Come On Down - Contestant-Based Television
The Top 25 Game Shows List...
When television had strong programming, "reality" TV didn't really exist as a genre and instead the filler for prime time dramas, daytime soaps, news and sports was game shows. There were a variety of types of contestant-based shows, including dating shows and physical-based contests. By the turn of the millennium, reality TV was surging on cable networks. Most audiences seem to lack the intellect or intuition to appreciate how staged the "reality" is, either that of they enjoy being pander to like morons. Game shows also had staged elements which has led to controversy in the past when some game shows came under criticism for rigging results. Dating shows take their contestants from a pool of actors that rehearse how they want to present themselves on the air. Yet, that variety of shows were far more entertaining and genuine than Big Brother, Survivor, The Bachelor or any of that vapid fare. Have you watched Mantracker? How is it that the contestants are stealthily hiding when there are camera crews on them? Do you really think that the venture capitalists on Dragon's Den or Shark Tank are making honest bids of financial support? The "reality" is that they are vetting products on behalf of big chain stores such as Best Buy and Walmart. The new breed of contestant-based shows are not a fun game at all, but instead are contrived, dishonest charades produced to seduce audiences into a passive slumber as viewers precluding any possibility for considerate intellectual engagement. I sound disgusted... I am. I miss the old generation of game shows. There were days in the 1980s and 90s when entertaining programming ran for hours on end. What happened? Consumerism shifted from a conscious to subconscious to unconscious aspect of the Western psyche. Literacy competence went down dramatically. Video games introduced an opportunity for the spectator to become a player in the game show. That's what happened.
So, here is a top twenty-five list celebrating the good old days of fun and truly entertaining television - shows with genuine moments of chance, luck and spontaneity.
So, here is a top twenty-five list celebrating the good old days of fun and truly entertaining television - shows with genuine moments of chance, luck and spontaneity.
U.S. Game Shows
1) American Gladiators (1989-96; 7 seasons; 139 episodes)
American Gladiators was syndicated in other nations and the UK version was as strong as the US version for many years. American Gladiators was like an Olympics game show with a variety of physical challenges. Two male contestants and two female contestants competed against each other head-to-head in a series of events and their primary obstacle was the over-sized gym rat, Gladiators. The Gladiators had fun names and personas much like a team of comic book superheroes. The show was a good endorsement for physical fitness and health because despite the Gladiators having the look of being juice pigs, the contestants were all very proportionate and physically fit. The events took play in a massive arena and the cumulative points in the round of events equated to a head start in the final Eliminator event. This meant that the underdog always had a legitimate chance to summon hidden strength and win the game. The favourite also had the opportunity to falter down the final stretch.
2. Beat the Geeks (2001-02; 2 seasons; 130 episodes)
Beat the Geeks was a brilliantly structured game show. There were three staple geeks (pop culture experts) - the movie geek, the television geek and the music geek. They were donned in pompous robes and had obnoxious demeanor to match. A fourth guest geek made special appearances and could be an expert in Star Wars, Star Trek, The Simpsons or any other variety of popular culture topic. The contestants would choose a geek to challenge and a level of difficulty for questions. The contestant was asked a question considerably less challenging than the geek, but therein lied the entertaining aspect of the show for the viewer, for they could feel accomplished for answering the contestant questions, but brilliant for answering the geek questions.
3. Card Sharks (1986-89 with Bob Eubanks; over 1000 episodes)
Card Sharks had a very simple structure whereby two contestants would make a guess on a value for a question asked by the host. Whoever guessed a value closest to the correct answer had a turn to decide whether the next playing card in a sequence had a higher or lower value than the preceding one whose value was known. The final round operated similarly adding a gambling element whereby the contestant could stake winnings against their guessing of the next card value. The grand prize was often pretty decent.
