In the second episode of NBC's Weakest Link revival, contestants Arielle (a product manager) and Rachel (a copywriter) spent most of their time trying to get each other out. Logging repeated votes against each other, the two quickly became rivals, with Arielle making things even more personal with comments about Rachel's style. After multiple rounds of this dynamic, Arielle finally succeeded in sending Rachel home. Meanwhile, the underestimated Anoelle, a silent-but-deadly player, quietly made her way to the end, defeating Arielle in a blowout of a final round. It was a thrilling end to a terrific episode — one that, despite being just over 40 minutes without commercials, got viewers remarkably invested in the result.
This is a testament to the greatest strength of The Weakest Link's new primetime revival: its casting. The original U.S. series cast a rotating cavalcade of mostly interchangeable players (save for a special here or there), relying on its format and host Anne Robinson to entertain fans. This revival borrows more from the U.K. edition, which ran far more special episodes and featured much more character development for its players. Jane Lynch is solid as the host — she knows she's not Anne Robinson and isn't trying to imitate her — and the format is as fun as ever. But week after week, it's the characters that keep this revival fresh, surprising, and immensely watchable.
Consider episode 9, which made some waves on social media for featuring a comically bad group of players. The group failed to amass much money all game, continually missing questions and not banking the cash they'd built up to that point. But it was the final-3 round that proved most embarrassing, as last man standing Aaron repeatedly missed questions, while his competitor Erica repeatedly tried to bank when there was no money to be banked. The two teamed up on fellow finalist Cassandra, a relatively smart cookie in the box, but one who kept not listening to the full question before offering incorrect answers. Aaron and Erica then spent the final round missing every single question but one, growing increasingly incredulous with their own incompetence. Aaron's victory, based on getting the very last question right, felt more like a reality TV villain squeaking out a win rather than a triumphant moment.
But rather importantly, that episode's cast was the aberration; the pleasures of this revival do not come from laughing at incompetence week after week. In episode 7, we met Kaya, a former Jeopardy contestant who missed not one question all game, winning after a tiebreaker in the final round. Similarly, in the most recent installment before its winter hiatus, Weakest Link introduced us to Hasanna, who dominated the game with repeated performances as Strongest Link. She also kept us entertained by flirting with her fellow contestant, the manbun-sporting Matt. When she was voted out by two male opponents at the final 3 for fear that they could not beat her, Lynch told her, in complete earnestness, that she was “amazing.” Hasanna's response: “I'm always gonna be amazing, despite inferior men.”
Compare this new Weakest Link to other shows that complete an entire narrative arc in 42 minutes. Chopped most immediately comes to mind as a comparison, as both shows bear certain similarities to season-length reality narratives (Chopped to Top Chef in its subject, Weakest Link to Survivor in its voting format), and aim to get the audience invested in characters quickly. Chopped gives its contestants confessionals to share their personal stories,as a shortcut to getting us as viewers invested. (Nailed It! is another series that employs this method.)
In contrast, Weakest Link's contestant backgrounds are only revealed via a short dialogue with Lynch, which usually ends in a joke from the host at the contestant's expense. This is similar to ABC's recent revival of Supermarket Sweep; although host Leslie Jones is kinder to her contestants, here too, their backstories serve more as joke fodder than anything else.
So how is that casting could be such a strength of Weakest Link when its players' backstories are so slight? The key is in how the casts interact with each other. Arielle and Rachel's rivalry was compelling not because we know them well, but because it slowly built up across multiple rounds. They voted for each other repeatedly, commented on those votes, and thus left us satisfied — or, if we were rooting for her opponent, disappointed — when Arielle successfully got Rachel out. Lilewise, Kaya and Hasanna's dominance all game endeared us to them; while the former's victory thrilled us, the latter's defeat left us devastated.
The show's producers have a huge hand in making this work, of course, as does Lynch as host. She asks just the right questions to provoke a bit of drama — or, in the case of Hasanna flirting with Matt, some romance — and escalates the narrative of the episode. But the casting department deserves much of the credit: They not only find personalities big enough to provoke big reactions in a short period of time, they also cast them in groups of eight that will have chemistry together. Shuffled around, who knows if Arielle would have found another rival, or Hasanna would have found another competitor to flirt with.
The Weakest Link has been one of the unexpected highlights this very strange TV season; here's hoping NBC keeps it going even after it's no longer needed as a stop-gap for new scripted programming. ABC's lineup of game shows, from Match Game to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and, yes, Supermarket Sweep, has proven there's an audience for primetime game show revivals. For my money, Weakest Link is at the top of the pack, and as the revival's successful contestants like Kaya know well, it pays to be the Strongest Link.
The Weakest Link airs on NBC Monday nights at 10:00 PM ET.
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Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles.