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, followed by The Chase, Countdown, The Exit List, and Mastermind. This week, the series concludes with brief reviews of a few other U.K. games.
American viewers may know The Weakest Link as that show with the nasty British woman that was on NBC for a year or so. (It lasted a bit longer in U.S. syndication, where it was hosted—quite well I might add—by current The Price Is Right announcer George Gray.) Link’s moment in the American spotlight may have been brief, but the show and host Anne Robinson stuck around on BBC until this spring, although Robinson’s routine had become fairly limp and rote in her last few years. Breakaway is Link’s de facto replacement, and as a game where team interests can be riven by infighting and individual greed, it shares some of the same tensions as its forebear.
In Breakaway, a team of six contestants must answer 30 trivia questions to win a pot of cash that builds up as they answer correctly—and collapses back to zero when they make a mistake. At certain points during the run, one of the contestants can leave the team and attempt to finish the rest of the journey himself, or with one other teammate, on the “breakaway” track (which, as an incentive, is more lucrative than the main track).
That’s the gist, but it gets more complicated—much more complicated, in fact, which makes Breakaway a herky-jerky affair. This show doesn’t have the elegant ramp-up or contrasts in pacing that Link did in its heyday, with its ever-shortening speed rounds and amusing, jokey interstitials with Anne.
Still, it’s a reasonably fun show that may find its rhythm, and I have to praise Breakaway’s set, which has the team advance down an actual, light-up track rather than advancing their progress on a TV screen. I love the physicality of it. This qualifies as a flourish in modern game show set design, which usually tries to accomplish with programmed light sequences and TV monitors what previous generations would accomplish with huge set pieces that actually moved.
Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I like when a game show set has moving parts. The Pyramid “trilons” used to swing around. The Super Password seating area would slide in from offstage. The entire Match Game contestant stage swung around on a turntable—hell, used to be you couldn’t design a game show without including some turntables. Union rules, or something.
I mean, look at this clip from 50 Grand Slam, a short-lived NBC quiz show from the ’70s. The game here was dry as old toast. Yet somebody on the production team said, “Hey, do you think we should have two enormous rotating mirrored cubes in the middle of the stage?” And someone else said, “Yes, obviously we should have that.”
Breakaway doesn’t have any moving parts, but it has a light-up floor that does some nifty graphical tricks. Eh, I’ll take it.
Blockbusters is similar to Weakest Link insofar as it’s a show that proved much more popular across the Atlantic than it ever did here. The difference is that Blockbusters is an American invention, a Mark Goodson production that premiered in 1980 and lasted for only a couple of seasons on NBC. (The network briefly revived the show in 1987.)
The format is the same between both versions. The competition is asymmetrical: A lone contestant squares off against a team of two players. The game board is a 5-by-4 array of hexagons, each one with a letter inside. A contestant chooses a letter, and the host reads a question whose answer begins with that letter, such as: “What ‘T’ located on the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario is the largest city in Canada?” Whoever answers correctly claims the corresponding hexagon for their side. To win, the solo player must make a chain of hexagons from the top to the bottom, while the duo are trying to form a chain from left to right (which is the longer dimension, thus mitigating the advantage of the two-person team).
U.K. Blockbusters aired for a decade starting in 1983 and has returned to the air in one form or another a few times since then, although none of these revamps has lasted long, and none of them has featured the beloved original U.K. host, Bob Holness.
The show is a great example of how a daily game show can acquire a lore and rich tradition by virtue of the fact that it’s on the air every weekday. When the American show Let’s Make A Deal premiered, the audience members generally looked like Joe and Jane Average. Then people started bringing signs, and wearing funny hats, and finally donning outlandish costumes in a bid to grab host Monty Hall’s attention and be selected as contestants. In its first run, the U.K. Blockbusters built up little traditions this way, too, like the trend of contestants bringing stuffed-animal “mascots” for good luck and the bizarre spectacle of the Friday afternoon “hand jive.”
The current incarnation of the show, airing on the British game show network Challenge, presumably benefits from this nostalgia among its U.K. viewers. As an American viewer, the show doesn’t especially grab me. I have some fondness for the original U.S. version, which featured the affable wit of all-time great emcee Bill Cullen, but Blockbusters doesn’t light up my pleasure center like it seems to do among viewers in its home nation.
I’m not knocking the show. Familiarity and nostalgia are important parts of the genre. Just like the words “Come on down!” might not make a British expat light up with memories of sipping hot chocolate at home on a snow day, the words “Can I have a ‘P,’ please, Bob?” don’t elicit a knowing smile from your typical American.
Now in its fifth season, Only Connect is one of my favorites. Of all the British games I’ve watched for this series of articles, it’s the show I’d most like to see adapted for American television—and the one I’m most certain will never make it to these shores. (Prove me wrong, American TV producers. Prove me wrong.)
The game has four rounds, each of which presents a satisfying variation on the same premise, “Here are four things; how are they connected?” One group, for example, includes the following: Debits, Ant McPartlin, the bride at a Christian wedding, and the red light on a boat. What’s their connection? They’re all traditionally seen on the left side.
That example illustrates both the glory of Only Connect and its occasional frustrations for American viewers. The writers of the show seem to be inexhaustibly clever in the connections that they come up, and as such the play-along force is strong with this one. The show makes you want to get inside its head. However, there’s more of a reliance on British cultural references here than you might expect. As a very light anglophile, I at least knew who Ant McPartlin was—a member of the comedy duo Ant & Dec—but I had no idea that he always stood on the left. More often, the Britishisms are entirely lost on me. But then again, I shouldn’t feel too sorry for myself, as the contestants are often at a loss, too. This game is tough.
Host Victoria Coren is the perfect match for Only Connect, conveying both friendly hospitality and formidable intellect. This show operates in a mode that you just don’t see on American television: Not only is it smart and witty, but it’s immensely and unapologetically pleased with its own smartness.
To wit: Only Connect used to designate each of a round’s questions with letters from the Greek alphabet. At the beginning of the fourth season, Coren said viewers had complained that the Greek letters were too pretentious, and so henceforth the questions would be denoted with Egyptian hieroglyphs (as they are to this day). Whether the explanation was true or not, the message of the joke works equally well. Only Connect isn’t exactly elitist, it just believes that being an egghead is fun, and if you can’t see the fun in it, nobody on the show really cares. It’s a show about the highest common denominator, which proves to be a lot more fun than the lowest.