4. Dog Eat Dog (2002-03; 2 seasons; 26 episodes)
This game show was largely based in physical contests but also included rounds of trivia and other unique challenges. The prize was $25,000 which went to the contestant that defeated their five opponents. The players would have an upcoming challenge event described and then they would vote the person that they thought the weakest for the challenge to compete in it. If the challenge was lost, the loser would go to the "dog pound", but if the challenge was won then the winner could send an opponent to the dog pound instead. With two contestants remaining there was a head-to-head challenge to declare the grand winner. The final round was trivia-based, whereby the grand winner would choose an opponent from the dog pound to answer a question incorrectly. If the winner's intuition was off and the opponent answered correctly, a point was scored for the dog pound. The prize money was only given to the grand winner if they won the final challenge of having the dog pound fail three of the trivia questions. Dog Eat Dog's US version was based on the UK version which didn't have a long run either.
5. Family Feud (since 1976; over 1000 episodes)
The Feud is one of the most well-known game shows of all time and is still running. The show has had six hosts with the first being Richard Dawson and the current one being Steve Harvey. The structure of the show is familiar to many - two families compete against each other in guessing the most common answers to an everyday question. The rounds become progressively more competitive as points are increased, questions are more challenging and available answers are fewer. The family that comes out on top, goes on to a final "fast money" round whereby two of the family members take turns answering the same five questions and they must think of the most popular answer given by 100 random people polled with the second contestant not repeating any answers of the first. If the two can accumulate 200 points combined, they win the prize money. If they cannot, they still return on the next episode to defend their title and build a winning streak.
6. Friend or Foe? (2002-03; 2 seasons; 130 episodes)
Friend or Foe involved three pairs of friends working together to answer trivia questions. If they trusted each other and chose the correct answer, they scored points. The lowest scoring pair was eliminated after each of the first two rounds leaving a final pair. Each pair takes the money they built up with correct answers and stakes it on a prisoner's wager. Two "friend" votes means the money is shared and two "foe" votes squanders the money, however duplicitous treachery by one party sees that traitor get all the money. With low stakes for the losing pairings, the treachery wasn't very dramatic, however the winning pair often was staking thousands of dollars leading to exciting moments as they decided to work together or turn on each other.
7. Hollywood Squares (on and off 1966-2004; over 1000 episodes)
Hollywood Squares had many successful iterations over the years. The game board consisted of nine box chambers with a celebrity sitting in each one. Over the years, the celebrities were a mix of A-list character actors, stand-up comics and B-list stars, including Joan Rivers, Whoopi Goldberg and Howard Stern. Each episode was full of comic relief from the celebrities but all too often the two contestants where duds lacking any sense of humour. The contestants had to choose a square and decide on whether the celebrity in that square lied or told the truth about a question they were asked by the host. The goals were identical to a game of tic-tac-toe. The final round for the winner involved picking the correct celebrity with a key to a selection of new cars.
8. Jeopardy! (1964-present; over 1000 episodes)
Jeopardy is another of the most renowned game shows of all time and has been hosted by Alex Trebek since 1984. The structure of the show is quite familiar to many and involves three contestants answering quite challenging trivia questions from a board. The board has two rounds with the values of questions doubling in the second round, but without a marked increase in the difficulty of questions between rounds. The contestants have to beat each other on the buzzer to have an opportunity to answer the question. There are bonus questions in each round called "daily doubles" whereby the contestant who chose that question can decide how much of their bank roll to wager. Answering questions incorrectly loses the contestant money and if their bank roll has a negative value by the Final Jeopardy round, then the player cannot participate in the final round. Although, the caliber of intellect is not comparable to a game show such as Mastermind, Jeopardy! has some very knowledgeable people as contestants. Most of the big time winners have a combination of eidetic memory, an itchy trigger finger (for the buzzer) and too much spare time in their lives (for reading encyclopedias). That being said, the masters of this general knowledge trivia game are impressive and one who is successful on the show comes off as pretty smart overall. The viewer can test their own knowledge and see how they stack up on the book worms.
9. Lingo (2002-07; 345 episodes)
Lingo was a word game with a play on bingo, whereby two teams of two competed against each other to solve puzzles of five-letter words. There were five attempts granted to solve the word and each valid attempt allowed for information about which letters were present in the actual word to be solved. The final round worked similarly but was only eligible to the winning team of the regular rounds.
