As my laundry spins its way to a fluffy warm future, I undertake, in the next 30 minutes or so, to inform you of a subject very near and dear to my heart, and I can only assume, the hearts of others. This subject?
British quiz shows.
From the country that gave us Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and The Revolutionary War come all manner of quiz shows targetting high school students, college students, middle aged folk and yes, even retired people. What will they think of next? Let me focus on two shows: one of which has already invaded American culture, and one which - if I am any judge of the intelligence, or lack thereof, of television network executives - we can expect to see coming to a television screen near us very soon.
The first show is the already famed Who Wants to be a Millionaire? (a question the stupidity of which can only be rivaled by "who wants Trident?"). The most obvious differences are that unlike the American version, the Brits are playing for one million pounds (a pound is currently equal to about $1.50, which means that those wacky English folk are playing for a staggering 1.5 million dollars American...not too shabby for 15 questions). Sadly, Regis Philbin is not in glorified barstool, supplanted by the charming Chris Tarrant who manages to be as amusing as one could be, given that they share a wardrobe with the Kathie Lee's former co-host (they have the same ties; I kid you not). The show also proves that the trademark "final answer" line so associated with Regis did, in fact, originate with Tarrant.
Now, being as familiar as I am with WWtbaM, I fully expected to conquer the British version with alacrity; I wasted no time in tuning and in to test my little gray cells. And too little they were, apparently, as I failed to answer the first question for 100 pounds. You may be aghast, taken aback, maybe even ashamed of my dismal outing. In the American version, the difficulty of the first question is usually on par with "What is your favorite color?" with the options being "A) Green. B) Dog. C) Antidisestablishmentarianism. D) I like them all." But in my defense, the 100 pound question was on the subject of cricket, which it has been proven, nobody living fully understands (and which the British Intelligence Service has taken great pains to keep a better secret than dental hygiene). I proceeded to give a modest accounting of myself, but found that many of the questions that were common knowledge to British citizens were unfortunately impossible to decipher for an American. Oftentimes, all four of the answers ended in -shire, prompting even the more intelligent contestants to shrug their shoulders in dismay, attempt to snatch a 250,000 pound check from Chris and bolt off the soundstage.
There are not that many other differences in Who Wants to be a Millionaire?; I find the British contestants to be approximately equal in their general knowledge to their American counterparts. Though occasionally the British audience shows more signs of intelligence than the American audience (4% of whom still think the Statue of Liberty is coated in titanium). Fortunately, to save us from the inane antics of pathetically easy quiz shows like WWtbaM there are those shows which genuinely provide a test of one's knowledge of a vast array of generally worthless subjects, such as geography, science, literature, and pop music. In the states we have Alex Trebek and Jeopardy; in the U.K. they have Anne Robinson and The Weakest Link.
Allow me to explain the concept of this show, which is the most brutal thing on television since the election coverage.
At the start there are nine players. They must work as a team to try and reach 1000 pounds every round. One at a time, they are each asked a question. The first question is worth 20 pounds; if that is answered correctly, the next question is worth 50 pounds, if that is answered correctly, the next question is worth 100 pounds, and so on up to a thousand. However, if at any point a question is answered incorrectly, the lose whatever they've built up, and the subsequent question is again worth 20 pounds. The money can, however, be saved by saying "bank" at the beginning of one's turn, which adds however much money has been made currently to a large central pot. That money carries over from round to round. The round continues until either the target of 1000 pounds in the bank has been reached, or the timelimit (in the first round three minutes) is hit. The questions are a broad range of any and all subjects from medicine to movies, and range in difficulty from dead easy to really damn hard. Sounds like pretty standard fare, right?
And so it would be, if they didn't introduce cutthroat competition worthy of American business ethics. You see, at the end of every round, the eight players vote on who is "the weakest link"; who has contributed the least to the team in that round. The person who garners the most votes is removed, and the next round continues with one less player and ten seconds less on the clock. And, as I just discovered this afternoon, in the event of a tie, the strongest link (whoever has answered the most correct questions in the round) decides whom to remove.
Combine this with a host who, in the nicest possible terms, can only be described as "acerbic" and "hostile", and you have one hell of a gutwrenching show. It is, however, bloody hilarious to watch. Very rarely does a team ever hit 1000 pounds in a round; they are, indeed, lucky if they can manage more than a 1000 pounds for the entire game. When there are only two players left, they first work together in a round in which they have only 90 seconds, but all the money that they bank is tripled. This is followed by a best of five showdown, in which the winner takes all.
The fun is in listening to the interviews with the contesants who have been voted off. Their comments vary from the polite and amusing to the bitterly harsh and vindictive. This afternoon, one of the contestants commented that out of the two remaining contestants, Owen and Carl, she would like Owen to win because "Carl's jokes were bad." Man, that's hitting below the belt!
Anyway, if the success of Survivor has proved anything, it's that Americans love nothing more than to pick on people they consider weaker, stupider, or more pathetic than themselves. In this sense, I am sure that The Weakest Link would be an extraordinary hit on American television. However, it's my firm belief that they would have to get the original host because I can't imagine anyone else with the sheer level of "bitchiness" to fill her shoes. From her constant recriminations about the "pathetic" or "embarrassing" amounts of money that the teams manage to bank in a round, to the pointed insults directed at players between rounds, she warms me up like a cozy fire on a winter's day. I'm amazed she can walk around in broad daylight without being viciously insulted and attacked. The Brits, I fear, are more mild than other cultures. As one of my Colombian floormates said "if she spoke that way to someone in my country, they'd kill her. I'm serious."
Anyway, my laundry is wending its way towards that spring breeze freshness, so I must go retrieve it before someone attempts to abscond with my collection of Regis Philbin ties.
Dan Moren wants to be a millionaire in pounds OR dollars.