'Match Game' and '$100,000 Pyramid': TV Reviews

Courtesy of ABC
'Match Game'
No whammies so far for these nostalgic games.
6/26/2016

ABC's game show reboots, hosted by Alec Baldwin and Michael Strahan, are off to an old-fashioned, appealing start.

Sunday marked finale night for HBO's Game of Thrones, Silicon Valley and Veep (plus a pre-hiatus episode of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver), concluding one of the best, smartest scripted blocks in recent TV history. But Sunday-night TV needn't only be weighty cable dramas and savvy satires. Sometimes, facing a gloomy Monday, viewers just want a dose of fun and games.

Sensing this, ABC premiered a trio of game shows Sunday, hoping that retro charm would continue to be a successful summer play after last year's solid Celebrity Family Feud launch. Since the Steve Harvey-hosted Feud is a known quantity, this review will concentrate on $100,000 Pyramid and Match Game, which both drew decent numbers in their buffed-and-shined returns to primetime.

The bottom line is that both shows proved to be amiable, reliable and mostly non-confrontational, unless you took issue at a pair of matching Donald Trump jokes. Those felt less scathingly political and more a nod to Rosie O'Donnell's celebrity presence on both shows. Chances are good that if you're a Trump supporter, you were going to mock Rosie's appearances regardless of whether or not she made a facile Trump joke, so she might as well have just leaned in.

People outraged by Rosie's Trump impressions are also probably the same people who complained on Twitter about the double-entendres in Match Game — "If you couldn't tell from the length of my microphone, I'm both a grower and a shower" — also known as people who must not have watched the original Match Game.

Putting Pyramid and Match Game side by side mostly invited comparisons between the two shows on a format level, because neither has been aggressively revamped enough to make that to be a point of discussion. It is, in fact, positively quaint how retro the Pyramid boards felt, even with video monitors replacing the sliding physical boards from the original, while the reliance on hand-written answers continues to drive some of the Match Game charm.

There was minimal coddling of millennial viewers with either show, no nods to cellphones or speed rounds tied to Vine or Snapchat. ABC didn't want to do a Pyramid or Match Game for a new generation, but to try to prove that in their purest form, both shows can still resonate with a 2016 TV audience.

And they mostly still do, as anybody who has ever watched a daytime TV marathon of the original shows could attest. The premiere was a reminder of what a great format $100,000 Pyramid is as a game, even without the smooth professionalism of Dick Clark as host. Clark hosted myriad Pyramid variations over a 15-year period and in Clarkian fashion, he was always the perfect connection between viewers in their living rooms and the comfortable space he wanted to create on TV, chiding contestants and celebrities when they needed chiding, expressing incredulity when it needed expressing, supporting convincingly when that was what was needed.

New host Michael Strahan was more committed to sitting back and facilitating, rarely landing laughs himself and never sounding wholly comfortable setting up punchlines. Strahan's most spontaneous moment in the premiere — a collapse of disbelief at the clue "You take this to have a hard penis" for "Viagra" — hinted that he's capable of those unguarded reactions, even if his biggest goal is to prove his well-tailored professionalism and ability to read cue cards. Strahan's fine, but in this case the show is the star.

Regardless of the proficiency of the contestants or the cleverness of the stars, the structure of Pyramid supplies its own drama almost every time. The game's urgency doesn't change whether it's close or a rout, and that's a major asset in a game show. The opening half of the episode, in which the amusingly competitive Sherri Shepherd crushed a hilariously inept Anthony Anderson, was every bit as satisfying as the neck-and-neck second half, in which O'Donnell and former civilian Pyramid contestant Kathy Najimy were both adroit and paired with smart players.

It's a good game that can make virtues of both Anderson's flustered inability to describe "Buzz Lightyear" (or a contestant's strange attempt to describe "Things That Sting" using a ray and poison ivy, instead of a bee) and player Liz's escalating, but still clear-headed, excitability. Pyramid works, and as long as Strahan doesn't get in the way, it will continue to work.

Match Game is a more complicated formula. The game itself is and always has been strategically changeable. Are you rewarded for cleverness or for clairvoyance? Will the celebrities interpret their job as helping contestants win money or being the stars themselves? Does it matter if huge disparities in question difficulty sap the game of all competitiveness as long as there are laughs?

Basically, while Pyramid is a game show with the emphasis on the "game," Match Game is a game show with an emphasis on the "show," specifically the panel show aspect of it. So if Strahan's job is not to screw up Pyramid, Match Game host Alec Baldwin has far more complicated responsibilities, both as the master of ceremonies and also as a conductor for six celebrities all eager to stand out in unique ways.

That's why this Pyramid incarnation probably doesn't require a wait-and-see attitude to guess at its potential, but Match Game can only be viewed as a work-in-progress for Baldwin and the panel, though not in a damning way.

Looking slim and dapper, Baldwin seemed to be approaching his hosting duties almost as a piece of performance art. He's simultaneously playing "Alec Baldwin" as a winking character — particularly on a question relating to his family and a reference to his wife's implementation of a healthy diet — while also using the milieu and his long retro mic as catalysts for playing a '70s game show host as a construct. Lines like "Does anybody know how to get fondue out of shag carpeting?" either didn't help Baldwin carve out a modern identity or carefully positioned Match Game as a show pretending it's set in 1973 despite the occasional modern references.

I don't know if this approach was more or less distracting than it would have been to have Alec Baldwin, Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning actor, acknowledge the minor oddness of finding himself in this job. There's no way of knowing if Baldwin doing Gene Rayburn cosplay is a long-term move, and if its performativity is restricting his interaction with the panel or encouraging it. Or if this will be a positive or negative for the show as it moves forward.

I assume there's a comfort level that Baldwin will eventually ease into and that will include his panel interactions and his ability to hit the punchlines in the clues. For now, just as a jovial actor inhabiting an unexpected part, Baldwin is fun to watch and it's good to see him carrying over Rayburn's love for in-character clue readings, in this case a dismal-but-terrific Mick Jagger impression.

The evolving rapport of the panel will be the aspect of Match Game that bears the most watching. Michael Ian Black has been seated in the Charles Nelson Reilly position in the upper right of the panel, and he's a solid pick to offer Reilly's erudite, spiky commentary. But there was little of that in the premiere, which concentrated more on O'Donnell's everywoman connection with the contestants and JB Smoove's dapper flirtations.

Tonally, Debra Messing's exaggerated discomfort and Sutton Foster's exaggerated coquettishness served purposes, but Tituss Burgess was a small disappointment. At least in the first episode, the panelists were carving out their own places, rather than finding points of interplay, and I wonder if chemistry can really be developed in a short summer run. To be sure, you can't produce Reilly/Brett Somers' interaction overnight, and it's surely better that they didn't try to force it. I laughed a few times and that's a start.

Just because one round of HBO programming has concluded doesn't mean that the night has been ceded to network frivolity. You can still watch Preacher and the upcoming The Night Of and I've been told that Ray Donovan fans are an enthusiastic lot, but ABC's opening night of Fun and Games offered a decent, old-fashioned alternative.

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