Few things on television could seem more pleasingly old-fashioned and simply entertaining than NBC’s “Hollywood Game Night,” which returns for a third, schedule-padding season on Tuesday night.
The show gathers six celebrities whose fame varies from the C+ list (Turtle from “Entourage”; what’s-his-name from “Grimm”; Penny from “The Big Bang Theory”) to the occasional B+/A- (Amy Poehler, John Legend) for a hip, loungey exercise in the time-honored tradition of watching our stars play a variety of clever party games that draw on our culture’s last remaining expertise: showbiz trivia.
But in a more dispiriting sense, “Hollywood Game Night” also serves as another reminder that we live in a sad, unimaginative era of acquiescence to celebrity status. Large swaths of network TV — from morning shows to late-night, from midday to afternoon to prime time — have been given over to constant, publicist-pleasing opportunities for stars to advance their own brands, unchallenged, and pass off their self-promotion as the very definition of fun. Celebrities no longer have to prove that they are talented; they mostly have to prove that they are always good company.
That’s why there are so many celebs falling over themselves for the opportunity to scream clues to the names of other, slightly more famous movie and TV stars. And here the celebs are again, facing off in the ongoing, insipid “Lip Sync Battle” (currently airing on Spike), which first began as yet one more juvenile segment on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” where games-with-stars took precedence over conversation.
Here again are celebs in the deep woods, where they are seen “Running Wild With Bear Grylls” (returning Monday on NBC), eating bugs or rappelling down cliff faces to get in touch with some previously untapped, career-elevating sense of strength and stamina. (“I think this has been a powerful journey for Kate [Hudson],” Grylls proclaims in Monday’s episode.)
Change the channel and it’s still more celebs, submitting to explorations of their ancestral family trees on TLC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” (returning July 26) or on PBS’s “Finding Your Roots.” As well-meaning as they might seem, these programs teach us a small amount of history and more about how to flatter a celebrity’s notions of genetic destiny.
Exalting and deferring to anyone remotely famous comes with a price, as PBS recently learned the hard way with movie star Ben Affleck on “Finding Your Roots.” In the course of filming, the show’s genealogy experts discovered a fact that Affleck didn’t feel like sharing with the public — that his great-great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side had been a Georgia slave owner. E-mails that surfaced in the notorious Sony hack last year appeared to show that Affleck had pressured the show’s producers and its star-professor host, Henry Louis Gates Jr., to leave out the slave-owning ancestor. The show agreed to bury it, eventually leading PBS to announce last month that it would postpone future episodes until it can be certain that a central integrity has been restored.
This leads to another, more difficult question: Why would the producers of “Finding Your Roots” (as well as a professor like Gates and a network like PBS) feel the need to build a show around celebrities in the first place? How is a star’s family tree any more interesting than anyone else’s family tree? Are we at the point where a series proposal can’t get a green light unless it’s about famous people?
On a larger point, when did we all start being so subservient to fame, rather than treat it warily and with skepticism, the way we sometimes used to do? Why does the world seem like one long round of “Hollywood Game Night”?
“You sheep would watch paint dry if it was called ‘Celebrity Paint Dry,’ ” Comedy Central’s Daniel Tosh said on a recent episode of “Tosh.0,” as he delivered a particularly disgusted rant against such programming. “I never appear on talk shows because I don’t want to pretend to enjoy goofing around with Jimmy Fallon.”
Depending on your age and nostalgia track, “Hollywood Game Night” can summon pleasant memories of days off from school in the 1960 and ’70s that were spent watching syndicated game shows (“The $25,000 Pyramid,” “Match Game” or “Hollywood Squares”) in which medium-famous celebs assisted everyday contestants in winning small fortunes, seemingly out of the goodness of their hearts and an opening in their schedules.
The casual celebrity appearance on quiz shows was, even then, nothing new. It was part of television’s earliest programming, a format inherited from the heyday of radio.
