Saying Yes to Stupid

Summer TV game shows are here to distract our tired brains

FOX’s ‘Ultimate Tag’

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Programmers know when our minds are squishy. We eschew contemplative drama. We want, nay demand, to heap our sweaty brain pans full of all things stupid.

This summer in particular, it turns out we collectively need extra helpings of idiocy, because damn, times are rough. Fortunately, when television production shut down, a handy supply of vacuous game shows was ready for our simpleminded consumption. We may do day-to-day life differently right now. But we can still switch on our moving picture boxes, turn off our brains, and allow the plethora of competitive absurdity to work its sweet, stupid magic.

ABC’s Fun and Games

As a network, ABC owns the summer dumbs, and in pre-virus life, we’d have Bachelor in Paradise to whisk us away right about now. Sadly, this cursed year stole the crown jewel of Bachelor Nation, but the network still possesses a plethora of vapid programming, handily packaged together as the “Summer Fun & Games” block. This includes cash-grab revamps of classics no one needed to ever see again, but can’t resist now, like Press Your Luck, Match Game, and Family Feud, along with new ideas like Holey Moley and Don’t.

My main takeaway from Don’t is that if you create a mediocre game show, Adam Scott will not ably hide its flaws. I fiercely love some Mr. Scott because his “R U Talkin’ REM RE: ME?” podcast is top shelf, and Ben Wyatt is every nerdgirl’s dreamboat. He’s a darling, but he’s also Prohibition-dry. That doesn’t make for an engaging host at the best of times, and entirely fails on Don’t.

In this vaguely Fear Factor-esque production, people win money if they “don’t” do something they want to do — blink when their eyes are open for several minutes, or take a drink after eating a hot pepper while walking on a treadmill under heat lamps. The tasks are overly long and complicated. Producer Ryan Reynolds tosses in expositional commentary just often enough to remind viewers he is more entertaining than any of the randos we’re watching. Doesn’t Don’t know game shows aren’t supposed to make us suffer along with the players?

Sports-esque shows

CBS delayed the new season of its best reality competition, The Amazing Race, to instead regale us with Game On, a sports-based comedy contest. Perhaps they hope it will satisfy those yearning for a match or ball-filled event of some kind right about now.  A relaxed Keegan Michael Key hosts. Serena Williams and Rob Gronkowski are team captains for their rotating panel of guest stars. Zany sports trivia intermingles with gimmicky physical challenges and field competitions. Light and easy remain the show’s primary objectives. Key drums up the proper level of enthusiasm, much mirth is made, and the audience cheers with the joyous abandon of a crowd that has no idea this is the last fun they’ll be allowed to have for ages.

CBS’ ‘Game On’

Fox veers from its familiar singing and cooking competition track with the sporting-lite Ultimate Tag, whose pseudo-bold intro declares, “It’s a game everyone can enjoy because everybody’s played it.” As it is on the playground, so it is on Ultimate Tag. If you’re tagged, you’re out. Contestants attempt to outlast purported parkour experts with bland names like The Kid and The Flare in what the show refers to as “their world,” which loosely resembles a laser tag arena. Crowd shots feature family members trying to look hype. The sloppily attired hosts seem ready to hit the club … in North Dakota. Ultimate Tag feels like the slush pile for American Ninja Warrior and makes one yearn for that high-art programming of yesteryear, American Gladiators.

“Floor” is Tops

Even when it comes to wacky shows, Netflix somehow next-levels the networks. They led the pack in social distancing programming with the isolation experiment The Circle, and now, steal the loopy entertainment crown with Floor is Lava. Here, another childhood favorite moves on-screen, as teams of three adults attempt to complete an obstacle course without touching the floor. Because guess what? It’s made of lava, a Nickelodeon-worthy slimy substance emitting a disturbingly electric red glow.

On paper, the conceit may be the stupidest of the entire summer’s numbingly dumb lineup. Yet it actually serves up some satisfyingly escapist entertainment. The stakes are low, the prize is nominal, but the contestants really, really want to win. My teenaged children rolled their eyes, criticized every strategy, and felt certain their performances would be superior to everyone onscreen. In other words, Floor Is Lava engages the audience in exactly the right way.

Coming soon

The mindlessness rolls on as USA prepares to launch Cannonball, which appears to be a mega-watery variant of Wipeout hosted by Mike “The Miz” Mizanin. They will boldly tackle one of the most enduring themes of competition: man vs. waterslide. We are already here for it. It’s hot, there’s nowhere to go, and one thing that always feels good is watching something bad.


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Paula Shaffer

Paula Shaffer has worked on shows for a variety of networks including ABC, Hulu, A&E, HGTV, and WeTV. Her family zom-com script, Chompers, was a selected work of the Stowe Story Labs Feature Campus in 2021, and a 2022 semi-finalist in the Emerging Screenwriters contest, which led to placement on the Coverfly Red List.

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