Special Topics In Gameology

The Exit List

British Game Shows: The Exit List

An almost-great show weakens its own drama for the sake of a time slot.

By John Teti • May 29, 2012

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 reviews the current slate of British game shows. The first entry introduced the series with a review of Pointless, and then came The Chase and Countdown. This week: The Exit List.

The Exit List

The Exit List
Elevator pitch: The farther you dare to go in this money maze, the harder it is to escape with your cash.
Channel: ITV
Running time: 60 minutes (including commercials)
Host: Matt Allwright, more famous for Rogue Traders, an entertaining ambush-journalism show in which Allwright’s hidden-camera team exposes and confronts con artists.

A screenwriting professor with experience in the studio system once told me (paraphrasing here), “Most of the scripts that get made in Hollywood start out as good scripts. It’s just that there are so many steps between a script and the screen—there are so many rewrites and directorial choices, and so much interference from the studio—that they constantly have opportunities to screw things up. That’s why most movies stink. But the initial script is usually pretty good.”

That idea has stuck with me. I don’t know whether it’s true of films, but I do think it’s true of game shows in a way. I think most (not all) games that make it to television start out as pretty good games. In the case of The Exit List, I would say that the show starts out with a very good game. And then come the opportunities to screw things up—too many for this program to bear.

I love the premise of List. A team of two friends advance through a grid of rooms. In each room, there is a cash prize and a multiple-choice question. If the players answer the question correctly, they get the cash and can advance deeper into the “Memory Maze,” where the big money is stored. If they answer incorrectly, their progress is blocked and they must move sideways—treading water, in essence—until they get something right.

Throughout all this soundstage spelunking, the contestants are also constructing their “exit list”—a list of words that, when the game is over, they must recite from memory in order to take home their winnings. The object is to keep this list as short as possible. Correctly answering a question adds that answer to the list of words. But in the case of an incorrect response, every possible answer from the multiple-choice question gets added to the list. Say that the question is, “Who composed the Bridal chorus, also known as ‘Here Comes The Bride’? Beethoven, Wagner, Mozart, or Vivaldi?” If the contestants answer anything other than Wagner, all four composers get added to the list—the list that they’ll have to recall, item by item, as they retrace their steps back out of the grid.

The Memory Maze is also booby-trapped with “panic rooms,” quick tests of recall that bombard the players with facts and then force them to recite those facts, on command, in a 30-second speed round. Whatever the contestants can’t recall gets compacted and scrambled into a nonsense string of letters or numbers—and that string, quite diabolically, gets added to the list. The Memory Maze can be such a jerk.

The contestants can leave the maze whenever they want, but they always play for a long while (more on that later), so by the end of the show, they’ve built up a hodgepodge of words pertaining to animal, vegetable, and mineral, along with a few jumbled panic-room codes.

The final twist comes when the team decides to stop playing and “exit the maze.” Only one member of the team is chosen, at random, to recite the exit list. Before that happens, the other teammate is offered a Deal Or No Deal-style choice: Let your partner play for the jackpot you’ve built up, or sacrifice the jackpot and accept a much smaller guaranteed sum. If you think your partner is smart enough to remember the entire exit list, you reject the deal. If not, you accept the deal. In either case, it’s a crushing blow if you’re wrong. And, of course, the player’s choice is kept a secret until after her teammate has attempted to escape the maze.

Like I said, it’s a great premise. Mazes are fun, after all. Every time I publish an entry in this series, I get a bunch of comments and emails asking me to write up The Crystal Maze. (By the way, because this is a series about current British game shows, that’s not going to happen for now, but I’m considering a retrospective series.) Mazes offer the simple pleasure of looking at a bird’s-eye view and screaming, “No, run LEFT, you idiot!”

Except there is very little running, in any direction, on The Exit List. Watching the show brings to mind that scene from The Naked Gun in which Detective Frank Drebin, disguised as a home-plate umpire, needs to draw out an inning of baseball as long as possible. This show is about 42 minutes long without commercials, and in that time the contestants are essentially asked a dozen questions or so. That’s more than three minutes per question. Compare that to The Chase, which asks about 125 questions in the course of an hour—so The Exit List’s quiz, in one way, is 10 times as slow.

