Sunday, 2 March 2014

Review: Revenge of the Egghead

The Ones That Got Away is changing schedule! The regular weekly review of questions we've missed in pub quizzes will now be appearing on Fridays - starting with a bumper One Year Anniversary Special later this week. Adjust your watches accordingly!

Like all cool dudes, little in life excites me more than a new quiz show, and few have been more hotly anticipated than Revenge of the Egghead, 12 Yard's latest BBC2 offering. Self-styled 'bad boy' of British quizzing CJ de Mooi takes on five normal folk in a slightly weird, but ultimately enjoyable, teatime trivia test.

The basics

Still waiting for that quiz-based Bond villain.
It's a story of the ages. Boy meets quiz, boy loses quiz, boy loses rag, boy becomes known as 'boy who loses quizzes and rags', boy becomes Egghead, boy stops being an Egghead, boy gets own quiz show (and becomes Egghead again). You know how it goes.

A team of five contestants tackle questions in turn to build up a cash pot with each correct answer putting £200 in the kitty. If someone gets one wrong and CJ knows the answer he can hit his Big Red Button and the unlucky soul is put on the 'hot spot' where a trickier (albeit multiple choice) question threatens to cost them a life. Lose two lives and it's bus fare home o'clock.

After a semi-arbitrary amount of time (usually about 15 minutes) the surviving contestants combine their brains - and their remaining lives - to take on the Egghead for the money. Here, CJ gets 10 questions with which to set a target for the challengers to beat. All they have to do is outscore him before incorrect answers cost them their pooled lives and whatever they've banked is shared between them. Lose, and all they get is a nicely hammed up smirk.

The good

The fundamentals, then, are fairly solid. Questions are of a good difficulty and largely fast-paced, with relatively little of the 'I think it's London because it's not another city and because that's the answer' banality that plagues many a modern quiz show. Even the hot spot element, which has considerable potential for tedious, time-wasting kerfuffle, is incorporated fairly seamlessly. Host Jeremy Vine is, well, Jeremy Vine, so at least you know where you are (even if he often seems unsure himself).

The not-so-good

The show is apparently set in de Mooi's
(very shiny) alien spaceship.
Inevitably, of course, parallels have been drawn with ITV's The Chase, with many decrying Revenge of the Egghead as a pale imitation of what is now an international format. While allegations of plagiarism seem a touch misguided (Eggheads, after all, is the granddad of the 'professional quizzer' genre), I do think it will struggle to win over fans of the Beast et al. given its lower-stakes and lower-tension gameplay. The jackpots, for example, are tiny by comparison, with those who make it to the money round - which can never compete with the frantic drama of a Final Chase - typically playing for under £1,000 each.

It is tough, however, to see a way out of what are clearly some quite tight financial constraints. A basic difficulty is that unlike some similarly budgeted shows (such as Eggheads and Pointless) we're not being presented with a team per se, but a group of strangers. If a couple win £1,000 on Pointless you can at least pretend they go off and spend the money together, whereas here you know they're all just thinking about their (fairly small) share. The tactic of rolling over unwon money, meanwhile, doesn't sit with the central idea of a team building a jackpot. Instead, then, you're looking for an in-game mechanic which really narrows down the options. Perhaps if the team could 'buy' money with remaining lives (or as a reward for beating CJ with lives to spare) they could bump up the total on offer without too much extra risk, but it's obviously hard to judge from an outsider's perspective.

CJ looking bored. Or possibly sleepy.
I can't help suspect that the show hopes the (pantomine) villainous form of CJ will distract viewers from the rather meagre winnings on offer, but for me that whole charade is the only real weakness of the programme. At it's most basic is the question everyone has been asking: just what is the Egghead getting revenge for? Why is he so desperate to take these common-or-garden quizzers down a peg or two? Just what does he find so interesting about his fingernails? For a quiz, it leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

It doesn't help that CJ hasn't really grown into his role yet. He's quite good at looking bored, and rolling his eyes, and looking bored again, but otherwise it's a fairly obvious act which nobody is truly buying. By comparison, The Chasers are much less one-dimensional, often tailoring their attitude to individual contestants and the general state of a game. CJ is afforded neither the time nor the opportunity to establish anything near that level of personalization, leaving us instead to wonder why this rather thin man is so angry with Dave from Stevenage and Louise from Manchester.

The conclusion

These are, however, the mere window-dressings of what is still a perfectly watchable show. From a quizzer's perspective I care far more about the quality - and quantity - of questions than whether CJ can pull off the tricky single-raised-eyebrow-smirk combo, and on the former it performs better than most. The format itself is interesting and, although its implementation doesn't do anything for me, I don't doubt there are plenty who boo and cheer in all the right places. I do wonder, however, whether you could replace CJ with another (carefully chosen) contestant also fighting for some cash and do away with the whole 'revenge' angle altogether. While a good quizzer, CJ is not a particularly great one, and I suspect enough non-professional quizzers of a similar calibre could be found to fill a series this way (although admittedly without CJ's personality the host would need to pick up a lot of slack).

Still, Revenge of the Egghead will be part of my regularly scheduled programming for the time being, and for the questions alone I'd recommend it to most moderate-level quizzers. I'm also keeping an eye out for the appearance one Lisa Thiel who, if you haven't heard, is the latest addition to the regular cast of Eggheads. Apparently her performance against CJ helped her get that particular gig, so I'm anticipating fireworks.

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