Last week brought us the premiere of Small Fortune on NBC, a new game show based on a British format; in which a team of contestants compete not against other players but rather the clock, their own nerves, and/or the limitations of their skills; MCed by a likeable celebrity with no previous game show hosting experience. All of the above elements? Also present in The Cube, on TBS. One more and we'll officially be able to call it a trend.
Here's what's happening this time: there's... a cube. Inside it, a succession of mini-games are played. Some are to be played co-operatively by both members of the contestant team; most are single-player games, and the team members themselves decide, based on the skills required, which of them is best suited to take it. The games become successively more difficult — and worth more in prize money — as the episode progresses. The team is given nine "lives" to complete a series of seven games, losing a life each time they fail the prescribed task. They're also given two assists: "Simplify" makes the game easier by adding time or removing obstacles; "One Shot" allows the team to have host Dwyane Wade try to complete the task for them (if he fails, he loses them one of their lives). After each game is completed and the cash reward added to their bank, the team has the choice to walk away with their winnings or try to clear the next game. Once they enter The Cube, they may leave only after they've successfully beaten the game or exhausted all their lives; if it's the latter, they leave with nothing. A team that gets through all seven games wins $250,000.
That may sound easy — hey, it's two more lives than there are games — but these games are hard. Or, at least, the contestants don't make them look easy. Getting blindfolded and diagonally crossing a room full of poles without knocking any down? Challenging! Threading a long rod through three holes without touching the holes' rims? Yikes! Do you think you and a partner could throw balls so that both hit their targets at exactly the same time?
Whether or not you take to the show is likely to rest entirely on your engagement with these games, because the show's construction precludes just about all other drama. You're only watching one team at a time, and the contestants aren't trying to best opponents, unless you consider their opponent to be The Cube. (To be fair, it does "talk" — mostly to introduce and explain each game as the episode progresses, but it also mildly trash-talks the contestants.)
Perhaps a different kind of host could better fill the vacuum inherent in the show's one-team-at-a-time format. Channel 4's Taskmaster, for example, has no stakes at all, but the interplay between titular Taskmaster Greg Davies and the show's players keeps the action joyfully bouncing along. (The players themselves also happen to be comedy professionals, but still.) Dwyane Wade seems like a perfectly nice person and I've appreciated him in other contexts, but if not for the occasions when he's asked to step in for a One Shot moment, he doesn't really add much to the proceedings. Not to say I would necessarily want to see him needling the contestants more, since he's not particularly witty or quick. The editing would have you believe Wade's most important function is to step up, after a player's had a particularly frustrating string of losses on a single game, and deliver the pep talk that miraculously causes them to figure it out and triumph. But if his encouragement is actually that effective, maybe he should offer it after the first failure and not, like, the fifth? I hesitate to suggest another athlete co-host for Wade to banter with — there were three Watt brothers on last summer's Ultimate Tag, and no one wants to see that experiment repeated — but if Wade could have talked his wife Gabrielle Union into joining him on The Cube, that might have been gold.
I can appreciate the purpose The Cube and shows like it serve — which is to allow a whole houseful of people at different ages, with different thresholds for offense, to safely gather and watch TV together — but if you're extremely competitive like me, and you look to game shows to help quench your blood lust in ways that won't alienate your real-life loved ones, you may find the show's structure a bit lacking. That said, I'll confess to ultimately getting sucked in by the games themelves, which moved me from scoffing at how simple they seemed to screaming at a contestant who had the hubris to apply for the show without, apparently, learning how to catch a damn ball. Although I personally don't feel a burning need to watch more than the four screeners provided to critics, if you can't talk the family into watching Jeopardy! or even Wheel Of Fortune instead, spending an hour in The Cube will be... fine.
The Cube premieres on TBS Thursday June 10 at 9:00 PM ET.
Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.