The Exit List

And yet it feels even slower than that. Host Matt Allwright drenches the program in delay, injecting empty drama into every single decision. There are a number of pivot points in The Exit List: Would you like to exit the maze? Which direction will you go next? Will the next room be a question or a panic room? Is that the correct answer? Few of these pivots carry any real weight, yet every one of them takes far longer than it needs to, such is the show’s desperation to sloooooow everything down.

The Exit List has a fundamental problem. Because of the greed-versus-prudence dynamic of the game, much of the tension hinges on the fact that the players can choose to leave at any time. That gaming reality acts in opposition to the production reality, which demands that each game fill an hour-long time slot. If a playthrough came up short of the required length, it would mean a huge waste of studio time (i.e., cash). So, yes, the contestants can leave whenever they’d like—just not yet, please!

There is a simple solution to this problem, called “straddling.” You’ve seen it before. A straddled game show plays its game in its own time, and when one game is finished, another one starts. When the time slot is up, play is stopped so that it can resume at the beginning of the next episode. Who Wants To Be A Millionaire is a straddled show—they keep playing until the horn blows. Wheel Of Fortune is self-contained—one match lasts half an hour, every time.

It’s easy to see why the producers of The Exit List prefer a self-contained format. The way they have it set up, each episode has a predictable arc, and it builds to the undeniably exciting conclusion of the contestant’s frantic attempt to exit, with that great kicker of the “Did you have faith in me, friend?” moment of truth. This show finishes strong, every time.

(NOTE: This next video shows the conclusion of an episode of The Exit List.)

But there is too much stalling and too much fakery required to arrive at that finish. When Allwright asks the contestants, after one question, whether they would like to exit the maze, it’s hard not to feel irritated. The guy is wasting everybody’s time. There are 50 minutes left in the hour—obviously they are not going to quit now. It’s like a waiter asking, “You still working on that?” after you’ve taken a single bite of your dinner. So why the hell does Allwright ask? Are we expected to delight in the ceremony of it all? This isn’t Countdown; the adherence to protocol is not endearing here.

It simply should not take this long to ask and answer a question about delicious nuts:

Combining a “stop whenever you want” game with a strict time target is never going to result in a great fit. On primetime network TV in the States, it was tried recently with Million Dollar Password. That program featured a “will they or won’t they go ahead for more money?” endgame whose drama was spoiled by the fact that, when only a couple minutes are left in the hour, it’s pretty clear that they won’t.

Would The Exit List be better as a straddled game with a faster pace? I don’t know; it’s just speculation. I certainly would like to see them try it, but game show production is complicated and rife with unforeseen consequences. Perhaps a quicker rhythm would leave the contestants too little time to commit their exit list to memory—there might be a hidden utility in the show’s long pauses, insofar as they make the game winnable. “Faster but impossible” isn’t exactly an improvement.

My point is not that I have all the answers but rather that a good game, like a good script, is a fragile thing that must be treated with care. The Exit List is a very good game that has been transformed, through a series of questionable production choices, into a merely decent show. I suspect that the makers of The Exit List know that their 60-minutes-every-time format is a somewhat clumsy fit for their game. They probably also believe most viewers won’t notice—that this format offers them the best chance for popular success. They may be right about all that. But for me, the fun of The Exit List is mitigated in part by the frustration of watching a great game that will never be played the way it ought to be played.

Share this with your friends and enemies

Write a scintillating comment

2,137 Responses to “British Game Shows: The Exit List

  1. Merve says:

    Re: the third video – “If it had been me, I would’ve got it.” That’s kind of a dick thing to say, Kirsten.

    Re: the fourth video – It was painful to watch a question dragged out for that long. I can only imagine how much worse it would be to have to endure a commercial break in the middle.

    • Aaron Riccio says:

      Yeah, but only kind of a dick thing; she may have been tooting her own horn a bit, but she had her partner pegged dead to rights, and even she seemed to agree that memory isn’t her thing. It’s not mine, either, though I do know that certain things are easier to remember than others — trivia questions that actually bridge a path should be of some help, in the same sense that one would hope the standard end-route puzzle of The Amazing Race could be remembered through the sheer, formative experience of it all. (Then again, that’s not always the case there, either, and I know pressure plays a large factor in screwing with recall.)

