Archives for category: game show

Another difficult week to find anything to talk about, so I thought I would write about one of the most infuriating episodes of TV I have ever watched. I mean, we all have yell at the TV moments, but this was one where I had to more than once walk away into a different room because it was getting to me.

I am referring to last week’s episode of The Crystal Maze. It will go down in notoriety for being the first ever episode where the team ended with zero crystals. They got themselves locked in three times. One contestant managed to be so appallingly bad, they got locked in twice.

The die was cast early on when they bungled through the opening riddle by shouting random numbers. Then, in their very first proper task, the team captain got locked in. There seemed to be a repeating pattern throughout the show of not understanding what the task required until it was too late. At least one of the lock-ins were down to not being able to understand simple instructions or listen to advice. Several other tasks resulted in a zero result for the same reasons.

I admit that there is the pressure on you at the time. People are watching and your brain will go to mush. But even with far more extra help then the average team receives (Richard Ayoade virtually gave the answers in some games) they were still shockingly bad. Nobody seemed to know what a synonym was. How? It is on the school curriculum to learn such things!

This reminds me of when Brian Belo was on Big Brother and didn’t know who Shakespeare was. I found that hard to believe – you can’t move for Shakespearean references and influence in this country.

And the worst of it is, we seem to actually find it endearing. Belo won Big Brother for being ‘nice’ but I wonder if his niceness would have been so evident if he had been smarter. Likewise, the team on The Crystal Maze were applauded for standing by each other. Whilst this is a lovely virtue, it is almost like saying ‘well done’ to someone showing a basic human trait we should all have anyway.

There is nothing wrong with kindness or loyalty – God knows some of the people at the top could do with learning these qualities – but we are creating a dichotomy between those of average intelligence or below are the good guys and anybody with smarts is at best morally questionable. We seem to be fearing rewarding intelligence and shrewdness. A team that had won all 10 challenges or a contestant on reality TV who is proud of their education faces a drubbing far worse than those at the opposite extreme.

Basically, we need to celebrate the nice and the smart. We also need to stop tearing down those who dare to exhibit smartness for the slightest infraction. It will make us better off in the long run.

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We need to talk about Taskmaster. And not in an ‘Oh my god did you see it?’ kind of way. More of a, ‘That wasn’t as good as it used to be’ kind of way. Because it’s true, it does seem to have declined. Four seasons why I found myself crying with laughing at least once an episode to this series, where it rarely got passed raising a smile.

There are two obvious things that need to be held accountable. The first is the tasks themselves. Actually, I feel these haven’t declined as much. There are still the deceptively fiendish mixed in with the borderline logic puzzles and the odd bit of eccentric creativity thrown in. It is noticeable how this series the ability for a contestant to read between the lines and ‘cheat’ their way to first place has been tightened up, but the show doesn’t live or die by that. So it’s not the tasks then.

Which leaves us with the contestants. I think we need to separate here individual charms from those of the group. Nish Kumar, Bob Mortimer and Aisling Bea all provided excellent moments of humour, some of which I will discuss more later. Sally Phillips and Mark Watson, less so. Phillips constantly came across as trying too hard, exemplified by the very first task of the series, where she had to give Alex Horne a hug. Cue lots of silly giggling whilst she shoved cake in his armpits. Watson, meanwhile, spent most of the tasks acting like a depressed and confused puppy and didn’t really spark off anything.

As a group there wasn’t much banter either. The show relied on the back-and-forth between Greg Davies and the contestants rather than between themselves. Overall, it felt flat and inconsistent. Which is major disappointment.

There were some individual moments of brilliance. Aisling Bea turning the tables on a prank played on her by Greg and Alex by sending a gold pineapple to her mum was genius. Nish Kumar made the phrase ‘You bubbly fuck’ my now go to when I get mad at the washing up. Bob Mortimer though was the star. His random comments made the show tick over and I would advise anyone feeling low to search for his ‘sausage display toy’ to cheer them up.

But it never should be relying on such fleeting moments. Maybe it is just running out of steam, or hopefully it was just a duff series. There is a Champion of Champions episode at Christmas that may point towards the show’s future. Part of me wants it to go on forever. But then again, I can’t bear to watch a continued decline. If this is to be its final curtain, then I will grin bear it. Or preferably, laugh myself silly for an hour one last time.

