Pop Quiz Show

Why ABC’s Duel is painful.

With Duel—a quiz show debuting this week in a regular run at the family hour and set to climax next Sunday—ABC offers the latest word in prime-time guessing games. It sounds an awful lot like the previous few words on the subject, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? and Deal or No Deal and The Weakest Link and the Regis-lubricated smash that begat them all, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? About 7 million people have been tuning in each night. Who are they? And how do their brains respond to Duel’s variation on a very particular set of stimuli?

Once again, the set seems to have been fashioned from materials gathered at a junkyard that’s been selling the USS Enterprise for parts. Once again, synthetic instruments gasp and pound in order to provoke a simulacrum of high suspense. Once again, fierce house lights alternately bathe the studio audience in ruby red, as if its members are being kept toasty in an especially lurid rotisserie oven, and in cobalt blue, as if they’re floating in some drug kingpin’s home aquarium. The graphics rely heavily on brushed metal.

In the twist that gives the show its title, contestants face off, one on one, to answer multiple-choice questions. Duel permits the competitors to choose their answers multiply, too, though there are reasons why this can be disadvantageous, and you really don’t want me to get into them. In their quest for novelty, the makers of Duel have yielded to the great temptation of the new game shows, confusing tortuousness with intricacy and devising a complicated rulebook, quite possibly in the expectation that the viewers will be sufficiently amused by trying to figure out what is happening or so confused that they dare not change the channel until they’ve sorted it all out.

The questions range from not idiotic to respectably noggin-scratching, with a noteworthy number involving vexillography, which maybe lends the proceedings a cosmopolitan flair. Relatively few questions dally in celebrity culture, and those that do involve an extra degree of difficulty: Which of these persons has not been married to a platinum-selling recording artist? And do you know what color George W. Bush’s eyes are? How far away can a mosquito detect your presence? Or why do contestants on shows like Duel persist in being shocked that the most suspenseful moments will be commercially interrupted?

The host, ESPN’s Mike Greenberg, keeps things moving along competently enough, though his physical appearance (long sideburns, vague neckties) only enhances the feeling that the show represents something of a nostalgia trip to the fairly recent past. He is abetted by two mute young women in cocktail dresses—”chip girls,” they’re called—who could stand to gain 10 pounds each.

What I would give for just one Vanna White! The problem with the new game shows is not their stupidity, though that can be an obstacle, but their impersonality. The harsh lights and severe sets and robotic soundtracks never fail to transform these affairs into gladiatorial spectacles, great jolts of extra-caffeinated cola. If a cozy cup of tea is more your taste, you will still need to get set earlier for Ms. White’s abiding Wheel of Fortune and Mr. Trebek’s human-scaled Jeopardy!