The Shame Game
Fox's humiliating new game show, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?
At the end of Tuesday's episode of American Idol, host Ryan Seacrest introduced a special guest from the studio audience— Jeff Foxworthy, presenter of Fox's new game show Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? (Thursdays, 9 p.m. ET). Foxworthy confirmed that his contestants would indeed compete against a group of elementary-school students, and Seacrest elicited a representative question: How many sides does a trapezoid have?
Seacrest, eager as usual to play the bimbo, affected an expression of glazed perplexity and redirected the question to Randy. The camera snatched a glimpse of the judges' table: Simon pitched forward and glistened as if admiring the new show's obvious breadth of demographic appeal. Paula had a hand at her temple and languidly flapped its fingers as she impatiently gazed into the near distance; the day's obligations fulfilled, she would not be troubling herself to envisage a trapezoid or to recollect what a side might be. Randy ad libbed grinningly: "Trapezoid? That's the droid from Star Wars, right?" He seemed as psyched as Simon. Twenty-seven million Idol viewers stuck around to watch the debut of 5th Grader, and most of them came back for more episodes on Wednesday and Thursday.
The adult contestants on 5th Grader make their way from backstage to stand in one of the high-tech game-show gladiator pits that are all the rage these days. Five children sit stationed at school desks opposite. The fifth graders comport themselves not unlike regular kids, with arrhythmic diction and many stretches and slouches, rather than the plastic poise and unnerving posture more common on TV. Generally, one fifth grader comes to stand at a podium beside the adult's, writing down answers from which contestants can crib in a jam.
In what month does Columbus Day fall? To which constellation does the Big Dipper belong? Who was the first U.S. president to be impeached? These people don't know, and one can't always fault them. The beauty of the show is its randomness. Questions that would be just and fitting on a citizenship exam or a simple test of sanity are mixed up with trivia about bears and factoids about cirrus clouds.
The central theme of Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? is shame. Last night's viewers got to feel condescension or mortification—take your pick—while a phone salesman talked his way through the question: "What is the suffix of the word unfortunately?" Foxworthy elicits a particular promise from each new player: Anyone who quits before winning the million-dollar grand prize must face the camera and confess, "I am not smarter than a fifth grader." The host also has at least two humiliating one-liners per segment, for instance asking the series' first contestant, a UCLA alumnus who struggled pitifully, "Do you have any idea how many USC grads are loving this moment?" Such gibes might be harshly mocking if not for Foxworthy's drawling courtliness, which renders them good-ol'-boy teases.
It is left to the children to supply actual scorn and open derision. The tykes greet Foxworthy's jokes with greater mirth than they deserve, and they laugh harder yet at the contestants' indecisive mutterings and verbalized doubts. The standout is Alana, a girl with a vicious giggle and a talent for rolling her eyes around while still seeming pretty. If you'll be tuning in, keep an eye out for her. If you share her cafeteria table, watch your back.
Fox puts embarrassment on the bill yet again this Sunday in the form of a new sitcom, The Winner (debuts at 8:30 p.m. ET). The viewer is meant to squirm at the retarded sexuality of one Glen Abbott, an undersocialized 32-year-old living with his parents … in Buffalo … in the year of our Lord nineteen-hundred and ninety-four. In one episode, Glen—still a virgin—contemplates hiring a hooker. In another, he nearly beds a man-eating adulteress, only to bail when he discovers her herpes ointment. A former teacher of his finally makes him a man in the fifth episode—an occasion for a couple of Graduate jokes that seem not merely tired but irreversibly comatose, however much the laugh track begs to differ. It is painful to watch the charming Rob Corddry, late of the Daily Show, subject himself to the role of Glen. Consider it proof of Corddry's superb resourcefulness that he somehow manages to wring the occasional drop of comedy from these dreary situations, sludgy as they are with vintage Fox crassitude.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Still from Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? by Michael Yarish © 2007 Fox. Still from The Winner by Michael Lavine © 2007 Fox. All rights reserved.