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Recommended: The Final Straw on ABC

TV's latest low-stakes high-comedy game show is the escapist delight we need right now.
  • Janelle James hosts The FInal Straw (Photo: ABC)
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    The Final Straw | ABC
    Hour-long game show | TV-14

    What's The Final Straw About?

    Two teams are pit against each other as they try to remove pieces out of elaborately designed towers. The winners can earn up to $250,000.

    Who's involved?

    • Janelle James, host. The writer, comedian, and star of ABC's Abbott Elementary oversees this un-stacking competition with a wink, a smile, and good-natured bemusement at how she ended up here.
    • Peyton Manning, executive producer. The Final Straw is the latest TV show from the Hall of Fame pro football player. Last summer he tried to revive College Bowl on NBC, with not-so-great results.

    Why (and to whom) do we recommend it?

    Look, let's just say it plain: for many of us the world is an absolute nightmare right now, and watching TV — even really good TV — is rarely the escape it's cracked it's up to be. 2022 has brought with it an avalanche of true-crime TV series and shows that have either depicted or reflected the grim political realities of the present moment, so even as you're watching Emmy-worthy acting and riveting drama, you're still forced to reflect on the fact that this country is going to hell in a handcart and any of us could be killed at any time by a vengeful owl.

    In the face of all this, we need a TV show that can truly be a salve. Enter The Final Straw, a series that never once utters the name "Jenga," but that's what it is: an elaborately art-directed, giant-ass Jenga, where teams of two take turns removing parts of a structure until one of the teams removes one part too many and it all comes toppling down. The low stakes of the main activity are counterbalanced (pun intended) by the sheer silliness of the premise combined with the extravagance of the towers themselves and especially the prize money, as the winning team can walk away with as much as $250,000 in a single episode. The show is essentially a massive props and prize budget in search of a premise.... and yet it largely works.

    This is thanks in no small part to host Janelle James, who has quickly become one of the jewels in ABC's crown, earning rave reviews for her breakout performance in Abbott Elementary and now stepping into the role of network ambassador. She hosts The Final Straw with the right level of investment in the game, jokes at the contestants' expense, and one-liners that she delivers as if they're only meant for her. She's as much rubbernecking at the show as she is hosting it, which puts her right on our level. The shame of it all is that the show isn't being filmed in front of a live audience, so sometimes James really is just joking to herself.

    On a production level, the show finds as many ways as possible to inject personality into this game of block un-stacking. The teams each get names ("The Picnic Baes"; "Shock Til You Drop") and are encouraged to trash-talk each other. Certain blocks pulled result in punishments or obstacles for one or both of the teams. And the towers themselves are works of kitschy art. The first one we see has a 1950s diner theme, complete with counter stools, jukebox figurines, guest checks, and stacks of burgers and pancakes (food not real, unfortunately).

    As fun as the prop design is, however, we do need to get invested in the game play if we're going to watch for an hour. This element of the show is okay-to-decent. Viewers get to play armchair quarterback as they guess which pieces the teams should remove, although there's only so much strategy one can impart without being in the room to truly size up these structures.

    Things get genuinely gripping, however, in the final round, where the structure becomes standardized (it looks like a bunch of barrels stacked in tiers), and the winning team must remove a certain number of barrels to either win money or add time to the clock. Here, the viewer is able to more easily participate in the strategy, and no one ever went broke adding a race against the clock element to a game show.

    Bottom line, The Final Straw is less intellectually taxing than Jeopardy! and more competitively satisfying than The Wall, but it's the child's-playroom feel of the game that makes it the most successful low stakes high comedy TV game show in recent memory.

    Pairs well with

    • Floor Is Lava (Netflix), another brain-vacation of ta competition that feels like it was developed by third-graders with a massive budget.
    • Holey Moley (Hulu), ABC's mini golf competition series that lets you invest in the strategy of playing a deeply silly game.
    • Nailed It!, Netflix's competition for terrible bakers that also thrives because it lets its host (Nicole Byer) be as silly and charming as she wants.

  • The Final Straw
    Premieres Sunday, July 10 at 9:00 PM ET on ABC. Episodes available next day on Hulu.
    Created by: Peyton Manning.
    Starring: Janelle James.

    TOPICS: The Final Straw, ABC, Janelle James, Peyton Manning