You have to be careful with a format change. It has to be for the good, entirely complementing the programme and audience involved. A case in point of it going badly wrong appears to be The X Factor, where the sing-off has now been replaced with a straight elimination each night and instead a prize fight between the two highest scorers. It has not gone down well – the viewers want the metaphorical blood-spilling that putting the weakest two acts through entails. With me not watching it I can’t offer my views but I do feel it to be an odd idea.

Robot Wars, on the other hand, have been quite canny with their changes. Pre-battle interviews and competitor profiles have been shrunk down, allowing us more time to focus on what we are tuning in for: two lumps of metal tearing chunks off each other. You see, this is how you play to your audience.

We also have a slightly different elimination process – rather than two four-player melees with the top two from each going forward to round-robin semi-final, we instead have two three-way battles, the top team in each automatically qualifying for the semis and the remaining four have a ‘robot redemption’ fight, the winner of each joining the semi’s. Again, more battles, plus a chance for an otherwise excellent robot that had a bit of bad luck in the first round to get through to the later stages again.

The final change will become apparent in the final, where the wild card option has been replaced by 10 robot ‘last man standing’ contest between the second- and third-placed robots in each heat. This could be a glorious moment of carnage or too chaotic for us to know what is happening until it is all over, but I’m willing to give it a go.

Overall, Robot Wars delivers exactly what I want from a show like this. There is destruction and tactics, but still a feeling of goodwill. If a team is up against fixing a robot, particularly if they are an underdog, a whole pit can pull together to ensure the next fight takes place. Everybody understands the glory comes from winning by being the best, not by making someone else the worst.

I do have one quibble, which is the tendancy to have an uneven spread across the heats of front-runners. For instance, heat two had champions Carbide, runners-up Eruption and finalists Aftershock, which I’m assuming means there is another heat where there is a group of robots all lacking pedigree. I can’t help but think some kind of seeding system is needed to prevent this.

Even with this though, this is still one of my favourite hours of TV each week. It’s fun and weirdly positive for saying it centres so much round trashing something that is someone’s lifework. People may joke about the geeks ruling the earth, but on this evidence, we better start asking for mercy now.

The nineties are making a big comeback at the moment. It seems the decade of choice to go to analyse retrospectively and plunder for ‘new’ ideas. Some are less new than others. Take the return of The Crystal Maze. It doesn’t seem to fit with any modern programming anymore – not gladiatorial or particularly humiliating like Ninja Warrior, nor that highbrow.

I have found memories of the show from my youth. I even had the board game and was jealous of my friend who had the PC game. So this was going to be a big test for me. Would I cringe at the things I used to delight in? Would they change it too much and leave me heartbroken? Would it pick up new fans?

I can’t answer the third question to be truthful. But I can the first two. No, it wasn’t cringe inducing in the slightest. There was the right balance between gentle mocking of the show and a sincere love of it to make it enjoyable. And little has changed – new games yes, but nothing that wouldn’t have fitted the original series.

Speaking of new – the big talk is, of course, the choice of host in Richard Ayoade. For me, he is the perfect fit. He has a streak of Meta in him that suits the show. “You will look different in the next room, don’t worry it’s editing” is one example. He is clearly having fun in the slightly robotic, straight-faced way he does.

It is a smart move starting the show off with celebrity specials as it allows us to settle back into the concept without fear of wooden contestants. Joey Essex was a surprisingly good booking, the interplay between him and Ayoade such a source of joy that I almost want them to have their own show.

Of course, the test will be when the show moves on to ordinary members of the public. Ayoade is an acquired taste and not everyone understands his deadpan humour. It will be uncomfortable viewing if we have an hour of the public stonewalling him. I also wonder if he will be forced to tone down some of his more acerbic comments for fear of causing an upset, which would mean the show loses one of the planks of the success the revival has been built upon.

It has to be said though that this is wondrously joyous, if tense, hour. It may not have been the bravest commissioning idea that has been made recently, but it is one of the smartest. Making TV that is fun is challenging and under-rated. Hats off to Channel 4 for looking like they have got this one right.