Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Review: The 21st Question

"I've got 21 questions to go..."
It's the summer! No really, you can tell because ITV are doing their thing of taking The Chase off air for a few weeks while they trial some new shows. Gethin Jones (equally famous for his roles on Blue Peter and Welsh language rugby-themed quiz Cwis Meediant) spends an hour asking 21 questions to 11 contestants, one of whom could be walking away with thousands of pounds. It sounds, and is, a bit slow, but with 2000% more questions than Deal or No Deal it's not always quantity that counts.
The show has a simple premise - Gethin has 21 questions and whoever's in control of the game when he asks the final one gets the chance to win a Big Cash Prize. Regular quiz viewers will know, however, that a simple premise alone does not necessarily a simple show make, and in its implementation various complications arise.

We start by being launched headfirst into the 'Race to Five' where the contestants are asked to find five correct answers to a question from a set of ten options ("Which five of these ten are Coronation Street characters?", for example). As Gethin explains while they answer (apparently oblivious to those of us trying to tackle the question ourselves) this will decide who stands where at the start of the game. We still don't know what any of this really means, however, and so Gethin is left to inject some intrigue on our behalf "Oh, you've chosen position number 9? Interesting! Position number 3? That's brave!". A first time viewer may as well be watching Numberwang, and if you're more interested in my thoughts as a whole than a summary of the rules, skip down to Easy when you know how.

You've got the touch, you've got the power (spot)

Once everyone's in position someone will be on the 'Power Spot' and we now get a grip on the actual mechanics. The game is split into 'battles' of up to three questions where the Power Spot player tries to see off whoever is next in line. Crucially, the challenger can only succeed and take over the Power Spot by answering a question correctly that the Power Spot player gets wrong; if both contestants match each other across the three questions then the challenger is eliminated. In the meantime, correct answers from the Power Spot player builds up the show's jackpot (but no-one really pays any attention to that).

Gethin to know you.
Play continues with either the Power Spot player holding on, or a challenger replacing them, gradually working down the queue of contestants as the question number ticks up. As there are a fixed number of questions some players may not get to play at all (unless some battles end quickly) and we'll occasionally hear a strange noise and a challenger at the back of the queue will be told they're out. Similarly, a player in the 'danger zone' and at risk of the same fate may find themselves guaranteed to play. As a final bit of gameplay contestants may sometimes 'double up': doubling the difficulty and monetary value of the questions in a battle. After the 20th question whoever is in control of the Power Spot has, effectively, won the show, and gets to face the titular question for the cash. Anyone left in line toddles off (but, as long as it's not Friday, will be back tomorrow - hooray!).

The jackpot question is a fairly standard list format, such as the 10 most populous US cities, or the 10 biggest grossing Leonardo di Caprio movies. The contestant is first asked for three answers that appear on the list, and if they're all there they win half the jackpot. They can then gamble to offer a further two that will net them the full jackpot, and then gamble one last time to offer a sixth answer for the chance to double it. Win or lose they're the one contestant who won't be coming back tomorrow (and with nary a coveted trophy to dry their tears).

Easy when you know how

A simple premise it may be then but, as that explanation illustrates, there's a lot more going on than just 21 questions. Much of this becomes clear after a few episodes but for a brand new show testing the waters with a ten-game run it asks rather a lot of its necessarily new viewers. While some of these complications are largely unavoidable, there are still things the show could really do without. A fixed jackpot for example, rather than one that builds, would remove an element that adds approximately nothing to the experience. (While in theory a player lasting a long time on the Power Spot yields a bigger jackpot, this detail is generally lost in the broader 'survival' narrative.) The double up, meanwhile, feels like something very much tacked on and doesn't offer as much tactical depth as the show would like us to think (a Power Spot player should almost never use it, a challenger almost always should).

There are, however, more fundamental problems, with the show's 'basic' premise the most significant. In an era where to save money quiz shows try to desperately string out as few questions over as long a period as possible, advertising up front that you're going to spend an hour asking just 21 of them is remarkably brazen. The Chase can ask that many in a couple of minutes, while the similar-ish Eggheads usually manages around 30 in half the time. What's more, the general difficulty level is so low that several of those 21 are often pointlessly easy, with the knock-on effect whereby contestants will often be eliminated despite answering all of their questions correctly. (While this of course rewards players who start on the Power Spot for their bravado, it still leaves an unsatisfying taste in the mouth.)

"If you're in green you will be seen" is one of
several rejected catchphrases for the show.
Beyond gameplay the presentation of the show can be characterized as 'okay'. Gethin's hosting is serviceable, but with the hallmarks of a man who cut his teeth in children's television, while the general aesthetics are the now-typical 'dark and moody' affair which inspires nobody. It says a great deal that for me the studio highlight is a moving walkway that swings around to the next contestant after each elimination.

Overall, however, this is not as bad a quiz as it sounds. Once you're broadly familiar with the idea of "someone's in control and has to answer questions to stay in control until the end" the various intricacies can be safely ignored. At that point it becomes a fairly unremarkable hour of questions that could at least serve as a backdrop while you're making dinner. The jackpot round is fun enough (even if they do commit the quizzing cardinal sin of sometimes not revealing missing answers), and seeing someone last a long time on the Power Spot has the potential to be quite engaging. Beyond that, though, I don't buy into the various forced narratives ("ooh, you faced Steve on Tuesday and he won!"), but I'm sure there are plenty of potential viewers to whom that would appeal.

On a first viewing, though, things are at best overwhelming and at worst incomprehensible, and so it's understandable that the show has received the customary bashing on social media platforms. Given a couple of weeks for viewers to get to grips with it's conceivable this could do enough to merit another run, and with a few tweaks (or at least a better approach to how the rules are presented) it could and should be far less intimidating. Even then, though, the lack of questions (and consequent pacing) makes this a tough sell to even the most casual quizzer.

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