In a week where dedicated TV addicts may have as much as three or four hours of original network programming to look forward to, it would be borderline criminal, and possibly grounds for a Congressional investigation, if a special holiday edition of Hollywood Game Night weren’t part of the menu. Here is a show that offers a bold rebuke to the very idea of hipness, and if hipness on NBC is still embodied by Saturday Night Live, that terrible, cobweb-strewn place where a studio audience goes berserk for walk-on appearances by guest celebrities up past their bedtimes and one-joke recurring sketches they’ve already seen 60 times, then it cannot be rebuked strongly enough. Here’s something that’s on the night before Christmas Eve that has some laughs in it that you can be watched with any visiting children or grandparents in the room. Personally, if anyone from my side of the family shows up this week or any other week, I’ll pour boiling oil on them, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the concept.
In case you missed it when the first season premiered last summer, this is a game show, with groups of celebrities pitted against each other, and a couple of regular folks as team captains, so that we peons in the viewing audience have someone to root for. (The team captains stand a chance to make some money. The celebrities stand a chance to raise some money for the charity of their choice. Any money raised for charity will presumably go to non-celebrities in need, which makes the whole thing a win-win for the non-celebrities trying to enjoy the show vicariously, but which does mean that Wyclef Jean is unlikely to be one of the celebrities invited to participate.)
The host is Jane Lynch, who is perfect. I used to watch Romper Room when I was a kid, and at the end of each episode, the host would look into the camera, hold an empty mirror frame up to her face, and reel off a list of first names of children who she could see out there, watching her. Whenever she’d say the name “Phil,” a part of me knew that she was probably just spouting names at random, but a part of me did want to allow for the possibility that she could have psychic powers. The way Lynch smiles into the camera at the start of this show and sings out, “We’re so glad you could join us!” you really feel that she’s glad that you were able to join them. Here’s a thought that I never expected to have, but that I experienced a couple of minutes into this show: Jane Lynch would have crushed it on Romper Room.
The games basically come down to how dexterously and cleverly the players can deploy their knowledge of pop culture, which is the well from which most quiz shows that aren’t Jeopardy are drawn. (Back in the 1950s, contestants on shows like Twenty One were asked questions about things like science and literature and world history, and then, after those shows were the subject of Congressional investigation, the producers briefly attempted to continue asking ordinary Americans about things besides their pop culture knowledge, but without giving them the answers in advance. The results ranged from very boring to fairly hard to watch.) NBC has been trying to combine celebrities and some version of the game show format for some time now. Their last, most heavily-hyped effort before this one was The Marriage Ref, and obviously, celebrities are less likely to cause any serious damage to the universe trying to remember who was in The Shawshank Redemption than in telling some stranger that it’s time to put daddy’s shit out on the front lawn and call a lawyer and a locksmith.
The team captains tonight are Nicole, whose backup chorus consists of Ray Romano, Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue cover girl Brooklyn Decker, and a singer I’ve never heard of named Gavin DeGraw. Nicole is facing off against Michael, who is ably supported by Cheryl Hines, Rachel Bilson, who Michael considers his “favorite TV person” in the world (“That is so nice!” she gushes), and Andy Roddick, who, to judge from his performance here, has been saving up every competitive impulse since hanging up his tennis racket 16 months ago, so that he could channel all of it into hum-singing the melodies of popular songs in the hope that his teammates will guess the titles. It goes without saying that the whole point of watching the actual game segments on this kind of show is to imagine how brilliantly you’d do if it was you there in Jane Lynch’s game mansion, and this segment is especially reassuring, because both the professional singer and Nicole, who employs as much melisma as the average American Idol runner-up, flame out on it; their wordless interpretations are so creatively impassioned that they sound like something else. “You’re too good,” Ray Romano yells at Gavin. It’s a proud moment for both of them.
- Much of the fun derives from the fact that two contestants on opposing teams, Andy Roddick and Brooklyn Decker, are married. I found this out when Lynch introduced Roddick and mentioned that he’s “married to you-know-who,” and the camera cut to Decker. Later, during the bonus round, when a celebrity is feeding the team leader hints meant to get him to shout out the names of other celebrities, two of the hints amounted to mentioning who they were married to, and the team leader nailed both of them. Am I really that much of a freak for having no idea who the hell is married to who?
- Not unrelated: The single funniest moment may be when Lynch announces that she’s going to read off a list of celebrities, and the object is the guess which of them have been married as many as four times. She reads off a list of names, and the players all make “I dunno!” face. Then she says “Liza Minnelli,” and everybody leaps up as if the person sitting next to them had spontaneously combusted.
- Second funniest moment: Lynch reads off a list of real and/or bogus titles of movies in the Child’s Play/”Chucky” franchise, then adds after one of them, “Based on the novel Push by Sapphire.” (MST3K fans will also get a nice rush when Lynch says “Chucky 2: Electric Boogaloo!’)
- In one game, a player is assigned a famous line from a movie and has to totally reword it in such a way that his teammates can guess the original. “Visual! Not a live human!” shouts Andy Roddick, and somehow his teammates immediately, and correctly guess, “I see dead people.” Then Rachel Bilson gets up, goes, “Un-uh, location,” and damned if her teammates don’t know that her line is “There’s no place like home.” If extraterrestrials ever land on the White House lawn, I nominate Andy Roddick and Rachel Bilson to be drafted to communicate with them.
- If there’s a loser on the celebrity side, it’s Ray Romano, who comes on with all the inappropriate energy of one of those soccer dads whose big day at the field you read about in the crime section of the newspaper, makes at least one Cialis joke too many, and sees the presence of Decker’s husband as no reason that it might be especially awkward, never mind unfunny, if he were to ask if he can have an oversized blow-up of Decker’s SI cover photo to take home with him, perhaps to do with it what you might automatically picture a man who has a penchant for Cialis jokes doing with a large photograph of a supermodel in a bikini. At one point, Lynch plugs Hines’ current show, Suburgatory by name, and when Romano leaps in, reminding his host that he, too, is on a current show, Lynch doesn’t rise to the bait and ask him what it is, even though it’s Parenthood, which, unlike Suburgatory, is on the same network as Hollywood Game Night.