Pressing Their Luck

Two more game shows from NBC.

Penn Jillette and a contestant on Identity

Deal or No Deal—the hit game show to which there’s nothing more than dumb luck, short skirts, tense synths, and the odd magnetism of host Howie Mandel—celebrates its first anniversary this week. It’s still gently mindless, which is the new rule for NBC game shows, and its set still glows a calmly infernal red, which marks the program as an exception. Blue is emerging as the primary color of NBC game shows, the default hue of the lights that blaze across the stage and bathe the studio audience.

While 1 vs. 100 (usually found on Fridays at 8 p.m. ET) does add a few lilac accents and the new Identity (introduced in a five-installment fusillade this week, Monday at 9 p.m. ET, Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m.) makes smart use of both yellow and sea green, the dominant theme is blue, cold and bold. Is the shade closer to cobalt or aquamarine? Are the creators paying homage to the extraterrestrial tint of Who Want to Be a Millionaire? What sorts of psychological testing and audience research went into this choice? If you tune in to these shows, you may find yourself wondering deeply about such issues; there is precious little else to occupy your faculties.

On 1 vs. 100, one contestant matches off against a “mob” of a hundred panelists in answering multiple-choice trivia questions. The concept—not a bad one—is that when mob members choose incorrect answers, they’re knocked out of the competition and the contestant wins an ever-escalating sum of money. There are usually a few famous-ish people in the mob; a recent episode found veteran game-show hosts Wink Martindale and Bob Eubanks strenuously twinkling among its ranks, as well as charming professional poker player Annie Duke, who would have been more charming yet had she sat up straight. The mob also usually features a handful of subgroups—people united by occupation (a flock of hairdressers), by accomplishment (a flotilla of valedictorians), or, in one instance, by a special relationship with the hereafter (“five people who had been brought back to life”—a covey of the resuscitated). A bespectacled Bob Saget handles his hosting duties with a light touch, coming off genial, unobtrusive, and mellow, with the air, somehow, of a hip priest.

Indeed, the only problem with 1 vs. 100 is its determined idiocy. On the last episode I caught: “Which creature’s body has the fewest number of cells?” went the initial question—the gimme question intended only to ease us into a quiz show with a soft chuckle. Was it a) an eastern gray squirrel, b) Calista Flockhart, or c) an amoeba? Are you most horrified here by the fact a) that the Flockhart joke had a decade of dust on it, b) that the contestant resorted to one of those familiar help-giving gimmicks to supply the answer, or c) that 11 members of the mob got the answer wrong? The quality of the quiz is of no importance to the new breed of quiz shows. (Fox, in fact, is developing a program titled Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?) All that matters is the show of emotion—the contestant’s joyful squeals, worried quivers, and relieved slumps.

Which brings us, wearily, to Identity. Hosted by magician Penn Jillette, whose carny’s heartiness does offer something of a balm, it’s a degraded update of What’s My Line? The contestant wins money by correctly matching each of the 12 silent people standing before her with one of 12 identities. In the help-giving gimmick here, the guest can appeal to the wisdom of a panel comprising a psychologist, a body-language expert, and an FBI behavioral expert, who I really hope is off the clock.

I am about to tell you what happens in tonight’s episode, but this does not constitute a “spoiler,” as the show, thoroughly obvious, denies surprise at every turn. Which one of the dozen strangers is the sushi chef? That would be the Japanese fellow wearing a “hapi,” the type of robe favored by sushi chefs. Which of them is the youngest? Might it, by chance, be the delicate lass in the jailbait-ish ensemble of plaid skirt, midriff-baring top, and knee socks? The opera singer is the fat lady in the billowing gown, and I can’t figure out why the producers didn’t just put her in a Brünnhilde helmet, with the horns and the pigtails, and get it over with. True, the contestant shows some perspicacity in differentiating the bouncer from the alligator wrestler, but her powers of observation are beside the point. While the color blue can symbolize the spirit or the intellect, on the set of Identity its meaning is self-contained—the dull glow of a TV set that simply has been switched on.