Far more physically intense was the occasional prime-time special known as “Battle of the Network Stars” (it ran on ABC from 1976 and sporadically into the 1980s), in which celebs were judged more on their athleticism than their wit and where tempers occasionally flared. Look back at clips and notice the freedom the stars had to be sweaty and loose, angry and momentarily upset, even limping in defeat and complaining about bad sportsmanship. It’s hard to imagine today’s stars being willing to risk injury to either their bodies or their images with something so raw and unrehearsed.
On “Running Wild With Bear Grylls,” one can’t help but notice that even the most “dangerous” moments (such as when Grylls and Hudson descend a cliff in Italy’s Dolomite mountains) are captured by cameras from every angle, above and below the precariously dangling star. The real derring-do is accomplished in the editing room.
Then or now, nothing more easily and safely fulfills a celebrity’s need for good publicity than a safe, resolutely indoorsy show like “Hollywood Game Night.” Each team is captained by an attractive-enough “regular” person, who is playing to win cash for himself or herself, while the stars, of course, play for charities — always tied to an unobjectionable cause.
But what the stars really play for are those precious 20 or 30 seconds in which the show’s affable celeb host, Jane Lynch, chit-chats with them about their current show, album or movie. “Hollywood Game Night” exists primarily for the purpose of reminding you who they are — which is important, given the sheer number of people claiming to be famous. In Tuesday’s episode, it’s a tad surreal to watch an out-of-character Jane Krakowski gamely plug her most recent show, Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” in a process and setting that could so easily be lampooned on her previous show, “30 Rock.”
Surrounded by all this constant kowtowing, it’s getting more difficult to discern the satirical from the sincere. I’m reminded of poor Victor Allan Miller, the desperate, aging actor played by Harry Shearer in the 2006 mockumentary “For Your Consideration,” who fruitlessly repeats the name of his fleetingly buzzworthy movie (“Home for Purim”) while being forced to dance with teenagers on an MTV hip-hop show.
As the show’s host (for which she won an Emmy last year), Lynch admirably seems to cling to the faintest illusion of blasé cynicism for this kind of work; after all, she too had a part in “For Your Consideration,” playing a smarmy co-host of a nightly infotainment show. With each of her coy winks, Lynch’s presence on “Hollywood Game Night” makes it all seem less vacuous — but only slightly so.
“Hollywood Game Night” rather masterfully convinces the viewer that it’s an authentic exercise in friendship and bonhomie — theirs and yours. The barroom atmosphere suggests that such game parties occur all the time among the famous, that these groupings are organic and spontaneous and did not require several rounds of scheduling, requesting, permitting and the setting of very specific ground rules. Rest assured, no star appears on anything these days — on the air, online or in print — without a protracted negotiation phase involving a small army of publicists on one side and producers on the other. Affleck’s requests weren’t an aberration; they were very much the norm.
On “Hollywood Game Night,” there’s no risk in the all-in-fun, faux-humiliation of coming up short in a round of “Casting Couch” (a riff on musical chairs) or spacing out during a rapid-fire “Name Game.” These transactional appearances have never been more favorable to celebrities, who are more desperate to find safe spaces for fame maintenance.
Part of this can be blamed on the Internet: Anyone with a phone is a potential deputy of the paparazzi, meaning a celebrity’s career can go horribly wrong with a single uploaded video or photograph. Often the famous will immolate all on their own with one ill-considered remark or tweet. Since the Sony leak, celebrities and their publicists (and, by extension, network executives and studio heads) spend a fair amount of time fearing what could happen online.
Maybe that’s why they all want a seat on the fun bus. No wonder they rush en masse to quiz shows, lip-sync battles and campouts. No wonder they’re happy to play reindeer games on Fallon’s show or the syrupier, more fawning “Late Late Show With James Corden” on CBS.
Ask them to stand on their heads and they’ll stand on their heads. Anything to stay famous.
(one hour) returns Tuesday
at 10 p.m. on NBC.
(one hour) returns Monday, July 13,
at 10 p.m. on NBC.