Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Trivial Pursuit vs. Cash Cab: No Contest

Illustration for article titled Trivial Pursuit vs. Cash Cab: No Contest

Because I'm a game show fanatic–and because I have a seven-year-old son whose face lights up whenever he sees large amounts of money on TV–I checked out the first couple of weeks of the new syndicated series Trivial Pursuit: America Plays after it started airing back in late September. It's not a bad show, as far as these things go. Former Brady Bunch-er Christopher Knight makes a creditable host, and while the trivia questions aren't tough, the game moves fast and translates the "pie-wedge" aspect of classic Trivial Pursuit in a reasonably clever way.

My one major problem with the TV Trivial Pursuit–aside from it being a little dull–is the "America Plays" gimmick. The concept is that home viewers send videotaped questions in, which play on a screen, YouTube-style:

If the contestants in the studio miss a question, their money goes into "America's" bank, and if the final contestant loses the endgame, then the home viewers whose questions were used in the episode get to split the pot. Which is all fine by me. (Unwieldy, but fine.) But what's not fine is that in each episode, "America" has a spokesperson. And while the videotaped questions come from ordinary-looking and -acting folks, the designated spokesperson usually appears to have wandered in off the set of Deal Or No Deal, judging by the way he or she gestures and whoops and generally plays to the camera.

Granted, no one on Trivial Pursuit is as obnoxious as the Central Casting bozos that prime-time game shows unearth. After the surprise success of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, the networks apparently decided that they didn't mind cheap programming that drew big ratings, so long as they could kill the concept of any random slob winning a chance to be on TV. So in the years since the Millionaire phenomenon, prime-time game shows have been trotting out "regular" folks who are aggressively chipper and safely quirky, who hop up and down and beam at their families and generally behave about one degree removed from a character in a TV commercial.

I know that being on TV tends to be a personality-altering experience, and I hardly expect my game shows to be an exercise in cinema verité. But one of the things I've always liked about Jeopardy and Wheel Of Fortune is that while there's some element of "casting" going on, both shows–and Jeopardy especially–tend to pick people who know how to play the game, even if their social skills ultimately prove to be middling-to-weak. If nothing else, this ensures that the reaction to success, failure, or even just the pressure of the moment all tend to feel more genuine. I've got nothing against showbiz phoniness, but I like my actors to be actors and my real people to be real people. I can't stand these semi-human hybrids that have been infesting my TV over the past five years.

That's why my game show of choice lately has been Cash Cab, the Emmy-winning Discovery Channel import (based on a concept that originated in the UK) in which host Ben Bailey picks up unsuspecting New Yorkers in his fitted-out taxi and asks them trivia questions for money while driving them to their destination. If they miss three questions, they get kicked out of the cab. If they make it all the way to where they're going, they have a chance to go double-or-nothing on a final question. None of the contestants have been pre-selected (as near as I can tell), and none have any idea that they're about to be quizzed until Bailey sounds the alarm.

On a game-play level, Cash Cab is nothing special. Some of the questions are fairly challenging, but few of them are Jeopardy-hard. Nevertheless, I'm always impressed by how well the contestants do, given that none of them started their day knowing they were going to be grilled. Unlike so many opinion polls and man-on-the-street comedy bits that play up the idiocy of the common man, Cash Cab shows that Americans aren't always the overstimulated idiots that TV so often makes them out to me.

Of course, it probably helps that Cash Cab is shot in Manhattan, and features people well-off enough to afford cab rides. But even that limited contestant pool becomes part of the show's charm. Businessmen, Sex & The City wannabes and scruffy hipsters alike climb into Bailey's cab, often jaded and wary, and by the time they make it to a Red Light Challenge, they're pumping their fists and sweating over the time limit, and are just generally into the game. Not because some contestant coordinator has coached them to be enthusiastic, but because they're honestly having fun.