Thursday, June 08, 2006

Celebrity Fun & Games - Well Games Anyway

It's probably fitting that I couldn't review Gameshow Marathon last week. Oh no, it's not because the show got better in the second week although it did...sort of. No, the reason why it's fitting is because it gave me the opportunity to see the opening episode of the eighth season of Celebrity Poker Showdown, a show which is both entertaining and serves as a reminder of what you can do with celebrities - whether A, B, C, or Kathy Griffin class - playing games.

Actually Wednesday's episode of Gameshow Marathon seemed a bit better than the episodes that preceded it. Beat The Clock was a perfect show for this format because it was basically a show full of silly stunts which tended to make people look absurd. Essentially it was a series of party games rather than guessing prices. Plus the original show was old enough that it was new for most of the audience both in the studio an watching at home. Most of the celebrities who participated in the show - Paige Davis, Tim Meadows, Kathy Najimy and Leslie Nielsen - all seemed more animated and having more fun in this episode than they did doing The Price Is Right or Let's Make A Deal, not that it would too hard to exceed their excitement levels in those episodes (the exception was Paige Davis who has a bubbly personality, even if she sometimes dances around like a stripper looking for her pole). There are problems, although again the age of the show means that they aren't as visible as some of them were in the first two episodes. We don't remember Clayton "Bud" Collyer's time hosting Beat The Clock. We may remember him as host of the more intellectual To Tell The Truth - and Ivan and I know him as Superman from the radio Adventures of Superman and both the Fleischer and Filmation Superman cartoons - but for most of us, if we remember Beat The Clock at all it is probably the syndicated version hosted by Jack Narz around 1970. Others have complained that while Ricki Lake is trying hard to get into the spirit of the games she wasn't Bob Barker or Monty Hall, one who is still doing his show and the other who is very well remembered. I, on the other hand, find Ricki extremely annoying - particularly her voice - and she's not a good fit personality wise for doing a game show.

No, the host isn't a problem for me, and the fact that it's celebrities is a minor problem. My problem is I'm not entirely sure what these people are playing for and why it's these celebrities. The celebrities are supposed to be playing for charity but for the life of me I can't tell you what or how their charities are getting. The celebrities aren't being paid off in cash when they win something on the show, they're putting merchandise into a prize pool for a lucky at home winner who text messages in the correct answer to a trivia quiz. Does the celebrity get the monetary value of their prize for his or her charity? I don't know. What I do know is that the winner of the final game - a session of Family Feud - gets $100,000 for their charity. Does that mean that none of the other charities gets any money? Again it's not clear.Then there's the celebrities themselves. Apparently the show is set up so that only six specific celebrities get to try to make money for their charities, even though we saw Betty White, George Foreman and Adam Carolla sitting in the audience of The Price Is Right looking as if they had a chance to play. Carolla got up in the middle of an audience shot for The Price Is Right looking as if he had been promised he'd have a shot at the show and was ticked off that they picked Leslie Nielsen instead. It was all a set up though - White, Foreman, and Carolla, along with Kathy Griffin, Bruce Villanch and Adrianne Curry - are there to be the panel for the Match Game portion of the series and the producers made it clear in their promos who the six celebrities were going to be. Finally there's the game shows themselves. Since game shows tended to have a half hour format - except for the current incarnation of The Price Is Right - there seems to be a tendency to try to stretch the material to fit an hour show, and it isn't working.

It's this lack of clarity, together with a feeling of being set up and the distinct impression that some if not most of the celebrities were just there to keep their profile up and had no interest in the games or in having fun that makes Gameshow Marathon less than enjoyable for me. By comparison Celebrity Poker Showdown was enjoyable for me. The episode I saw last week was the first of the eighth tournament and for the first time was occurring outside of Las Vegas, at the Harrah's casino in New Orleans with winnings going to charities in the New Orleans area and tied to Hurricane Katrina relief. Last week's lineup included Jason Alexander (Seinfeld, and participating in his second tournament), Brian Cranston (Malcolm In The Middle, also in his second tournament), Jamie Bamber (Battlestar Galactica), Susie Essman (Curb Your Enthusiasm), and Kevin Sorbo (Andromeda). The difference between this and Gameshow Marathon was palpable. The celebrities clearly seemed engaged and for the most part interested - the exception seemed to be Sorbo - and having fun playing the game. Presumably doses of Southern Comfort, which had signed on as a sponsor - the "Loser's Lounge" was renamed the "Soco Lime Lounge" - helped that along a little. The objectives were clearly laid out - lose in the first round and your charity gets $5,000, win and you get a shot at the lion's share of the $1,000,000 prize pool. For the audience what made the show enjoyable was that these people were playing as badly as most of us play. There are plenty of Poker shows on TV where the viewer can see play the game with a tremendous level of competency, on this show we can see famous people for the most part playing like a bunch of donkeys. Host Dave Foley has settled into his role as genial host and poker ignoramus quite well. In fact he's a reasonably good player and has gone deep in several tournaments. The big change for this season, and some say the weakest part of the show was replacing Phil Gordon - who stated that he decided not to renew his contract because he was tired of commentating on people who play as badly as many of these celebrities - and has been replaced by Phil Helmuth (there are some who claim that Gordon's contract wasn't renewed because they could get Helmuth for a third the money, which seems absurd if you know something about Helmuth - a lot of people suspect he'd want to be paid a dollar more than whatever Gordon was getting). If anything Helmuth is probably to analytical for the show and has yet to develop the chemistry that was so abundant between Gordon and Foley.

CBS has touted Gameshow Marathon as being a British import, which is true as far as it goes. The original show was a special called Ant & Dec's Gameshow Marathon and was shown on the British commercial network ITV as part of the network's 50th anniversary. In other words it was a one shot deal. There was a solid reason for it which CBS seems to be lacking. I don't know if CBS thought that they could make more of the series than just a one shot - I certainly suspect they'd like to - but with what they've done they've certainly not succeeded. I think there are things that they could have done that would have made it more successful. One approach might have been to widen the pool of celebrities; you might not be picked for Price Is Right but you could be on Let's Make A Deal or one of the other preliminary round games, and in the same way if you were picked for Price Is Right and didn't win you wouldn't be able to guarantee that you'd be playing in one of the other shows. Another way to work it would be to select a group of ordinary people and actually play the games for the prizes leading up to the final big windfall for the players who made it to the final round of Family Feud. The truth is however that the format is cumbersome and it is difficult to really grasp who gets what for the people they are representing. The difference between this and Celebrity Poker Showdown is clear. There the format is clear as is exactly what the charities are getting, the pool of participants is wider, the celebrities are having fun and are interacting with each other while competing. And yeah, they're making mistakes and on the whole are doing something that they have no expertise at (although next week's episode features Jennifer "The Unabombshell" Tilley, who won the 2005 World Series Of Poker Women's Event and followed that up with the World Poker Tour's Ladies Night tournament - I would love to see her destroy the rest of the field) and making fools of themselves. But that's why the show is fun and why there have been eight tournaments. I have absolutely know doubt that we won't even see a second run of Gameshow Marathon which for the most part is a good thing. I think my only regret will be that we won't be able to see more Beat The Clock - it was fun in a sort of nostalgic non-bug eating way.

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