It’s probably a lot of fun to attend a taping of Riot, Fox’s new improv-competition series. The performers are plucky, the games they play are big and gimmicky, and there’s ample opportunity for group shouting. The audience probably gets home at a reasonable hour, too, because the content of Riot is all made up on the spot—less call for retakes. The energy circulating in the in-the-round, Minute To Win It-style stage—and overseen by eager-to-please TV personality Rove McManus—must be electric. Unfortunately, it’s also the type of energy that dies the moment it’s committed to tape.
The problem isn’t exclusive to this series, a stateside adaptation of Australia’s Slide Show. With the notable exception of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, most improv-based programs lose some pep in the translation from stage to screen. Whose Line’s secret is that it’s ad-libbed sketch comedy masquerading as a game show; too many of its successors—Riot, for instance, but also Trust Us With Your Life or Thank God You’re Here—make the mistake of putting the game part first. (Whose Line also uses the fact that it’s televised to its advantage, its editing maintaining a brisk pace and presenting only the best of what comes out in the moment.) That’s particularly deadly for Riot, where the spectacle of the thing is so tremendous and so loud, it frequently drowns out the comedy. In the first episode of Riot, the joke is never what the troupe of improvisers (including executive producer Steve Carell) is saying—the joke is usually the object they’re being hit with. McManus offers up a fitting logline for the show at the end of the episode, thanking the night’s performers “for letting us laugh at them and with them.” Too frequently, the emphasis is on the former, not the latter.
The centerpiece of Riot’s slapstick torture chamber is a stage that’s tilted at a 22-degree angle, an optical illusion that’s one-part Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling, one-part Penn & Teller “defying gravity.” It’s also the one gimmick the viewers at home get to enjoy more than their counterparts on the soundstage, since the studio audience actually witnessed the improvisers struggling against the incline. Physical comedy quickly supersedes any sense of scene work, which would be a lot more enjoyable if the actors weren’t so clearly in distress—by the end of his first scene on the incline, Carell is soaked in sweat.
When the funny stuff is harder to come by, Riot pumps up the volume, filling spaces with the blare of a musical cue or a cutaway to shouted instructions from McManus. The genially sadist tone of the program would be difficult to sustain even if it wasn’t one of the loudest shows on the air. The actors razz one another, but any Hollywood Game Night/Match Game cocktail-party vibe has been left on the cutting room floor; there’s no potential prize for overcoming the Wipeout-like obstacles, so stakes are nonexistent. Further confusing that tone is the way certain performers are chosen for tasks that are outside of their skill sets, which isn’t so much challenging for them as it is humiliating. In both of the premiere’s charades-based segments, the first performers to guess what the others are miming admit they’re no good at this sort of thing, which the show proceeds to confirm in ways that aren’t as entertaining as the laughing faces on stage and in the stands make them out to be.
At least Riot clears one of the major hurdles facing shows of its ilk: Segments like “Slide Show” and “A Bunch Of Jerks” (in which performers are attached to harnesses and yanked into the air whenever they break the rules of the game) bring some visual engagement to short-form improv. But the rest of the premiere throws up barriers to engagement, moving too quickly or too confusingly to make the viewer feel like they’re in on the roast McManus is emceeing. The party’s only happening on one side of the screen.
There are certain types of laughs and atmosphere that ComedySportz or the neighborhood barprov troupe are equipped for; there are certain ways of presenting comedy and documenting performance that television excels at. The middle ground between these two forms is difficult to locate, even for a series with no greater ambition than killing time until New Girl and The Mindy Project come back. (In one of the biggest question marks of the new, year-round TV schedule proposed by Fox boss Kevin Reilly, this kind of thing will either proliferate or go extinct.) But if Riot has to miss its mark, at least it does so with a little pizzazz. It could stand to punish its performers a little less, though.