      As for that “eternal nuts” question, ouch. This is one of the reasons I’ve always had an affinity for Jeopardy: we get straight to it, and slow players just won’t see the whole board.

    • doyourealize says:

      I thought so, too, but the one going through the maze (can’t remember the name) seemed ecstatic at her lack of confidence in her, so no harm done.

      • Merve says:

        True that. It just feels as if judging one’s partner’s skill level and forcing him or her to complete the maze regardless of that judgment are a little mean-spirited for a show like this. They’re the kinds of things that would fit better on a game show with a mean streak, like Greed or The Weakest Link.

  2. Bowen Kerins says:

    There’s another important piece you didn’t mention about straddled shows: in general, they cost more in prize money.  Shows pay per episode, not per contestant, and with big-money shows it can make a big difference.

    I think straddling is the way to go for great shows, since it means you never know when something interesting will happen.  On Deal or No Deal you pretty much know the first 40 minutes is going to be crap.  Wait that was a bad example — the first 60 minutes of that show is crap.  But with Millionaire, you had to watch it consistently since a big-money question could drop in any part of the show.

    • Electric Dragon says:

      Plus Millionaire rattled through the first few questions up to the £1000 breakpoint pretty quickly, and varied the speed depending on the contestant. I think many post-Millionaire shows wanted the tension that it spun out of the big money questions but forgot the variety of pace it had in the early rounds.

      • The_Misanthrope says:

         I actually get really frustrated waiting for players to run through questions on Millionaire (the Yankee version anyway).  Many contestants will just talk over every single  possible answer, chatter with the host about their thought process, then get nervous and go for a lifeline anyway.

    • John Teti says:

      Well, adjusting the prize money is a pretty simple matter. I assume if you went with a faster pace, you’d change the prize amounts accordingly.

      • Bowen Kerins says:

        Ha, I was going to say that.  But adjusting the prize amounts means fewer Big Money Moments — now that 100,000 pound room has to be 50,000 or 75,000 in order to maintain the per-show payout.

        The worst offenders in the U.S. were shows like Don’t Forget The Lyrics.  You could usually tell in the first half-hour whether or not the contestant was going deep based on how much stalling happened.

        And it affects game design: the game can’t be built with any real pressure on the player for a long time, but give the impression of pressure to make the game compelling.  It stinks.

  3. jellybeanpill says:

    1. Never seen this show, but from what I read here, wouldn’t the obvious strategy be to try and get the highest offer possible (the 17k one in the sample ending there), and not even bother gambling on remembering at all? It just seems very hard, especially with the jumbled letters, unless you only have 7 single terms to remember.

    2. Would another solution to the pace be a shorter runtime? Maybe half an hour (21 mins after ads) would be better than an hour. It wouldn’t cost any more if they simply halved the prize amounts.

    3. Will you be covering anything like Bargain Hunt? I think that show would have the greatest appeal, but there’s a lot of similar mid-morning/early afternoon schlock like that. My least favourite is Dickinson’s Real Deal, wherein antiquing vultures try to scam old ladies.

  4. I enjoyed your piece, as ever. This series has been really enjoyable so far.

    I loved this show at the time, probably my favourite new format since Million Dollar Mind Game. (Not as ringing an endorsement as it sounds; “best new show for two or three months!”) While the pace was slow and the feeling was slightly unnecessarily crunchily rules-laden, the aesthetics were lovely; unusually appropriate and effective on-screen graphics and tremendous sound. My favourite parts: the ascending-scale pseudo-heartbeat as the Exit List was read out once again, the triumphant cadence played when the contestants found the jackpot cell on the back row and the tension music while the Exit List was recalled.

    The whole set looked like a fun and futuristic toy to play with; it’s always fun to see people playing with brilliant toys sufficiently complex that they could only be realised through television. The contestants came across as really heroic every time they succeeded in the unlikely- and challenging-looking Exit List recall task, and so many of them (though not all, as discussed!) came across as being really likeable and easy to root for. Unfortunately the show did badly in the ratings and wasn’t particularly popular even within the fandom, so this will remain a footnote at best.