10. The Price is Right (1956 to present; over 1000 episodes)
Bob Barker was the definitive host of the show starting in 1972 and going for thirty-five years before handing off the duties to Drew Carey. The Price is Right is likely the most well-known game show in the history of television. The show involves a row of four contestants that bid on the value of consumer items. The closest bid without going over, gets to play a mini-game. The mini-games have a wide variety but most often involve guessing the value of consumer items ranging from cans of soup to new cars. Three mini-games are played and then each of those contestants spin the big wheel to get into the Showcase Showdown at the end of the show. The second half of the show repeats activities, finding three more mini-game players and a big wheel victor for the showcase. The two showcases are an impressive set of prizes following a common theme. The two final contestants bid on the showcases with the winner of their showcase being the contestant who guesses closest to the value of the showcase without going over. Guessing a value within $1500 of the showcase allows the winning contestant to have both showcases. There is a lot more to it, but the game show has so many mini-games that it would take a small book to splay out the full details of the show.
11. Press Your Luck (1983-86; 3 seasons; 758 episodes)
Press Your Luck has had a variety of iterations over the years, but its most refined version was during the true golden age of game shows in the 1980s. The game was simple - three contestants are asked trivia questions. Correct answers to the questions earns spins on the board with squares of prizes, money and traps (whammys). All contestants get to have spins, but the board also has Whammy squares whereby earned prizes are lost. It is simply fun to watch the randomness and chance of the players hitting a Whammy box and far more entertaining than the mindless drivel of a show like Deal or No Deal that simply plays on everyone's fascination with greed.
12. Win Ben Stein's Money (1997-2003; 6 seasons; 715 episodes)
Win Ben Stein's Money was a trivia show with three contestants competing to win actor, Ben Stein's prize pot of $5000. The first round involved three contestants answering general trivia questions. The loser of the round was eliminated. The second round saw Ben Stein join the panel of contestants to defend his money. The lowest scoring contestant was eliminated at the end of the round. The finalist faced off against Ben Stein whereby both were asked the same ten questions sequentially. Whoever scored highest won.
13. Wipeout (2008-14; 7 seasons; 148 episodes)
Wipeout was based on a subgenre of Japanese game show and has been syndicated in many nations. Frankly, the show is pretty amusing regardless of the host nation. Wipeout was a physical challenge show whereby adults participate in massive obstacle courses that would make a lot more sense for children. The humiliation can be extreme when the contestants fail. The rounds are also time trials and the best times in the early rounds allow contestants to advance. The final obstacle course is considerably more challenging than earlier rounds and often only half or less of the final four contestants can even complete the course.
14. Blind Date (1999-2006; 7 seasons; 910 episodes)
The show involved straightforward blind dates with the producers of the show providing amusing captions and graphics to the audience. The episodes had a good mix of successful and failed dates.
15. Change of Heart (1998-2003)
Change of Heart involved a couple whose relationship was on the rocks deciding to be put on two separate blind dates. After the dates, the new couples review for the audience how it played out. Finally, they decide whether they want to stay together with their original mate or have a change of heart.
16. Elimidate (2001-2006)
Elimidate had the most original structure for a dating show whereby a man or woman (chooser) would be put on a date with four of the opposite gender. Each round involved an activity about town with the daters being given a chance to impress the chooser. The chooser would eliminate the contestant they were least interested in at the end of each round until finally they had chosen a winner. The jockeying for position was priceless.
17. The Fifth Wheel (2001-04)
The Fifth Wheel was riddled with debauched performances. The episodes began with four daters who try to figure out whether there are any couplings to be made. Part way through the group date, a fifth lascivious dater is thrown in the mix. The dynamic is thrown off and it becomes easier for couples to form. At the end of the night, the five contestants decide who they were interested in and announce it to the group.
18. Hell Date (2007-08)
Hell Date aired on BET and unfortunately seems to have its episodes in a archival vault because I cannot find any footage online. The dates were actually rigged and the show was more or less a prank show more than a contestant-based dating show but it parodied the dating show format. The actor playing the role of the "hell date" was defined as the opposite of what was desired by the unsuspecting dater contestant. The date spirals out of control and once the dater has had enough, a dwarf in a devil costume appears and prods the dater with a plastic pitchfork, exclaiming "You're on Hell Date!". The reactions are priceless.
