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All in All, It's Just a Middling Show Called The Wall

December 22, 2016


(Warning: the outcome of the game aired in this episode is spoiled throughout the article. If you don't want to know how the game ended, watch the show before reading this.)

Nearly two years elapsed between the initial casting call for The Wall and the show finally airing an episode, which happened this past Monday night. In the meantime, all we game show fans could do was speculate over what the show would be about, and how this whole thing was going to look on TV. We knew that it was going to be on NBC, we knew that basketball demigod Lebron James had somehow attached his name onto the project, we knew that the top prize was going to be something ridiculous (over $10MM), and we knew that they were looking for "deserving and dynamic" couples to play the game.

Putting all of this information together, you can forgive us all for being extremely cynical about what the final product was going to be. Personally, I was driving home on Monday night, envisioning all of the hallmarks of NBC's usual "burnt on the outside, raw in the middle" game show nonsense that we'd come to expect. Spastic, brainless jumping beans on stage, fretting and screaming over every menial decision, as they cut from one camera to the next to the next to the next, warping every second of real time into eight seconds of reveal time, just so they could throw it to commercial at the most inappropriate moment. A game that the contestants wouldn't play so much as they would be subjected to, with nonsensical rules built in to depress the protagonist's chances, while a host scraped the back of his mind for awkward catchphrases. A gaudy top prize that would be promised but never delivered on, and indeed the show could have done without. We should be excited about the prospect of a new prime time network game show, not jaded, but a decade of flops like Identity, Who's Still Standing?, and Take It All meant that our defenses had to be up for this one. After bracing for impact at the outset of the show, The Wall ended up being a relatively tolerable game wrapped up in a rather agreeable presentation. But there's little chance of it setting the television landscape ablaze the way a show like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or even Deal or No Deal did, because it does something that no other big-money game show has ever done: it makes the prospect of winning life-changing sums anticlimactic.

The preview episode that aired on Monday (the show officially premieres on January 2nd) began with what was essentially a 2 1/2 minute pitch film on how the game works and why it exists. As Chris Hardwick, the host of the show (who also has Executive Producer credit) explains, "The Wall was created for one reason... to change lives." Meanwhile, Lebron chimes in with pre-taped clips from his practice facility talking about how much he can't wait to give away other people's money. "There's no better feeling than winning," he says. "For us to be able to put something like this together is a true blessing for sure."

Here we see the game show executive producer in his natural habitat.

As mentioned above, there is a dash of social equity added to the casting process of the show, as the very first inkling of the show's development came in the form of a call for "deserving" couples. Indeed, our debut couple features a woman who was given Teacher of the Year honors for helping one of her students overcome illiteracy. We learn nothing about the husband, although we do get a brief glimpse into their home life (and I mean brief).

This was one of the things that got me the most nervous about The Wall when it was in development: how they were actively searching for couples who weren't just engaging on their own merits, but had to be deemed worthy of honor by performing a magnanimous act. This didn't mean that I rooted for this couple any less than I otherwise would - what the wife did was great and definitely deserves a tip of the cap - but it forces the show into walking a fine line that it ultimately can't manage. We'll talk about that more as we move along.

The game is played in three rounds of questioning. The first round, "Free Fall", sees both members of the couple answer five either-or questions as three balls careen down the massive four-story pegboard (and it's kind of weird that it's taken this long into the review to even bring up the eponymous Wall). Answers must be locked in before any ball lands in one of the scoring zones - zones that alternate between respectable amounts (up to $25K) and minimal ones (down to $1). Get it right, the balls turn green, and the numbers they landed in are added to the team's score. Get it wrong, they turn red, and they subtract from your score. As long as you finish the round with a positive score, you progress to the remainder of the game.

One could argue that this round presents zero drama, even with the potential danger of losing money on wrong answers. That's because the game is molded to fit into the entire hour-long episode, so chances are anyone who bombs out of the opening round will never see airtime. That said, it's one of the more minor nits to pick about the game, so we'll let it slide.

(There is some protest that the couple was screwed on the last question, when one ball managed to fall straight into a well before the team had a chance to react, meaning the values are automatically deducted. Honestly, that's how physics works sometimes.)

Once this round is over, the pair is split up. One contestant is sent into an isolation booth on the other side of the Wall, and is now charged with answering all the questions from that point onward. The other person - the hero of the story in this case, and I doubt that's an accident - remains on stage and is responsible for essentially setting the stakes for each drop.

