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ABC’s Don’t and the Rise of the Low-Stakes, High-Comedy Game Show

The latest entry in a burgeoning reality TV subgenre sticks with the silly.
  • Don't and its host Adam Scott join a growing wave of primetime TV game shows that includes Game On!, Ellen's Game of Games and Holey Moley. (Photos: ABC/CBS/NBC)
    Don't and its host Adam Scott join a growing wave of primetime TV game shows that includes Game On!, Ellen's Game of Games and Holey Moley. (Photos: ABC/CBS/NBC)

    ABC’s new game show Don’t has a simple premise: don’t do something, win money. But the show abandons its own premise with the very first game in its very first episode. Instead of the contestants receiving instructions as to what they cannot do, they’re just asked trivia questions and punished for getting them wrong. A game titled “Don’t Get Tired” means “don’t answer incorrectly or you’ll get hit by a large padded fake tire.”

    It’s still fun to watch, incredibly simple and silly — and also incredibly familiar. Don’t is essentially NBC’s Ellen’s Game of Games, and is such a shameless knock-off that it even uses animated illustrations of the actual games, just like Ellen’s show does.

    Game shows are all variations on a theme, of course, and Hollywood loves to take a successful concept and copy and paste it as many times as possible. That’s what we’re really seeing now in the rise of low-stakes, high-comedy game shows.

    These shows exist somewhere between traditional game and quiz shows (such as Jeopardy! or Celebrity Family Feud) and the reality competitions that take place in soundstage arenas (like Fox’s Ultimate Tag) or on sprawling outdoor sets (like Wipeout or the wonderful Holey Moley).

    They include everything from Nickelodeon’s reboot of The Crystal Maze, which had an elaborate set but utterly simple games, to CBS’s Game On!, which has Venus Williams and Gronk captaining teams of celebrities as they answer trivia questions and compete in ridiculous challenges.

    The games and props are simple; the questions are not even up to the standard of Teen Jeopardy. They do offer prizes and cash, though that seems to be beside the point. Contestants sometimes have to do considerably less than they used to: Fear Factor only offered its winner $50,000 for competing in three hellacious stunts, while Don’t’s prize is $100,000 for a series of definitively less-dangerous, much-easier activities.

    Instead of giving us a front-row seat to a high-stakes battle between contestants with superior intellects or physiques, the goal of these shows seems to be delivering a lighthearted, comedic romp. They often add a layer of physicality to a typical quiz show, or have games that are just pure physical challenges. Most of all, they’re simple, quick, and often intentionally dumb.

    They’re part of a tradition that stretches way back, from the Bozo the Clown’s “Grand Prize Game” to the physical challenges on Nickelodeon’s Double Dare, which had its kid contestants popping balloons and squeezing water into containers. There isn’t even anything new about celebrity versions: Battle of the Network Stars had 1970s celebrities competing in events like bowling and swimming.

    Perhaps the modern era began a decade ago, when NBC’s Minute to Win It had Guy Fieri hosting challenges that didn’t use elaborate Hollywood props like on The Price is Right or even Wheel of Fortune. Instead, contestants did things like stacking apples or wrapping themselves in toilet paper, a game that is obviously from a different time and would today have people yelling at their television sets to stop wasting all that precious TP.

    These were games reproducible in our living rooms. A decade later, Jane Lynch hosts Hollywood Game Night on a set made to look like a living room, where celebrities compete in silly games that have a little more production design than Minute to Win It did, but not much.

    That seems to be one goal: making shows look accessible. That also makes them cheap to produce. It’s one thing to create an obstacle course on a beach in Fiji, as Survivor does, and something considerably easier to just ask a contestant to walk on a treadmill and eat hot peppers in an LA soundstage, as Don’t does.

    The biggest laughs usually come from the audience watching things happen to the contestants, rather than the contestants doing things. Just watch Ellen DeGeneres press a button to drop someone into a vat of some kind of wet and sticky food for failing to answer correctly, or watch celebrities on Hollywood Game Night leap backwards in fright as confetti erupts from a bowl full of clues, signaling the end of a round.

    The newest and most-welcome addition to this reality and game show sub-genre (or is it a sub-sub genre?) is a swift kick to the fourth wall. They do not take themselves seriously, like The Titan Games or American Ninja Warrior do, but instead embrace their own ridiculousness.

    These are shows that are very often willing and eager to mock — or at least wink — at themselves. Adam Conover hosted The Crystal Maze in character as the Maze Master, commenting about a team’s progress or failures to the camera, and sometimes even to them. It’s not unique to low-stakes game shows: Love Island has its wry and sarcastic narrator, Matthew Hoffman, and the extreme mini-golf competition Holey Moley has comedian Rob Riggle and sportscaster Joe Tessitore giving color commentary that’s so honest, the season-two premiere included Riggle mocking the show for the poor design of one of the holes.

    The most distinctive part of Don’t is not its games, but executive producer Ryan Reynolds — yes, that Ryan Reynolds — who provides its narration. The actor never appears on screen, but uses a PG version of his Deadpool persona to comment on what we’re seeing, and also to break the fourth wall. After the cash prize is mentioned, he says “If we’re being honest, it’s much lower after taxes.” When a contestant is hit in the back of the head with a padded set piece that sends her flying, Reynolds jumps in to say, ”She developed whiplash in an unrelated incident.”

    If we’re being honest, even with his commentary and host Adam Scott’s dry humor, Don’t doesn’t have enough to break out of an increasingly crowded space, as it is just another one of these middle-ground, low-stakes competitions.

    But that’s just fine. ABC’s non-Bachelorette and Bachelor in Paradise summer reality TV, which includes its revivals of nostalgic game shows like Match Game along with new concepts like Holey Moley, is branded as “Summer Fun and Games.” That’s a perfect description, and some light, low-stakes “fun and games” pack in plenty of entertainment.

    Don't premieres tonight at 9:00 PM ET on ABC

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    Andy Dehnart is a writer, TV critic, and teacher who reviews and reports about reality TV at reality blurred.

    TOPICS: Don't, ABC, Battle of the Network Stars, The Crystal Maze, Double Dare, Ellen’s Game of Games, Game On!, Holey Moley, Hollywood Game Night, Minute to Win It, Ultimate Tag, Wipeout, Adam Scott, Matthew Hoffman, Ryan Reynolds, Reality TV