Who’s Still Standing? debuts tonight on NBC at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Who’s Still Standing? is like being trapped in the mind of a hyperactive child who’s read a well-worn copy of Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader cover to cover at least five times. Oh, and also, it’s Christmas, and the kid is vaguely distracted by that. Ominous Christmas chimes play on the soundtrack. The questions are all really easy, basic trivia facts. Everything is cut like a Bourne Identity action sequence. All of the contestants act like they’ve been forcibly held down while someone shovels cocaine down their throats. And it continues the weird network obsession with game shows where wrong answers result in someone—or something—getting dropped through the floor, including (off the top of my head) Game Show Network’s Russian Roulette and Fox’s short-lived, ill-advised Million Dollar Money Drop. What, exactly, is supposed to be the appeal of people and/or cash dropping through the floor? Who knows. But the networks are pretty sure there’s a hit in there somewhere.
The premise of Who’s Still Standing? is so simple that it becomes weirdly complicated. Jared, a volleyball coach from Conway, Ark., stands at the center of a giant circle—because all game shows must be filmed in the round now for some reason—and is surrounded by 10 other contestants. Jared selects the other contestants, one by one, then challenges them to trivia duels. Each competitor is asked a question, then given 20 seconds to get it correct. The questions are accompanied by fill-in-the-blank puzzles that contain only a few letters from the solution. So, for instance, “Who is Popeye’s girlfriend?” is accompanied by O____ O__, and the contestant rightly answers “Olive Oyl.” (Most of the questions are about at this level of difficulty. Don’t expect to learn anything here.) If both competitors get the questions right, then things keep rattling along, until one gets one wrong and is dropped through the floor, heading down into an uncharted abyss (or the backstage area).
After every battle, the guy in the center is given the option of keeping the cash he’s won—a value assigned seemingly at random—and going home or continuing to press on for the big, $1 million cash prize. (Cutely enough, everybody who leaves through their own volition is given the option of going through the “door” or the “floor,” which is mildly amusing.) If he does take the cash home, then the action shifts to a “speed round” in which the remaining competitors in the circle answer questions going around and around, 10 seconds for each question, until only one is left standing. They then take an amount of money equal to x*$1,000, where x equals the number of questions asked.
This leaves a bunch of things obscured. There’s a failsafe built in, in case both competitors keep getting questions right (and the central competitor is given two passes, which seems an unfair advantage), so there’s no real chance that any given episode of the show could, theoretically, last forever. There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason behind how the money is handed out after each battle, and it’s not immediately clear what would happen if the central competitor got a question wrong and dropped through the floor. Would the action shift with one of the other competitors taking center stage? Or would things immediately shift to the speed round? It’s also not clear whether every episode will feature one central competitor, or if things will extend to multiple episodes, like on, say, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. (I realize that by expressing all of these qualms with the game design, I’m heartily spoiling just what happens tonight, but there’s so little tension in the show that I feel oddly okay about this.)
The host is Ben Bailey of Cash Cab, who’s mostly a non-entity. That’s okay. The main thing Who’s Still Standing? aims for is speed, and Bailey’s primarily there to keep things moving along. He’s not bad at this, and that contributes to one of the show’s central failings: It never takes a minute to focus on anything. The editing in this is jittery and nervous, like it’s on an extreme sugar rush, and though the game show set is simple enough that you eventually get a sense of where everybody is in relation to each other (sort of), but this is the first game show where the old movie critic critique about action sequences so chopped up in editing that you can’t figure out the geography of where everybody is to each other applies. At the same time, the people standing on the edges of the circle keep needling each other and the guy in the center, with the most canned, hackneyed trash talk ever. At what point did networks decide that the old game show thing of having contestants cheer for “big money” need to translate to constant, tooth-grinding annoyance? Everybody here seems chosen for how stereotypically they can represent, say, the dork or the pretty fashionista, and they play entirely according to type, somewhat depressingly.
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Needless to say, this makes for a vaguely unnerving experience, particularly when a guy pretending to be Santa keeps butting into the narration and saying vaguely Christmas-y things, or asking Christmas questions and encouraging viewers to play the game with their families at home, presumably dropping each other through the floor and onto their neighbors below (if they live in an apartment building; otherwise, why would you even play Who’s Still Standing? home edition?). The whole thing feels amped up and juiced up and tortured, in a way that doesn’t really befit a trivia game show. And that leads in to the other big problem with the show, the one that fatally kills it.
Frankly, the questions aren’t difficult enough. Honestly, if you have an 8-year-old kid, they’ll probably get most of them, thanks to having the fill-in-the-blanks puzzles right there to help out, and when the battles go on long enough, there’s no subtle ramping up of the questions. Instead, they go from insanely easy, to really specific and pretty difficult—i.e., you have to have read the specific article in question to be able to know the answer—and in that case, the central competitor can just pass to the edges, where the challenger surely will have no idea. It’s a format seemingly designed to rob the show of tension, and it doesn’t purport to challenge anyone. There’s no mastery of knowledge on display here as there are in the best trivia shows. There’s just an attempt to make sure nobody feels left out. Heck, if you don’t know the fast food chain known for its 11 herbs and spices, you can just look down and see the K__ staring you right in the face.
There’s ultimately no drama in Who’s Still Standing?, which ends up being its foremost problem. Around the episode’s two-thirds mark, Bailey gives Jared—who’s sorely tempted to leave—the option of another pass, but there’s no drama in the moment because we know the questions will be so easy and the editing so intent on robbing the moment of any tension through hyperactive over-zealousness that Jared would be a fool to pass on the extra pass (which will all but guarantee him going on further). Game shows don’t need to be wildly creative to be good, but they do need to be well-designed, nicely shot, and challenging on some level for both the audience at home and the people playing the game. Who’s Still Standing? is none of these things, and it makes me sorry I filed my “Worst Of TV” piece already.