle, dammit — but to be fair, the game doesn’t allow much time for it, and the personalities don’t always have much to offer. This Sunday’s episode features NFL players (second tier names, mostly) and aren’t all that compelling. Harvey works the jocks for laughs, delighting in their baffling, dumb, or semi-randy responses (or comically pantomiming them), or busting their chops by mirroring back their process with an exaggerated performance of it. He even gets giggles with the possibility of mocking them. You can see the comedy wheels turning in his eyes, you wait for his quip, and you cackle along with him when he just gives up on whatever put-down that either failed to come together in his mind or he deemed too mean to say aloud. He’s game show emcee as roast host, but a gentle one, and he works hard to keep you — and himself — interested. Sometimes I can’t tell if Harvey’s free-wheeling, don’t-give-a-rip punchiness is evidence that he’s super into it or super checked-out. Dawson invited that wonder, too. Either way, he’s the only reason I watch.
Michael Strahan, host of The $100,000 Pyramid, can’t afford to be as irreverent or ragged as Harvey. ABC has a lot invested in the former NFL star as a universally appealing persona: Strahan — bright, curious and effortlessly charming — was recently promoted to Good Morning America after a successful stint as co-host of Live! with Kelly and Michael. He’s actually a perfect fit for Pyramid, where the game, not the show’s host, is the star. Like original host Dick Clark, Strahan – warm, sharp, strategically witty – is a choice proctor for what’s basically a high-stress, highly-entertaining Language Arts test. With creative, brainy, energetic yet disciplined players, the hour flies in exciting fashion. The premiere was blessed with a quartet of good-sport celebs, notably Kathy Najimy (a former civilian contestant; she said she paid her rent for three years with her winnings), Rosie O’Donnell, and Sherri Shepherd. Anthony Anderson, clearly a smart fellow and host of his own ABC game show, To Tell the Truth (Tuesdays, 10 p.m. ET), was undone by the pressure, but had fun with his folly and made it entertaining. I still can’t believe the guy who blew the bonus round by not suggesting “bee” – and repeatedly insisting on “a ray” – for “Things That Sting.”
Match Game pulls up the rear of “Sunday Fun & Games,” which is appropriate, as this decidedly naughty hour belongs in a late night slot. The original was a game of competitive Mad Libs, with contestants finishing jokey statements that tilted ribald and hoping a panel of celebs, mostly comics, agreed with their choice. If the name Charles Nelson Reilly means anything to you, it’s either because of 1. the “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’” episode of The X-Files; or 2. Match Game, where he was a featured panelist. The host, Gene Rayburn, was a delightful mischief maker with a long, magic wand phallus – er, microphone. You didn’t watch Match Game for the sport. Or at least I didn’t. You watched it for organized anarchy and the spectacle of famous people penning cornball double entendres.
The new Match Game is all about duplicating that impishness, and then some: it seems to be bucking to be the dirtiest show on broadcast television. Alec Baldwin is the host. Let me repeat that: Alec Baldwin – Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated Alec Baldwin – is the host. How the hell did that happen? I don’t know, but man, is he something to watch. He, like the show, wantonly doubles down on the smut. Sample question: “The Pillsbury Doughboy said, ‘I’m so tired of people poking my tummy. Just once, I wish someone would BLANK my buns.” In the premiere episode, when a contestant standing next to Baldwin got excited and buckled at the knees, Baldwin decided it would be funny to make an oral sex joke: “Wait until you win first, then you can give Daddy his prize.” This week, Baldwin’s bawdy bon mots include this zinger: “During the break, I accidentally left my Ding-Dong in Sherri’s Ho-Ho.” The 30 Rock star is so aggressively disingenuous, it’s like he’s doing a broad imitation of Bill Murray’s big screen persona a la Stripes, Ghostbusters, or Groundhog Day. Whether asking contestants about their personal lives or the celebs about their current projects, the ironic, fake fascination I hear in his voice or see in his eyes is pure: “I don’t really care.”
Some have said Baldwin is doing a parody of a ’70s game show host or himself. (It is interesting how much he jokes about himself, be it his divorces or his brothers.) During the premiere, I wondered if what I was watching was self-loathing in action. Did someone blackmail him into hosting? Was he trying to get fired? But then I watched the second episode and got a baseline for poor sportsmanship in the form of panelist Adam Goldberg. Geez, does he so not want to be on this show. This isn’t interpretation; the actor himself puts it in writing. Instead of trying to help the civilian contestant win a few bucks, Goldberg responds to the challenge put to him by scribbling: “Please help me.” Later, he prefaces an answer by saying something about how he went to a fancy acting school and now here he is, toiling on a game show. Goldberg’s bad attitude subversion completely reframed my view of Baldwin: he makes this show by embodying – performing – its outrageous spirit and creating space for everyone to play along. (Or… not! In fact, you could argue Goldberg’s mope and nope tone actually works for the show, that it’s funny and effective because of Baldwin’s go-for-broke extremism.)
Still, the sex stuff is over the top, and you get the sense that some of the panelists are pushing against it, especially when it flirts with objectifying women or denigrating women. The second episode makes gross sport of Kim Kardashian, for example. One of the hour’s civilian contestants comes off as somewhat defeated by the salaciousness of it all. There’s one racy question where the obvious response is “mouth.” She gives it, but so reluctantly I felt sorry for her. But Match Game’s brand is loony lewdness, and there is something admirable about the liberated way the revival practices it. It’s equal opportunity lewdness; everyone one the show, straight or gay, can be as blue as they wanna be. I like how Baldwin flirts, or pretends to flirt, with female and male celebrity panelists (he acts like he has a big old crush on his former 30 Rock colleague, Tituss Burgess), or how Rosie O’Donnell can freely talk and joke about being a lesbian. When she talks about her upcoming ABC mini-series When We Rise, a drama about the history of the gay rights movement, Baldwin shows genuine interest. And by the way? Rosie – who rocks this game as well as she rocks Pyramid – should be on every game show. She’s good at it and great fun. If Baldwin ever decides to pass the torch of Reyburn’s magic mic, I nominate Rosie to take it.
Celebrity Family Feud: C+
The $100,000 Pyramid: B
Match Game: B-
Overall “Sunday Fun & Games” grade: B-