It's here that we come across one of the sillier rules in the game, one that a lot of other people have crowed about. The front contestant now has to drop seven balls in the round. Four of them already have a designated purpose - the first two drops (which are done simultaneously) are automatically winners, while the last two drops (also done together) are automatically losers, dropped from the same positions that were selected for the winners. The plus-or-minus status of the middle three are determined with three trivia questions, asked to the player in isolation. Not only does the contestant in the booth not know how the drops are going throughout the proceedings, they don't even know if they're answering each question correctly. The contestant sees the answer choices before deciding which chute they want their next ball to drop from: larger numbers are on the right side of the board, so an aggressive play is to drop from chute 7 while the safe play is to drop from chute 1. The second and third question of the batch also give the front contestant the option to "Double" or "Triple Up" respectively, dropping multiple balls from the same chute.

While host Chris Hardwick explains the rules, The Wall dutifully provides a visual aide.

I think we can all spot the giant, super-unfair problem with the way this round works.

I don't believe I can think of another game show - certainly not one in the States - that forces a contestant to lose money at specific points in the game as a mandatory thing, through no fault of their own. True, you get those free drops at the start of the each round to build up your bank, so there is balance here, but it doesn't feel any less awkward when each round ends with the team losing money by decree - and it's really a gut punch to the audience when team performs well at the outset, banks a very respectable amount going into the third round, and has it all get wiped out on the last drop because the last perfunctory red ball happens to drop in the top dollar value for the round ($250K). And as luck (or strategic episode selection) would have it, that's exactly what happened in this game. So despite the team pretty much skating through the first two rounds, they end up a bank of $0.

Remember Identity? (If you do, it's probably because I keep bringing it up in pieces like this.) The player on that show had what is effectively an extra life throughout the entire game, as they worked out who was the heavy metal singer and who could rip a phone book in half. But when it got down to two models, they'd yank the help out of the player's hands, because otherwise they'd have a guaranteed win. This rule seems an awful lot like that: a player losing leverage in the game (or in this case, actual prize money) not because they made a mistake or fell prey to bad luck, but because hey, we've got to manufacture risk in the game if nobody's going to miss any questions. We'll discuss that in a bit as well.

Everyone on stage watches as the contestant in isolation works out the next question.
Say what you will about anything else, the LED-embedded wall is awesome.

The process repeats for the third round, with the salient difference being that the three questions are now bracketed by four green and four red balls. Also, this is the point in the game where the dollar values escalate to the point that the board now has a million-dollar slot. The questions are a little tougher in this round as well (though they're still hardly brain-busters), and now have four answer choices instead of three in the previous round.

Once all the drops have been performed, the decision-making shifts to the player in isolation. Knowing only how much money they earned in Free Fall, they are given the option to sign a contract that guarantees their Free Fall winnings, plus an additional $20,000 for each right answer they supplied in the last two rounds (bearing in mind that the isolation player is never told if they were right or wrong on any of them). Or, they can rip up the contract, which means whatever they had left on the Wall is the amount they're taking home. The couple is reunited, the player who was in isolation reveals what they decided to do, and the player who's been onstage throughout the game reveals to their partner what they've won.

I got in a very spirited conversation with my roommate Travis about this entire segment, and it still irks me for a number of reasons.

In the game we saw on Monday, the isolation player performed like a champ, getting five of his six questions correct. Despite coming into the third round with nothing, the onstage player gets her last green drop of the game to land in the $1MM slot, and avoids serious injury to the bankroll with the four forced red drops to finish off with a total of over $1.3 million. Meanwhile, the isolated player is given the contract, which amounts to a payout of over $165,000. Ultimately, the husband decides to tear up the contract, and the big win is confirmed.

There are three things about this whole reveal that make it the single most anticlimactic seven-digit win in game show history.

Hooray, they won $1,300,010.
So who's on Fallon tonight?

First of all, because we once again have this asinine "You must lose money" rule, the final round doesn't end on a high note. There's a big difference between exuberance and relief, and it's less exciting to watch people defend money they've already won than it was to watch them win it to begin with. And since the money isn't technically won until the isolated player rips up the contract, it's hard to get terribly excited about that. Think back to some of the big wins we've witnessed in the past - any $100,000 Pyramid win, any WWTBAM win. That rush of energy you feel, like watching someone hit a walkoff home run or make a buzzer-beating shot. Making the million-dollar "win" the third-to-last eventful thing to happen on the show robs it of its impact.

