Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Downfall Falls Down For Me

There are things that I give ABC credit for. One of those things is doing new series during the summer. Some of these shows are scripted dramas, some are reality shows – a few masquerading as "News" programs – and some are game shows. One of their most popular game shows over the past few summers has been Wipeout. In the last two years that show was partnered with something called I Survived A Japanese Game Show. ABC cancelled I Survived A Japanese Game Show for this summer and replaced it with a new all-American game show called Downfall. After watching the first episode of Downfall I found myself wishing wistfully for I Survived A Japanese Game Show to come back and replace this mess. After watching the second episode of Downfall I found myself wishing that ABC would bring a real Japanese game show on – with or without translation – to replace Downfall. This show is such a blot on the TV landscape that the prospect of people cheering wildly about a game whose rules I couldn't even pretend to understand that give prizes I don't know the value of would be preferable.

Downfall, hosted by professional wrestler Chris Jericho, is a show with a pretty basic skeleton and a gimmick. The skeleton is pretty simple. There's a ladder structure in which players compete for increasing amounts of money by answering questions. The higher the amount of money available to be won the more questions you have to answer. For $5,000 you have to answer four questions; for $10,000, five questions, for $25,000 six questions and so on. Each level also has physical prizes, ranging from popcorn machines and poker tables to big screen TV, large appliances, and cars. These can be lost as time passes. There are seven rungs on the ladder with a top prize of $1,000,000, and players who reach the $25,000 level are guaranteed that amount of money pluc any prizes they've won to that point in time. There is an effective time limit for each set of questions. There are nine sets of questions on different categories because if player find themselves running out of time they can push "The Panic Button" which will stop the "clock" at the expense of losing any surviving physical prizes at this level. The player gets a chance to play for the money at the level by risking either a personal possession or their "Panic Partner," usually a spouse or a family friend (although the first competitor picked her husband's naval CO who had put him on a deployment before the show).The possession or person may or may not be saved while the player wins the money. That by the way is why there are nine sets of questions even though there are only seven rungs on the prize ladder. The player can leave the game at the start of any level but if they run out of time at any stage – whether they've used their two Panic Buttons or not – they leave the game.

That's the skeleton, and let's admit that it is a skeleton that has become common on just about every game show, including that primetime show that Drew Carey did and the most recent version of Password. Now let's get to the gimmick. The show is shot on the top of a ten story building, although they insist on describing it as a skyscraper. There isn't a clock. Instead there's a conveyor belt, and the prizes are placed on the conveyor belt, with the prize money at the farthest end of the conveyor belt. A the end of the conveyor belt is a sort of chute or ramp to clear the building. When Chris Jericho starts asking questions the conveyor belt moves forward. When the prize – which is actually a full sized replica of the real prize – reaches the end of the conveyor belt it falls onto the chute/ramp and thence to ground 100 feet below. Spectacular results occur when you've got fluids, like bottled water, a giant cup of coffee, or cans of paint flying though the air and smashing to the ground. When the player puts a personal object on the conveyor belt it's at risk in the same way that the prizes that the show provides are. If you don't answer the questions over it goes. If the object is something you don't particularly like – like a man who put a particularly ugly Christmas clock that his wife loved and he hated – you might be tempted to blow off the questions until object goes over the side. Similarly the "Panic Partner" is put on the conveyor belt – they're in a harness with a safety line – and they can go over the side as well. It's not like a bungee jump but more like being lowered. Finally, if the player runs out of time, signified by the fake show money falling off the conveyor belt and fluttering to the ground, that person gets lifted up – they too are in a harness, as is Chris Jericho although his harness is designed to keep him from "accidentally" stepping over the side of the building – swung out over the side and dropped off the building.

Downfall is a
lousy game show. There is nothing original or innovative in the game play. The gimmick is just that, a gimmick and frankly one that, even when you know that the prizes are replicas and studio props and not real cars or dining room sets or aquariums still seems insultingly wasteful. The less said about Chris Jericho as host the better. He may be a charismatic wrestler, but as a game show host he's no Wink Martindale, or even – dare I say it – a William Shatner. (Well maybe close to Shatner but in terms of game show hosting, being close to Shatner is no compliment.) But I think that the worst thing you can say any game show is something that you have to say about this show: it is B-O-R-I-N-G. There have been no changes to the basic skeleton of the game that would give it greater interest over the general run of uses of this skeleton. The gimmick is fun to see once or twice but after repeated viewings simply becomes repetitive and annoying. And the host tries to compensate for having a significant deficiency in charisma (in this venue) by displaying a lot of energy. It doesn't compensate for the lack of charisma however, it only serves to annoy.

By comparison, consider I Survived a Japanese Game Show. The basic skeleton was taken from Survivor and Big Brother (a group of people isolated in a house and essentially marooned in an unfamiliar environment – Tokyo rather than a deserted island) and they have to face reward and elimination challenges. But the skeleton has been given an interesting change with the location and the nature of the challenges. The gimmick too has changed. The contestants didn't face major physical and endurance challenges; the Reward and Elimination challenges were quite frankly good clean goofy dirty fun. Even the Eliminations, featuring the insane Elimination Squad were hilarious. And host Rome Kanda was no Jeff Probst. The format didn't call for one, it called for a typically unctuous game show host and that's what Kanda (an actor) gave us. I Survived A Japanese Game Show gave us far more imagination than I suspect the producers of Downfall even possess.

Please ABC, send Chris Jericho and this show to a well deserved "retirement" and bring back I Survived A Japanese Game Show.

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