Special Topics In Gameology is an in-depth look at a specific corner of the gaming world, in miniseries form. For our first edition of the feature, John Teti surveys the current slate of British game shows. Last week’s entry introduced the series with a review of Pointless. This week: The Chase.
The concept of The Chase is simple. Four regular folks try to beat a quiz-circuit ringer in a trivia contest. Davids versus Goliath. Yet the simplicity of the idea is deceptive. It’s one thing to say that a team of “amateur” brains would match up well against one genius and quite another thing to strike that balance on a day-to-day basis. Over the course of its one-hour running time, The Chase manages to build to an exciting climax more often than not, and sometimes it’s downright exhilarating. It’s a case study in how to design a game for television.
The Chase is more complex than your typical daytime game show, but it wears that complexity well. A team of four strangers plays the game. In each round of the main game, one player breaks away from the team to play a 60-second speed round and build up a pot of cash—£1,000 for each correct answer. That pot is placed on a ladder, with “home” at the bottom and the Chaser at the top.
To add the pot to the team bank, the player must work their way down the ladder by answering multiple-choice questions—each correct answer gets them one step closer to home. Yet the Chaser is close behind, answering the same questions at the same time. If the Chaser catches up before the player gets home, the money is gone and the player is eliminated from the game for good.
The player gets a three-step head start, but there’s a twist. If the contestant agrees to a mere two-step head start, the pot grows much larger. On the other hand, an extra step can be had in exchange for a reduced pot. Taking the former option is considered the height of valor and/or greed; the latter is vaguely shameful.
The crowning glory of The Chase is its endgame, the Final Chase. The contestants who survived the main game play as a team in an extremely fast-paced two-minute speed round; each correct answer adds another step to their path. Once they’re done, the Chaser gets two minutes to catch the contestants. If they’re caught, the team leaves with nothing. If the Chaser falls short, the contestants win their bank at long last.
The on-air talent and direction on this show are fantastic. In a format that vacillates between frenzy and calm dozens of times in the course of an hour, host Bradley Walsh has a preternatural sense for how to set the tone. He seems to shift effortlessly from the warm, winking humor of the personal Chases to the staccato hypertension of the rapid-fire Q&A sections. (I haven’t seen anyone conduct a speed round with this type of earnest, focused excitement since Jim Perry on the American Sale Of The Century.)
Early on, the producers discovered that Walsh has a weakness for goofy humor, so every once in a while, they’ll toss in a question that’s obviously designed to make Walsh lose it in spite of his best efforts:
Walsh is a broadcaster by trade, but the Chasers are genuine nerds, having won “fame” on other game shows or in quiz-bowl championships. And while The Chase does play up the characters it has created for its ringers—Mark Labbett the hulking brute, Anne Hegerty the emasculating schoolmarm—the producers are wise enough not to push this conceit too far.
The Chasers come across as full-bodied human beings playing a game that they love (and they play with ferocity) rather than central-casting types collecting a paycheck. I find it hard to imagine many American producers who could exercise this same restraint, which requires an admission that it’s entertaining enough to watch people play a good game—that not every moment needs to be produced. That type of confidence is special enough on British TV; it’s downright rare among modern shows on these shores.
All of the Chasers are a pleasure to watch, but my personal favorite by a small margin is Paul Sinha, the cheerfully sarcastic man in the white suit. (Outside the Chase studio, he has a career as a stand-up comic, which figures.) Paul is the only one who’s enough of a smartass to, say, characterize the staff on his own show as lonely and weird, as seen in this clip:
(Note also that Walsh manages to resist the bait this time.)
Like most quiz shows, The Chase rewards contestants with a deep reservoir of general knowledge, but the main game is shrewdly designed to allow lesser minds a chance at success. Not every player runs the same race during their personal Chase. Because everyone is given a choice between a two-, three-, or four-step head start, the contestants are essentially allowed to set the difficulty of the game to suit their own confidence. The adjustable setup keeps more players in the mix.
Plus, the questions in the personal Chase rounds are multiple-choice, so merely average players can still bumble their way into the final. For instance, the college stoner on the team may not be great on politics or science, but if he catches a little luck, he might be able to survive the main game and contribute his knowledge of pop music in the Final Chase.
And there’s the implicit value judgment of The Chase’s team of strangers: Everyone has something to contribute. You don’t necessarily have to know all the answers, but to maximize your winnings, you do have to know yourself and play the game to the edge of your abilities—no further.
The final round is a masterful feat of rules engineering. Again, the premise appears simple on the screen: The contestants get two minutes, and then the Chaser gets the same. But the amateurs have a couple of advantages. They get a head start of one step for every player that survived the main game, and if the Chaser gets a question wrong, they have the opportunity to jump in with the correct answer and “push back” their pursuer.
The Chaser has a subtle advantage, too, though: The players have to buzz in to answer, and the Chaser does not. This ends up depriving the contestants of valuable seconds, especially in those deadly moments of group paralysis when none of them knows the answer but nobody wants to be presumptuous and pass the question. The team has to know itself to win.
One of the smartest touches of the Final Chase is the unusually long two-minute speed round afforded to both sides. The length of time allows small narrative arcs to develop: Players can falter in the first minute and rally in the second. It also reduces fluky rounds, and thanks to a ruleset that gives the contestants just enough of an edge, causes the Final Chase to come down to its last few seconds with amazing frequency.
It’s in these last few seconds that The Chase crystallizes into a elemental pursuit of knowledge. As Walsh’s voice speeds up, the game turns into a sort of experiment. Its objective: to find the purest exchange of question and answer two human beings can manage. How long does it take to request a piece of knowledge and receive it? Not as long as you think. I always find myself looking at the clock and doing the math. “Twenty seconds left,” I think. “A person couldn’t possibly answer six questions in that time.” I ALWAYS think something like this. And I’m repeatedly confounded.
That dilation of time might be The Chase’s greatest trick. Two minutes is a long time by game-show standards, but then again, it’s consistently amazing how much The Chase can accomplish in those 120 seconds. In high school, my cross-country running coach used to tell us to focus on the runner in front of us, because our minds perceive a chase differently than running a race course. It’s human nature, and it’s deep, the kind of programming that resides down in the brain stem. When we tap into that programming, we can accomplish things that defy the assumptions of our rational mind. The Chase has found a way to go there almost every day, and the fun of the resulting surprise never seems to wear off.