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Has TV's Game Show Landscape Changed Too Much for The Weakest Link?

Mean and difficult has given way to dumb and easy, making the Jane Lynch-hosted reboot feel ill-timed.
  • Jane Lynch hosts NBC's The Weakest Link revival.
    Jane Lynch hosts NBC's The Weakest Link revival.

    Just in case last year's Mad About You revival didn't drive home the point, it seems no show is off-limits when it comes to TV's current reboot machine. To wit, no one batted an eyelash when NBC announced it was bringing back he Weakest Link., the game-show artifact whose title is essentially a time portal back to 2001. The only surprisie was that Jane Lynch would now be hosting.

    At first glance, it's easy to understand why Lynch might seem like a smart choice for the reboot: she's in-house NBC talent, having won a couple Emmys for hosting Hollywood Game Night. She's also very tall, which can translate into intimidating, which was the calling card of the original Weakest Link host, Anne Robinson, who hosted the original British version of the show from 2000 until 2012, and the American version from 2001-02. Lynch is also gay, and while Robinson is not, her stern taskmistress vibe and floor-length black coats straight out of The Matrix made her TV persona something of a queer avatar (ironic since Robinson herself was accused of making homophobic insinuations on the British version of the show). On the surface, Lynch strikes the right figure. But to understand why a Jane Lynch-hosted Weakest Link feels so wrong, we have to get into how NBC's game shows have changed since 2001.

    The era of The Weakest Link (from here on out, unless specified differently, I'll be talking about the American version, hosted by Anne Robinson) was a very specific time in TV history. With its hybrid format of quiz-show melded with a vote-out element, The Weakest Link was attempting to combine the two biggest network TV phenomena of the prior two years: Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and Survivor. And for a moment, it really worked. The structure of the game, on a trivia level, is great: eight contestants work as a team, answering questions in order to build up a bank of prize money; incorrect answers drop them back to $0, but before each question, any contestant can bank the money they've earned up to that point. That part alone requires incredibly quick decision-making and risk assessment ("Am I confident enough that I can answer this next question and thus keep going for higher prize money, or should I bank it to be safe?"), but it's what happens at the end of each round that makes the show unique, as the team members each cast a vote to eliminate one of their own. Ideally, the person eliminated would be the titular Weakest Link, the player that keeps preventing the team from earning more money. The strategy of the vote, plus the inevitability that people will take votes against them personally adds another layer of strategy to the game.

    If you watch old Weakest Link episodes, you can see the production clearly encouraged as much interpersonal drama as possible. Contestants were asked to justify their votes, and very often those justifications were couched in conflict-forward language ("I think he has a very selfish attitude") or reality TV buzz words ("I think he's a threat"). In many ways, the strategy-minded contestants began to work too well, exposing a flaw in the game premise: whenever the game winnowed down to three players, almost exclusively the strongest link would be voted out by the two weaker ones, in order to give them a better shot at winning the final round. Robinson began to sternly lecture the contestants for their cowardice, preceding the final vote with an instruction to "have the courage" to vote out the weakest player. Understandably, the contestants prized the money over being seen as courageous.

    It will be interesting to see if Weakest Link 2.0 is able to correct that quirk in the game (or if it's even interested in doing so), but the biggest difference between then and now is bound to be tone. The America of 2001-02 wanted their reality shows underhanded and mean. Richard Hatch on Survivor, Will Kirby on Big Brother, the entire concept of The Mole — even the degree of difficulty of the top-level questions on Millionaire projected an era of reality TV that was ruthless and pitiless. Perhaps the most instructive figure of that era emerged in Summer 2002, as Simon Cowell crossed the Atlantic and made American Idol a sensation by being egregiously mean to mediocre singers. The Simon Cowell/Anne Robinson mode of "mean British authoritarian here to preserve the meritocracy" was a huge appeal at that time. We liked mean.

    That changed over the next fifteen or so years, especially when it came to the game shows that NBC has produced. While real trivia retreated to the realm of Jeopardy! and Game Show Network, NBC saw huge success with Deal or No Deal, a show that essentially boiled down to: pick a briefcase and win some money. The short-lived but actually quite fun Minute to Win It saw host Guy Fieri promising big sums of money to contestants who could do strangely specific physical tasks like flipping bottles. The NBC game show brand shifted further and further to low-skill, high-yield games, where the human-interest stories of the contestants got more and more air time. This reached its peak in The Wall, a feature-length game of Plinko, where contestants won huge sums of money based on the whims of a giant token board. NBC has also heavily injected celebrity star power into its shows, with the Lynch-hosted Hollywood Game Night being an often fun mix of celebrities getting boozy and running around a fake living room set, while Jane Lynch hams it up as host. Ellen's Game of Games is similar low-skill, high-yield game where the twist is that Ellen DeGeneres tortures the contestants while they play (a conceit that ought to be really interesting now that the concept of Ellen being mean isn't exactly comedically far-fetched).

    How the new Weakest Link will adapt to this 2020 iteration of how NBC does game shows remains to be seen. For all of Lynch's height and ability to improv mean-schoolmistress quips, she's a ham at heart, so It's hard to imagine that her fundamental vibe will change enough to deliver the pitiless Weakest Link we l used to love. It's harder still to imagine that that's what NBC wants right now. I'm expecting a Weakest Link that's more "fun" but less challenging, and where Jane Lynch's Anne Robinson drag will come across as just that: a costume. Bank on it.

    NBC's The Weakest Link revival premieres tonight at 8:00 PM ET.

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    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Anne Robinson, NBC, The Weakest Link, Jane Lynch, Reality TV, Revivals