Saturday, February 23, 2008

I Wish I Could Forget This Show

A couple of weeks ago, when NBC Entertainment President Ben Silverman was discussing whether or not the network would renew Friday Night Lights he uttered a phrase which I hope to hell will come back to haunt him: "We're NBC. We've got a reputation to protect." Friday NBC cancelled one of my favourite shows on the network, Las Vegas and seems to be desperately shopping for another network partner to help pay for Friday Night Lights... or something. Meanwhile on Friday night, occupying the time slot previously occupied by Friday Night Lights (which won't be doing any more episodes this season at least, and maybe ever) is one of the shows that Ben Silverman is "protecting" the reputation of NBC with. It is called Amne$ia and after watching it I wish I had it. Amnesia that is; that way I could forget this steaming pile of ... something awful.

Amne$ia is a game show... allegedly. In essence you have a contestant who is asked questions about what I guess I'd call the trivia of his life. The show ran in three phases. The first is a lightning round in which the contestant has to answer up to seven questions in a minute and receives a thousand dollars for each correct answer. Next – in the first episode at least – someone from the contestant's past is brought on. The contestant is sent to a "sound proof booth" while host Dennis Miller interviews the person about particular events in the contestant's life, but not in too much detail of course. Once the interview is finished the guest is seated and the contestant asked a couple of trivia questions related to the person who has been brought out. It might be a question like the room number of the classroom where the contestant's father taught the contestant science. On the other hand the contestant might be asked to pick out the doormat of the family home where he left the house key for his brother from a selection of about a dozen mats. (The contestant in this case left the house key under the mat for his brother and then left a note on the door telling his brother that the key was under the mat.) A total of three guests are brought on for the contestant, each generating two or three questions. The amount of money for each question tied to a guest goes up with each guest. The first guest's questions are worth $2,500, the second guest's $5,000, and the third's $10,000. Once the questions tied to the third guest are asked, the three guests are each handed an envelope. In each of these is a question. This time around if the player gets the question wrong the value of the question is subtracted from the amount of money that the contestant has won. The contestant chooses one of the guests and Miller asks the question. The first question is worth $25,000, the second $50,000 and the third $100,000. The player can stop before any of these questions including the first. If the player loses all of his previous winnings, the game ends and he leaves with nothing.

This show is awful. In my book the game shows that work are the ones that are well paced, build drama effectively, and have a certain consistency about them. Having a good host helps a lot too but I'll get into that one shortly. Amne$ia fails on the first three counts. The pace was horrible, in that the entire episode was given over to a single contestant and the only point at which he could lose any money was in the last five to ten minutes. That pretty much cut out the idea of building dramatic tension too. There was no sense of jeopardy for the player which in turn meant that there was very little reason to ether identify with him or feel sympathy for him. Finally this show was all over the map stylistically. I mean I could see some of what they were intending. The lightning round was meant to build up the player's bankroll while the subsequent rounds seemed to be meant to make him work for the money. Part of the trouble was that while the stories that this contestant's three guests (his father who was also his former science teacher, his brother, and his wife) were asked about were amusing they stopped the action of the game dead and did so for little real purpose.

The single bright spot of this show was the host, Dennis Miller, and even then I am so ambiguous about him that I have a certain amount of difficulty putting it into words. As a host he's good at talking to both the contestant and the guests, and has moments of wittiness when it comes to the normal game show conventions like the use of lights and dramatic musical stings. That said, there's a certain "smug jackass" quality about Miller that makes me feel at least like he thinks he's smarter than everyone else and is just dying to let us know the fact. At times it seems as if he's only doing this for the money and the opportunity to show us all his innate superiority. Of course I've always felt this way about Dennis Miller so I can't really say I'm that surprised.

Perhaps the worst thing that could possibly have happened to Amne$ia was to debut it on the particular Friday night they chose. The show followed 1 vs. 100, which itself was on opposite a night time edition of The Price Is Right. These two shows illustrated the weaknesses of Amne$ia with an almost cruel clarity. The Price Is Right has always been fast paced and consistent. It may fall a little short in terms of dramatic tension but the turn-over in contestants compensates for that; each commercial break brings a new contestant in what amounts to a self contained story. There's always the risk of losing everything in the show until you come to the showcase. Drew Carey never comes across as superior to the contestants in either this or his other game show, The Power Of Ten. Carey always makes it appear that he is on the contestant's side. 1 vs. 100, which aired the last show of its current season tonight (more's the pity) doesn't have the contestant turn over that The Price Is Right does, but even with the modifications that were made to the show for this season (a number of permanent mob members rather than replacing everyone who gives wrong answer; setting plateaus in terms of prizes – contestants aren't paid an amount per mob member eliminated as last year but must eliminate 10 mob members to reach a new prize level) the show delivers a lot of dramatic potential. The format is consistent and the risk of failure for the contestant is quite real, particularly as the questions become more difficult. Host Bob Saget has contestant banter down to an art form which I suppose can come across as somewhat "plastic" but works for the show. There's no real sense that he feels superior to contestants although, he sometimes seems a bit more aloof from them than Carey does. By comparison with either of these to shows Amne$ia is an utter and complete failure.

There is something inherently unfair about the fact that Amne$ia will most likely run to the end of this season while neither Las Vegas nor Friday Night Lights will get a proper ending to their seasons – or in the case of Las Vegas (but hopefully
not Friday Night Lights) a proper series wind up. At their worst, either of these shows is far more entertaining than Amne$ia. The single point in which Amne$ia beats them is that it doesn't cost as much to produce, which I suppose is an important point for a network like NBC in terms of programming on what we are consistently told is the worst night for viewership on TV now that Saturday has basically been reduced to a dumping ground for movies and repeats (although programming scripted shows on Friday doesn't seem to effect CBS all that much). My great fear is that this drek will draw good ratings and become a regular series for next season. This show deserves to be not to be lauded but to be cancelled after one episode. Even if it doesn't find a place on next year's schedule, its presence on the NBC line up as anything more than a "strike baby" tells us something about Ben Silverman and his vision for network TV that I don't really like. If this is what Silverman considers "protecting" the reputation of NBC, I have to wonder what exactly he thinks that reputation is.

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