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NBC's Password Revival Has a Jimmy Fallon Problem

In trying to position Fallon as the new Betty White, the show dooms itself to fail.
  • NBC's new Password is suffused with Jimmy Fallon's antic energy, back-slapping man hugs and all. (Photo: Jordin Althaus/NBC)
    NBC's new Password is suffused with Jimmy Fallon's antic energy, back-slapping man hugs and all. (Photo: Jordin Althaus/NBC)

    Minutes into its very first episode, the rebooted Password on NBC perfectly makes plain why it isn't going to work. The problem isn't new host Keke Palmer, who brings with her an infectious style and enthusiasm (not to mention the cultural cachet of currently having the #1 movie in theaters). The problem isn't the contestants, nor the game itself. The problem is executive producer and permanent celebrity panelist Jimmy Fallon, who could not be more temperamentally ill-fitted to what Password needs to succeed.

    There is plenty of reverence paid to the original Password game show in its 2022 revival. The original premiered in 1961 and lived on in several iterations, many of them with the participation of its most treasured guest, Betty White. It has endured because it is an incredibly simple yet compelling premise (one that has inspired quite a few memorable parodies): two contestants, each paired with a celebrity, take turns giving and receiving one-word clues to a secret word. That's it. The simplicity and play-along nature of the game, inviting viewers to armchair quarterback what clues they'd give, are the backbone of the show.

    Then there are the celebrity guests, who are more than just window dressing; their skillful participation is necessary to help the contestants win. It takes more than showmanship to make for a good celebrity panelist on Password; you have to be both invested in and good at the game. Celebrity game-show panelists like Betty White didn't become popular for their antics or for putting on a show. Something that got lost in the past two decades' worth of framing Betty White like an irascible old granny is that she was beloved as a game show guest because she was able to display her sharp sense of humor while also being quite competitive and incredibly skillful at the games she played.

    In trying to re-fashion the Betty White role in Jimmy Fallon's image, this new Password plays a losing game right from the start, mostly because Fallon doesn't fit that mold at all. You can see why NBC would go in this direction. Fallon's time as host of The Tonight Show has seen him reshape the traditional Johnny Carson model into something of a celebrity game night, with his guests taking part in countless silly competitions. He's certainly branded himself as the games guy on late night. But his energy could not be more wrong for Password. Whereas Betty White was dry, cutting, and quick, Fallon has never been able to shake the jumpy kid energy he's had since Saturday Night Live. In Fallon's image, Password is a show where the players and guests are constantly hopping around, back-slapping, falling over in laughter, taking a bow. The antic energy is exhausting.

    With that energy in place, suddenly Fallon's facility at the game becomes a detriment. He's actually very good at Password, but he doesn't appear to take it all that seriously, which ends up giving the viewer the odd impression that the fix is in. When a password is "Shining," it feels reverse-engineered to let Fallon do his Jack Nicholson impersonation.

    Fallon's Tonight Show-era persona has always had an air of the grifter to it, like he's trying to sell us on the idea of fun. (It's part of the reason why people got so angry when he mussed Donald Trump's hair, because it felt like Fallon was trying to sell us on Trump's harmlessness.) That grifter vibe combined with Fallon pulling Password answers seemingly out of thin air makes it seem like the audience is being worked.

    This tends to be the issue when NBC does game shows, at least lately. Whether it's Ellen's Game of Games, the Neil Patrick Harris-hosted Genius Junior or even The Wall, the "fun," "excitement," and "suspense" all feels manufactured. (The Jane Lynch-hosted Weakest Link has managed to avoid this, while the Jane Lynch-hosted Hollywood Game Night managed to play through it.) ABC, by contrast, has been a lot more adept with its revivals of classic game shows, choosing to not overwhelm with antic-heavy hosts and letting the actual games shine through.

    Again, this is Password we're talking about. An incredibly simple game that, when populated with the right people, is an easy crowd pleaser. Adding Fallon to the mix makes the show seem less fun than it is because he's constantly selling it to you. We're still waiting for the next Betty White.

    Password premieres on NBC August 9th at 10:00 PM ET and streams the next day on Peacock.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer 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, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Password, NBC, Betty White, Jimmy Fallon, Keke Palmer