    One other twist you weren’t explicit about was the way that the money per cell increased further through the maze, with the natural crescendo being the challenge to find the single cell in the back row with £100,000 stored within, compared to other cells being £5,000 or £10,000 at best. Every team made it to the back row and had a good search for this jackpot cell, though at least one team never found it. This provided a focus that tended to naturally provide an inherent conclusion to the question phase, along with the teams all tending towards similar points of risk-versus-reward when it came to the extent to which they trusted their own memory. (A criticism is that it was relatively easy to guess whether they would be able to recall the whole list or not; few teams couldn’t recall somewhere in the region of 12-14 items, few teams could recall somewhere in the region of 16-18 items – and once you get past twenty, fuggedaboutit.) Accordingly, I think this was carefully planned to make sure that teams’ games did naturally last a TV-friendly length of time, rather than the magic of editing in the style of Procrustes’ bed.

    The traditional argument against straddling and the existence of returning contestants is that it means shows have to be repeated in order, which may make it less attractive to repeat for broadcasters who cannot simply stick on an episode – any episode – when they have a gap in the schedule. Going back to MDMG, as I recall, that had a few episodes of straddling but most episodes being self-contained by happy accident of teams’ progress. This did not seem to stop the episodes being shown in an order contrary to that proposed by the “coming up next week!” bumpers at the end of the show.

    Perhaps the show was a little explicitly game-y and slow for the masses; it may well be that the repetitiveness of the question section was sufficiently off-putting and the Exit List section insufficient reward. If there had been a way to make a team’s game possibly ten or fifteen minutes long – maybe shorter – then this would have been a great daily teatime show, at lower prize levels. Nevertheless, I’m glad that big-budget swings and misses do still occur from time to time.

    Cute contestant coincidence: one of the teams featured a man who took his docotrate in chemistry and parlayed it into a ten-year career playing American Football for NFL Europe’s Scottish Claymores, Scott Couper.

  5. MesotheleonaHelmsley says:

    Do not think about the event, and REMAIN INDOORS

  6. Captain_Internet says:

    It’s very hard to say whether there was a shining gem of an idea behind The Exit List, or if it was just stitched together from bits of other shows that the production team deemed successful. The latter is sadly much more likely.

    You could be right though. Perhaps they started with an elevator pitch of “It’s like ‘The Running Man’ meets ‘Cube’… but for money!”, and due to budgetary constraints ended up with “It’s like a £20 pub quiz machine meets the appendix to a Paul McKenna self-help book”

  7. Brig Bother says:

    Last year when I first saw promos for it I thought it would be awful – it’s not a maze, it’s just some rooms!

    Then I went and saw one of the early episodes being filmed (not a great show for the audience – you can’t see down into the maze so you have to follow on a big screen at one end of the studio) and quite enjoyed it – the contestants were likable, but they were also a bit useless, and I got the feeling the intention was to have more than one game per episode (they didn’t bother starting with another team which surprised the host because they wouldn’t have been able to finish it in the same session).

    The fandom really liked it, I thought it was (at the very least) nicely produced but very slow and basically it bombed, doing even worse than a show called High Stakes that occupied the slot previously, a show which was genuinely terrible that someone saw a pilot of and thought it would be a good commission.

    I think if you took the The Exit List concept and boiled it down into a 3-4 minute timed end game it could be all sorts of amazing. But since you’d also have to fill the rest of the show with something it’d be a very expensive set piece – it was filmed on the George Lucas stage at Elstree.

  8. David Gray says:

    Whereas its not the same kind of quiz show, since there’s never any prize money at stake, will you be delving into panel shows at any point since I know they’re not really a thing in America whereas they’re really popular over here.

    • Merve says:

      I’d really appreciate this too. A bunch of my friends are obsessed with QI and 8 out of 10 Cats, and I’ve seen a couple of episodes of each here and there.

  9. Joe Morgan says:

    This was The Exit List’s first series/season (delete as appropriate), and had
      terrible ratings. I doubt it will come back for a second. Unlike the shows you’ve already covered (Pointless, The Chase, Countdown) which are daytime shows, this was aired at 8pm on a weekday evening, so the slow pace and lack of drama are unforgivable. I still liked it, and I agree with you
     it would work better as a straddled show.