The Game

(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Joshua Alston drops in on BET's The Game. Next week, Noel Murray examines America's number one evening newscast, The NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams.)

A perennial entertainment news story I’d be happy to never read again is the one about how the movie starring black people shockingly debuted at number one at the box office. It’s not a story I see as often these days, mostly thanks to the polarizing, walking empire that is Tyler Perry, but there was definitely a time when it seemed every story about successful black entertainment was informed by surprise. Hollywood has recurring amnesia with regard to the fact that there are people other than 27-year-old white guys who have free time and disposable income and enjoy being entertained while sitting in comfortable chairs. I had to write a pass to every TV writer who freaked out about the massive premiere numbers for The Game, though, because the story of its pitiful death and paradigm-shifting resurrection was genuinely shocking. Not just shocking for a television show about black people, but objectively shocking for any television show.

The Game premiered in the fall of 2006, as one of two shows to make The CW’s debut grid that wasn’t inherited from UPN or The WB. (The other show was Donnie Wahlberg’s fugitive-family drama Runaway, which was pulled after two inauspicious airings, with six additional episodes later popping up online). Tia Mowry starred as Melanie Barnett, who gave up her dream of attending medical school to follow her football player boyfriend Derwin Davis (Pooch Hall) to his new post in San Diego. The series spun off from Girlfriends, the Kelsey Grammer-produced comedy created by the stunningly beautiful Mara Brock Akil, a member of the ultra-exclusive sorority of black female television showrunners. Both of Akil’s shows met the same unfortunate fate at The CW: Both were unceremoniously shuffled around the schedule, and both were cancelled without the luxury of a proper resolution.

In the case of Girlfriends, the demise wasn’t totally unexpected. It had struggled to find its footing creatively after Jill Marie Jones abruptly left the show, taking her character Toni Childs, the Samantha Jones/Blanche Devereaux of this particular four-ladies-trying-to-have-it-all set-up, with her. The Game, meanwhile, was flourishing creatively and had won a modest but rabid base of fans, as its ratings declined from just over 2 million viewers in its first season to just under that by its third. The show had gotten trapped in limbo, as The CW honchos decided to move away from courting black audiences as both UPN and The WB had, and would move towards dramas that targeted young women. The wily Akil went for a stay of execution, pleading with the network to let her reimagine the show as an hour-long drama, but the suits weren’t convinced.

It was a masterstroke of BET’s CEO Debra Lee and president of entertainment Loreatha Jones to broker a deal to bring The Game to their network. BET has struggled for years to gain the kind of traction with original programming that seems to come easily to other basic cable networks. That’s largely due to the fact that the network doesn’t have a ton of choices when it comes to third-party programming that will appeal to its audience. Its only attempt at live-action scripted fare was the charming but wildly uneven Somebodies, which only lasted one season.

When The Game found itself out in the cold, the bold move of snagging it seemed potentially disastrous, given the drop in production budgets that a move from network to cable would necessitate. This was not to mention that The Game’s team had started to move on: Akil joined the Cougar Town writing staff; her husband Salim (an executive producer, now the showrunner) directed a movie; Hosea Chanchez, who plays troubled playboy quarterback Malik Wright, shot some movies; Coby Bell and Pooch Hall recurred on Burn Notice and Accidentally on Purpose, respectively. But Lee and Jones made the deal work, reassembling the team and acquiring a new season of the show. BET already had the rights to its first three seasons, which it aired incessantly to help build an audience for the show before its premiere.

If The Game had matched its CW ratings performance, it would have been a respectable place to start for a network still figuring out how to make original programming work. Instead, The Game’s January premiere quadrupled the ratings it was getting in its final season on The CW, with a historic 7.7 million viewers having tuned in. It’s the type of lightning-in-a-bottle success story that spawns a thousand OMG-WTF analyses, and of those written about The Game, many seized on the dearth of programming aimed at African-Americans. It’s a fair point, sure, but doesn’t give enough credit to the show’s creative team or to the shrewd network executives. It’s actually a pretty simple story, says I: It’s a show with characters that the audience roots for and cares about, on a network with a complementary brand that was committed to exposing it to as many people as possible and launching it with genuine enthusiasm. With such a massive debut, it could stand to lose half its audience (which it since has) and still be a solidly performing cable series.

I never got into the show, in spite of having it recommended to me on several occasions. I wasn’t a disciple of Girlfriends either, though I found it enjoyable enough when I watched it. (Its early episodes  hewed a little too closely to Sex and the City’s girl-meets-boy, girl-discovers-boy’s-weird-flaw, girl-dumps-boy format for my comfort.) But the issue with The Game is that when I tried to watch it, it just didn’t make me laugh. I didn’t understand at the time that The Game is less of a comedy than it is a half-length nighttime soap with occasional jokes. Once I’d figured this out, I meant to catch up in time for the season premiere but never found the time, even as my Facebook feed grew increasingly frenzied leading up to and immediately after the show’s return.

