Trivial Pursuits

Game shows reach a deeper level of weirdness.

Still from Hasbro’s Trival Pursuit, America Plays

Based on the board game that has teased minds and strained friendships since 1982, Trivial Pursuit: America Plays (syndicated, check listings) makes for an approachable little quiz show, a welcome companion for a half-hour of afternoon ironing or insomniac aimlessness. Its hook is its neighborly YouTube populism. At the show’s Web site, average Americans (or “folks,” as one always wants to call them after an election season) upload video clips of themselves asking questions. In the studio, standing on a six-spoked set paying homage to the home game, three pleasant contestants attempt to answer them. The host—Christopher Knight, once and forever Peter Brady—gives off vibes indicative only of good heath and family fun. The stakes are agreeably modest, and there’s always a winner. If a studio contestant does not earn the booty accumulated in the “bank,” then the folks from the Web videos get to divide it. It is somehow cheering to know that you may win 700 bucks and change just for wondering aloud what the capital of Belgium might be.

Brussels, Raleigh, Oslo, Ecuador; copper, the opossum, Alf; Prince, King Lear, Stephen King; Old Ironsides, Margaret Thatcher, Fanny Brice, Vanilla Ice—such are the landmarks on Trivial Pursuit’s map of cultural literacy. The show has a reasonably high estimate of the lowest common denominator and a wide-ranging idea of pop culture. Overwhelmingly genial—surely a boon to retirement-home recreation rooms—it still has a slight provocative streak (unless, 20 years after Straight Outta Compton, there is nothing provocative about folks scratching their heads and trying to name two members of NWA).

Those looking for a game show that provides somewhat ruder stimulation should turn to the SciFi Channel, which is currently bringing a zany, nearly Japanese-style sense of mayhem to the genre, all for the pleasure of a demographic that must be rather young, primarily male, and hopped up on energy drinks. SciFi promotes the new Cha$e (Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET) as “the world’s first live-action video game”—a brave way to describe a competition that looks like a baroque game of tag, imagined by the director John Woo, complete with scattered lofts of slo-mo pigeons.

Cha$e finds its participants scurrying around some confined area for an hour—L.A.’s Terminal Island, in one episode—waiting for a finish line to materialize so that they can score $50,000. In general, the men are unduly boastful about their physical fitness, the woman outfitted in togs apparently designed by Lara Croft for Old Navy. All are on the lookout for “hunters”—expressionless pursuers dressed, like Matrix villains, in black suits and black ties. While there is a small degree of intercontestant strategery involved here, the main act is running away from bad guys who’ve got you in their Terminator-esque sights. Here is the only thing I do not get: Why sit in front of the television watching a “live-action video game” when you could instead be sitting in front of the television playing an actual video game? Broken thumb ligaments? Sprained front lobe? Whatever: Cha$e is American Gladiators for devotees of futuristic noir.

For admirers of B-movie exploitation, SciFi has lovingly slapped together Estate of Panic (Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET), the pun of its title creaking like the hinges of a heavy cellar door. As its tagline—”7 contestants, 1 mansion, no mercy”—suggests, Estate of Panic is Fear Factor doing a Vincent Price impression. The fog machines work overtime. The host, campily droll and casually sadistic, wears rouge. The competitors spend an evening in and around a gloomy manor, where they scrounge for cash in a fanciful array of horror-movie scenarios. Check out the hand-held camerawork as they grasp at the dollars floating by in a flooding basement. A bit later, still dripping wet, the contestants forage for money in a segment of the grounds criss-crossed with electrified wires. What tenacity they show! Says one go-getter, “I dug underneath some of the moss and some of the overgrowth, and that’s where I found my $100 bills.” You’ve got to admire that kind of hustle—and you’ve got to do it while simultaneously gorging on scenes of humiliation.

But if you need to feel virtuous while watching a game show, or are a connoisseur of pungent tedium and misguided good intentions, then flip to Planet Green, the Discovery Channel’s “eco-tainment” spin-off, and watch Go for the Green! (Saturdays at 8 p.m. ET). It is hosted by Tom Green, the quondam prankster and gross-out artist, and every indication is that he scored the gig solely on the basis of his surname. Each single-minded episode is largely a multiple-choice affair. “Which of the following is one of the ‘dirty dozen’ fruits and vegetables most sprayed by pesticide?” “In Hawaii, what items must all be solar-powered by 2010?” The very awfulness of the questions almost makes them decent tests of the contestants’ deductive-reasoning skills. The big prize (10 days of eco-tourism in Costa Rica) is as predictable as the stage patter (“Be sure to catch our next show, where I’ll be composting the script for this week!”). But don’t the rules of keeping a compost pile forbid the addition of manure?