Why '500 Questions' is the trivia experience TV needs
I am a game show zealot. I believe in the umber glow of Chuck Woolery and the sneering capabilities of Paul Lynde. I'm also a rabid fan of trivia; I was on "Jeopardy!" a couple weeks ago and GSN's "The Chase" before that. Every time network TV rolls out a new primetime trivia-based game show, I'm listening and hopeful and there -- and I have three spring-loaded requests: 1) Please, Jesus, anything but more "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"-type lighting; 2) Good lord, no more multiple choice questions; 3) Make me love you, new show. I want to love you. Embrace me, you child.
Last year we got the Ryan Seacrest-hosted "Million Second Quiz," a multiple-choice bonanza with "Millionaire" lighting that was tedious and unchallenging (read: not lovable). You can understand my devastation there.
"500 Questions" is this year's new primetime trivia attempt. Hosted by CNN journalist Richard Quest, "500 Questions" airs on ABC for seven straight weeknights. It has some issues; the money payout per question underwhelms, and you never feel like the competing contestants are in enough peril. But it has a lot that I love, and I realize now it's because the show mines old trivia game shows for exciting new question formats.
Here are three quick reasons game show nerds should dig "500 Questions," a show that puts one contestant up against a wall of trivia questions and lets him rack up money until he misses three in a row.
Long live VH1's two-season beaut "The World Series of Pop Culture," a no-frills duel between pop culture nerds. Sometimes the questions were simplistic, but when the show heightened the stakes, it was thrilling. The best rounds were tiebreaker situations in which two players went back and forth naming correct answers until somebody finally missed. How long would you last naming singles off "ABBA Gold"? Or Grammy-winning rappers? "The World Series of Pop Culture" required that kind of comprehensive knowledge, and so does "500 Questions." Certain questions are designated "Battles" in which one contestant goes back and forth with an opponent. On episode one we saw a blitz between two players naming the past eight presidents who also served as governor of a U.S. state. It's a cool, thrilling way to make tough trivia fun. Glad the spirit of my favorite VH1 show is being served in 2015 primetime.
2. It brings back the best part of the Wink Martindale classic "Tic Tac Dough"
"Tic Tac Dough" was the familiar game of Xs and Os with an added trivia element. In its '80s incarnation hosted by Wink Martindale, one particular round was called "Auction" in which two contestants bet to see who could give more correct answers to a question. If the question were "Name the seven original cast members of 'Saturday Night Live,'" you might bet that you can name five correct answers; if your opponent says he can get six or more, he gets a chance to prove it and win the question. "500 Questions" offers something similar with its "Triple Threat" question round, in which a contestant must name three correct answers to a given question. It's rare that game shows make contestants spend time listing responses. And why is that? If you've ever seen "Quiz Show" with Ralph Fiennes (which detailed the real-life rigging scandal behind the '50s quiz "Twenty-One"), the most compelling questions required contestants to name multiple answers. It's an intimidating and old-school format that deserves a comeback.
3. Its contestants (so far) are legends of quiz shows.
On the first episode of "500 Questions," we saw Ogi Ogas return to the quiz show stage. Ogas won $500,000 on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" and came in second on GSN's "Grand Slam," a tournament pitting quiz show legends against each other. Ogas also appeared on the syndicated version of "Millionaire" as the "Ask the Expert" lifeline 22 times. Other "500 Questions" contestants in the pool (as evidenced by shots of the crowd) are "Jeopardy!" veterans Pam Mueller and Clifford Galiher, who both won the College Tournament, and a contestant from GSN's "The Chase" named James, who scored the most massive victory against the show's resident "beast" Mark Labbett in series history. "500 Questions" is showing serious commitment to casting fantastic players, which means most episodes should be intense.
We've only got seven straight weeknights of "500 Questions"; let's celebrate the interesting trivia and high level of contestant skill while we still can.