By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 17, 2007
Think of "Duel" not only as a laborious chore, not simply as an onerous ordeal, not merely as a tedious excuse for a high-tech game show, but as part of a conspiracy -- the conspiracy by production companies, networks and the corporations that own them to reshape and refocus prime-time television. It looks as if the long, cold winter could last well into spring.
As the strike by members of the Writers Guild continues, with the networks and their allies displaying an arrogant refusal to negotiate seriously, a trend of the last several years accelerates, with more and more prime-time hours given over to "reality," or nonscripted, programming. Ominously, the sleazy host of "Duel," a six-night extravaganza that starts tonight at 8 on ABC, at one point tells the audience, "You can't make this stuff up."
From ABC's viewpoint, that's the beauty of it: Nobody made it up, and a cast of amateurs is the main attraction.
Visit ABC's Web site and you will find the network boasting of its availability not only on regular TV, cable and satellite systems, but on iPods, mobile phones, DVDs and other media -- and yet ABC, owned by Disney, is part of a ravenous coalition pleading "uncertainty" over the future as a way of denying writers a fair share of the profits. With new episodes of traditional TV series dwindling, networks will pour more and more pollutants (e.g., "Duel") into the mainstream and attempt to wean the audience off the kind of storytelling that TV has practiced for more than half a century.
It's all a "game show" of sorts in itself, this battle for the hearts and minds and dollars of viewers -- except that a quiz show such as "Duel" barely engages heart or mind as it plods ponderously along, building a jackpot that on tonight's premiere never even hits half a million bucks. That's paltry by the standards of, say, "Deal or No Deal," the essentially similar NBC entry that is about a hundred times as entertaining -- not that that's wild acclaim.
The question " 'Duel' or no 'Duel'?" is easily answered: No "Duel," please, and especially not six nights of it (tonight through Friday, with the climax on Sunday). Only on the final night, incidentally, will the producers be throwing around the really big money. Tonight's winners, as such, have to be content with 10 grand or so, which could easily come out of the producers' petty cash fund. "Petty Cash" would be a good title, but nobody would tune in for that.
Though it seems consistently simple-minded, the rules for "Duel" are complicated enough so that the host's recitation of them is almost enough to send a viewer channel-surfing at the outset. The "Duel" refers to pairings of contestants against each other; each attempts to answer a multiple-choice question and, sometimes, to wager that the opponent will answer it incorrectly.
The game is played with $5,000 poker chips placed on circles representing four answers each to a series of questions. These range from "How long does it take light to get from the sun to the Earth?" to, for the deep thinkers in the crowd, "Which celebrity has not been married to a musical artist who has sold a million records?"
Although "Deal or No Deal" requires no knowledge of anything, the game does generate a certain amount of suspense, mainly along the lines of "how dumb will the contestant be?" On a recent edition, a contestant who vowed loudly that she wanted to go "all the way" turned down a guaranteed $101,000 prize on the hope of winning $200,000. The poor fool walked away with only a grand.
On the surface, "Duel" demands a general awareness of the world on the part of the players, but luck has a large role as well. At least Howie Mandel, "Deal's" host, is able to keep up a sense of tension, however illusory, and inject occasional hilarity. By depressing contrast, Mike Greenberg, who hosts "Duel," appears to have been born without a sense of humor (even though he is half of "Mike and Mike in the Morning," a sports-chat show on ESPN), but with an obvious contempt for all game show contestants.
Among his witticisms: "Discretion is the better part of valor." He so mercilessly drags out the proceedings, repeating contestants' options ad nauseam, that a player named Denise at one point snaps, "Oh, just get on with it!" Thus the most honest and enjoyable moment of the show.
Repeatedly on tonight's premiere, Greenberg sucks the energy out of the air and punctures whatever little balloons of interest might be floating around. The "Star Wars"-y set suggests an earthbound space ship; it includes a sliding cattle ramp by which contestants reach the round podium where the questions are meted out.
The reigning champion gets to choose his or her next competitor from among a gallery of 24 contenders -- a dubious honor, since the champ is obviously searching for the least intelligent-looking person in the group. One of the commercial breaks, for sponsor Diet Pepsi Max, includes the slogan "Wake Up, People." Indeed, by the time it appears, many in the audience will have nodded off. Maybe those three words should also be seen as a cry of alarm, a warning about the ways television is changing and the reason why: corporate greed.
Forty-six years ago, FCC Chairman Newton Minow (the FCC had smart chairmen back then) famously called prime-time TV "a vast wasteland." Whoa, boy. He should see it now. If the powers that be prevail, it will only be vaster, and more of a waste, in years to come.