19. Love Connection (1983-94; over 1000 episodes)
The Love Connection is likely the most well-known dating game show of all time and was hosted by Chuck Woolery. The premise was simple. A dater was shown three potential dates. Pre-recorded interviews were played in the studio and the audience evaluated who they believe was the right fit. The dater then reveals who they actually chose. That person is revealed live on the monitor and Woolery interviews the couple on how their date went. The vote of the audience was then revealed and the dater could choose to go on another date with the original person if the audience voted for them (the person would come out and the couple were physically united in front of the audience) and if the audience chose one of the other two, then the dater could choose a date with them instead.
20. Next (2005-08)
MTV's Next was a brutal dating show. A lineup of daters would sit on a party bus and wait their turn as one-by-one they went on dates with a chooser. The chooser could call "next" at any point instigating the elimination of the current dater and calling out the next one from the bus. The chooser would not know for sure if who was left on the bus was an improvement from who they eliminated. The eliminated would have to carry themselves back to the bus to face the music with the other contestants still waiting their turn. The reactions were a mix of consolation and berating.
U.K. Game Shows
21. Blockbusters (1983-95, over 1000 Episodes)
Blockbusters was actually a U.S. game show, but had significantly greater success as a syndication in the U.K.. The show featured high school students in a general trivia challenge. Given the incredibly efficient and competitive private education system in England, the questions on the show were quite challenging. The structure of the show involved a pair of students against one on their own. The pair had to answer a sequence of five correct questions compared to the single player who had to answer only four. The players could block each other's path on the board.
22. The Crystal Maze (1990-95; 6 seasons; 83 episodes)
The Crystal Maze is likely the most unique of all game shows and probably also the most entertaining. A team of five strangers were sent through the playing area which just happened to be four massive quadrants with a particular theme for each quadrant. For example, the medieval quadrant had the appearance of a castle dungeon from the Middle Ages and the mini-games in each quadrant followed the theme of the area. The different types of games in each quadrant could either test physical prowess, intellect, intuition or cleverness. One team member would be elected to play the game while the others could watch through windows or monitors and shout help as they saw fit. Every game was on a timer and if the player didn't get out of the room in time they would be locked in. Winning the game earned a crystal. Getting locked in required payment of a crystal for freedom. The final round involved a huge crystal dome that spewed tokens into the air. The team had to collect as many valuable tokens as possible before the time was up in order to win the grand prize. The timer was set based on the number of crystals collected in the four quadrants.
23. Mastermind (1972-ongoing)
Mastermind is the most esoteric of game shows and one that can be quite alienating for audiences. However, in the U.K. it works, primarily because of the social cleaving due to public and private schooling. Mastermind involves contestants answering questions on a very specific subject within their own expertise. Perhaps, someone did their Ph.D in game studies and a thesis on board games of the 18th century - well, that topic becomes the challenge for the game. All of the questions will be related to the special topic. An average viewer will likely be able to answer 10-15% of questions, if they actually have some knowledge of the subject. The game is quite intense. The contestant who won the specialist round will be eligible for a final general knowledge round.
24. The Weakest Link (2000-12)
The Weakest Link was a trivia show whereby a group of nine contestants would be asked questions one by one. Each correct answer would add money to the pot. Prior to being asked a question, the contestant whose turn it was would choose to risk the pot or bank it and secure it. Insecure contestants could squander a lot of potential winnings by believing that they would answer their question wrong. After each round, the contestants would vote off who they thought was the weakest link. The head-to-head final round for the last two contestants involved each being asked five questions. The most correct answers won the money that the entire group had built up.
25. Whose Line is it Anyway? (1988-99; 10 seasons; 136 episodes)
This show was an improvisational comedy show that parodied the structure of a game show and its scoring systems. Four stand-up comics would perform in challenges. The audiences could be polled for details of how the game event challenges would be played. Some episodes were an absolute laugh riot.
Bonus - Canadian Game Show
Video & Arcade Top 10 (1991-2006)
Although, the US and UK have been the major producers of quality game shows in the history of television, Canada has made some major contributions as well. Video & Arcade Top 10 aired for many seasons on the kid's network, YTV. The show involved reviews and charting for video and computer games, but there was also a game show component whereby young contestants would compete against each other in video games in the studio with live audiences cheering them on. In a sense, this game show paved the way for media phenomena such as Twitch.