Secondly, the way the final reveal is staged falls flat. There was a game in the UK called The Exit List that posed a similar dilemma to a couple: one player tried to complete the endgame for the money they built up while the other was offered a guaranteed sum to take home. In this case, the player who was made the offer kept silent until the announcer revealed the final result. On The Wall, the players reveal to each other what had happened, which makes the onstage player's response come off as unnatural. She knows how much they've both won, and just needs to tell him. Giving them both the information at the same time means they both get a chance to react to the massive number, even if one of them already has a sense of how big that number is. (And of course, if the flip side ever happens, we either see a couple get devastated at leaving with nothing or relieved that they're getting the guarantee despite the last round going tragically wrong.)

And finally, the biggest reason why a $1,300,010 win became a complete anticlimax: they spoiled it. Twice.

Either he's just found out how much they've won, or he's choking on something.

I haven't harped on the production value of The Wall very much because to be honest, it's actually put together quite well. There have been complaints elsewhere of the game being too long-winded, but I really don't see where they could cut without turning the contestants into cardboard cutouts. The question reveals aren't drawn out to any real degree. The drops themselves feel like they happen in real time. (I feared they would use editing tricks to stretch the timing of the drops a few extra seconds, but thankfully they don't.) Most of all, they completely eschew the one thing that has always driven me nuts: the act of breaking to a commercial in the middle of the action. They avoid all that. However, they replace one headache with another, and every throw to a break includes a short preview of upcoming action. As a result, we see this dude's eyes turn into saucers just before the last commercials. In fact, we see this reaction during the aforementioned opening sequence to the show. That's clearly not the face of a man who's missed out on $1,134,297, and it means we know exactly how the game's going to end five minutes before it actually does.

I simply don't understand what the promotional people at NBC are thinking when they do stuff like this. They don't tease the ending of scripted shows because they know it kills the suspense. What makes it OK to do it with a game show?

At this point, I want to circle back to the whole "deserving" angle of the show. The reason I bristle at the idea that people are being brought on to a game show as a reward for philanthropy isn't because I'm an asshole. (You can draw your own conclusions there). It's because it adds a subtext to the game that makes it almost impossible to truly challenge the contestants.

Instead of forcing them to lose money at the end of each round artificially, you could just make the questions harder and let the losses come naturally. A total of 11 questions were asked, and not including the ball that dropped too fast for the team to lock in their answer (which they would've had right), only one question was answered incorrectly the entire game. But that's not because the contestant in isolation was a trivia whiz, it's because none of the questions were hard at all. Even the third round questions, which were the hardest ones, would have fit nicely into $2K-$4K territory in a WWTBAM stack.

The problem is, these teams aren't being cast for their smarts, and they're not on the show to test their mettle. They're being cast because they're Good People, and they're on the show to have money shoveled on them. The questions aren't intended to challenge them, they're simply a vehicle to add risk to the game, give them more things to talk about, and put something between each of the drops. Had this been a game that wasn't restricted to charitable couples, you could use more questions to produce a more volatile game without resorting to the "forced red" rule. But since they're casting specific couples to be on the show for a specific purpose - one that was probably added at the insistence of Lebron - there's no room to fix the format without causing two more problems to pop up. The result is a very rickety format, which comes as no surprise considering how long it's been since the game was conceived and when it finally made it to air.

It's going to be a couple of weeks before we really see whether or not The Wall is going to be anything more than a blip on the radar. It's a watchable show, and certainly less offensive than just about anything we've seen NBC put out since the second game show renaissance of 2005. But I don't see how it retains an audience. Even if we see someone win three or four times as much money in a future episode, there's no excitement in the big wins. A warm glow of satisfaction that comes from watching a couple being rewarded for good deeds is only going to last for so long. Even Deal or No Deal had a measure of suspense that convinced people to keep watching even when they ruined the show with terrible pacing. The Wall just doesn't have that. And a game show that gives away this much money without giving the audience a reason to tune in next week is just an expensive game show and little more.

Stay tuned for my next thrilling game show idea, where we give orphans a chance at millions by completing Euler circuits!

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