Ty Burr considers why these two entertainingly bad shows surfaced at the same time
The Chair
Credit: The Chair: Dan Watson

How ”The Chamber” surpasses ”The Chair”

Viral memes — ideas that everyone seems to get all at once — commonly surface in pop culture. How else do you explain such phenomena as those two volcano movies hitting theaters back in 1997 ? or two meteor-striking-earth movies in 1998, or three parent-child-bodyswitch movies hitting theaters in 1987? Pop simultaneity rarely happens in TV, but when it does, you can bet it’ll take the low road. Witness the recent one-two sucker punch of Fox’s ”The Chamber” (Fridays, 8 p.m.) and ABC’s ”The Chair” (Tuesdays, 8 p.m.), two gawkfest game-shows that stoop so low to conquer that you can imagine ”Network”’s Howard Beale rising from the grave and railing ”I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore — again!”

So similar, in fact, are these road-accidents disguised as television programming that they even went on to get similar ratings for their debut broadcasts last week: Solid numbers won the night for their networks, though it was nothing to write home about.

The shows themselves, however, ARE worth writing home about — in appalled, scrawled crayon. Of the two, ”Chamber” is, surprisingly, the marginally less cheesy, if only because host Rick Schwartz is a comparative professional (i.e., he’s had a solid career in bad TV) and because the show’s rules aren’t so freakishly inane: here, the contestant who makes it past an elimination round goes inside. . . the Chamber . . . and is exposed to various tortures while he or she tries to answer questions. High winds, baking heat, freezing cold water-cannons, whole lotta shaking, that sort of thing. It’s stupid, it’s sadistic, but it’s pretty straightforward.

”The Chair,” by contrast, sails off the edge of stupid into the surreal — you’ll want to watch it once just for the kitsch delight, and to appreciate the zombie-like line readings of host John McEnroe. That’s right, the onetime tennis brat is making his game-show debut, and he has a ways to go before he can challenge Alex Trebek or even Wink Martindale to an arm-wrestle. The set-up is basically the same as ”The Chamber” with one twist — the contestants put in. . . The Chair . . . are outfitted with heart monitors: If their heart-rate doesn’t go below a certain level, they’re not even allowed to answer the question. What does this mean? It means you’re watching a person struggling to be utterly still. Which, trust me, is duller than a Leno monologue.

Oh, I forgot the shocks ? every so often, a ring of fire erupts around the contestant or, even better, they lower a hog-tied alligator in front of the poor sap’s nose while McEnroe bellows things like ”Ya gonna stay cool now, buster?! Huh? Can you handle THE CHAIR?” Not surprisingly, the woman who did a good job of going the distance on the first show (she had some sort of zen-breathing feedback loop going on) just about burst into giggles when the gator came flapping her way.

Good for a sick, ironic laugh once or twice? Yeah, sure. Good TV? Please. The fact that there are two of these things means, with any luck, that the concept will burn itself out faster. The promo tag for the Fox show runs ”Anyone who says you go to hell after you die, hasn’t been inside The Chamber!” Amend that to ”hasn’t WATCHED The Chamber,” and you’re in the ballpark.

Anyone for the defense?

The Chair
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