Within the first few minutes of tonight’s episode, “Never Surrender,” I was immediately reminded why I initially reacted to the show the way I did. Granted, I might not be the right person to judge the show, because I’m admittedly uncomfortable with shows that combine attributes of half-hour comedies and hour-long dramas. Hung, for example, is a show that I’ve watched faithfully out of morbid curiosity, but every time I do so, I’m left feeling like it’s supposed to be funnier. It’s a facile and cutesy thing to say, but I can’t resist: Mara Brock Akil and her husband are sort of like the black Dmitry Lipkin and Collette Burson. They’re an adorable married television team who enjoy playing with the greys between the two formats. But the issue with The Game is that, unlike Hung, it’s written with the rhythms of a sitcom—a multi-cam sitcom at that—even as it incorporates daytime-like melodrama. The punch lines, most of which land with a thud, are punctuated by an intrusive laugh track. It’s hard to hear an audience laughing and accept that you’re not necessarily supposed to be laughing too.

But once you get past the to-laugh-or-not-to-laugh conundrum, The Game is a delightfully trashy nighttime soap, which I’m always a sucker for. (Full disclosure: I enjoyed, legitimately and without guilt, The CW’s failed Melrose Place reboot.) “Never Surrender” combined, in a very Desperate Housewives way, a more comedic episodic story with a more dramatic longer arc. In the former story, Tasha (Wendy Raquel Robinson), a tireless social climber, is so desperate to hold onto the cachet she gets from dating the much younger and devastatingly handsome Dante (Terrence Jenkins) that she’s trying to keep their recent break-up a secret from even her closest friends. When Melanie finds out Dante’s 25th birthday is coming up, she convinces Tasha to throw him a lavish birthday party, which Tasha agrees to, even as she’s unsure he’ll actually show up to it. Since the comedy part of the show’s make-up has never really worked, this story didn't deliver from a comedy standpoint, but it worked on a character level. I can see why Tasha might resonate with the audience. She’s the type of pretentious, image-obsessed person everyone has in their lives and is annoyed by, and the truth of her situation is the one that we always hope to be the case—she’s actually deeply sad and will do or say just about anything to project contentment and confidence. Sure it’s not an original or complex idea for a character, but it's one that works all the same, and Robinson is well-cast in it.

In the more dramatic of the two stories, Malik struggles to maintain his recently acquired sobriety while in the midst of a personal/professional fustercluck. It seems Malik has been cheating on his girlfriend Jenna with Parker (Meagan Good), who just so happens to be the wife of San Diego Sabers owner Roger Keith (Michael Beach.) In the type of problem men only complain about on television, Parker is blackmailing him into continuing their affair, which has become more conflicting for him as his sobriety work has made honesty suddenly paramount. The situation comes to a head at Dante’s party, as Malik and Jenna mingle with Roger and Parker with disastrous results. Parker finally buckles under the weight of Roger’s sadism and reveals the affair to both Roger and Jenna, leaving every aspect of Malik’s life in shambles. If I’d spent going on four seasons getting to know Malik, it would have been a devastating cliffhanger to watch. The Game is addictive for the same reason all good nighttime soaps are—it keeps its characters in dirty, sexy peril.

To let my Facebook news feed tell it, The Game has declined in quality since its return. Having never watched the show, I can’t speak to the validity of that criticism, but I find it interesting. I think it has more to do with the perception of the network than the show itself. Maybe the show has dipped, but it’s the fourth season; most shows have bobbled creatively by then if they were fortunate to have made it that long. But the creative team is essentially unchanged, and the cast reunited, so all the same ingredients are there. The perception of a causal relationship between the network switch and the show’s quality reminds me of the reception that Project Runway got following its move to Lifetime. Like BET, Lifetime was a network trying desperately to tweak its brand, and it ultimately ran the risk of sullying its new acquistions rather than the acquisitions burnishing the network. The Game certainly doesn’t look expensive; “Never Surrender” was practically confined to the single location of the club where Dante’s party takes place, and like most budget-crunched shows, it seems to have an elastic definition of what constitutes a regular cast member. Aside from that, I can’t imagine that much of The Game has changed. If it can manage to keep the 3.5 million-ish audience it’s settled into, it probably won’t matter. The numbers don’t lie, and it’s a history-making hit.

Stray observations:

  • I was glad to see Michael Beach, who I've always liked.
  • Terrence Jenkins, best known as the host of BET’s 106th and Park, isn’t much of an actor, but boy is he good looking. Plus I went to college with him, so there’s that.
  • Melanie tells Tasha that failing to throw Dante an unforgettable birthday party would be a “tsunami-level tragedy.” The timing of that joke is a tsunami-level tragedy.
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