Over the course of 2011, in keeping with recent tradition, NBC has presented a study in steady decline. Now, the network is rounding out the calendar year and the programming half-season with a program about abrupt descent. All this week at 8 p.m. ET, it is delivering the mild synthetic opiate of Who's Still Standing?, a quiz show that sends people plunging through the floor of the set when they deliver incorrect answers. My editor was hopeful that, in practice, the show would resemble something out of the Mike Judge satire Idiocracy. If only.
Monday night's contestant was Jared, a volleyball coach from Arkansas, handsome in plaid. He stood surrounded by 10 persons alleged to possess book smarts or pop-culture mastery. The panelists dressed in blazing colors—eye-clutching solids, mostly. A Ph.D. student was done up in the nerd-drag of a bow tie and an electric-lime V-neck sweater. A gentleman in a tropical-print polo wore palm fronds clinging to his plump pecs. If Jared rid the stage of all these loud shirts and the backs they rode in on, he would collect $1 million, but he had also the option of walking away early, having pulling in a four- or five-figure sum for vanquishing each foe.
Jared first matched wits with a squeaky young lady in screaming teal. She got the party started by identifying a restaurant chain famous for its "11 herbs and spices." The show gave her a hint with a graphic indicating that this word was three letters long and had a K in it: "K _ _." (A later round began with the query, "What biblical figure said, 'The truth shall make you free.'" Five letters, starts with a J.) "Remember," Bailey reminded, "as the round goes on, the questions get harder." It would be fun to see what would happen if they got easier, so that the contestants risked wasting their time in trying to discern the tricks of the questions or in sputtering indignantly at the idiocy of them.
Jared and the woman sparred at length, exhausting the round's tests of remedial knowledge—the sort of questions only posed to players on prime-time game shows and to persons suspected of being, beneath the surface, extraterrestrials—and eventually progressing to tougher stuff. "What IMF chief resigned in 2011?" The teal woman squealed for that one: "Yay! A recent question!" When she answered correctly, the in-studio audience went bananas, awarding her a standing ovation. I couldn't tell whether its members were awed by her ability to turn on CNN or if Bernard-Henri Lévy had somehow packed the taping with DSK apologists.
Ms. Teal was eliminated for failing to identify the Minnesota city ranked by Money magazine as America's best place to live in 2010: "_ _ _ _ _ _ _ I _ _" The floor dropped out from under her. Whoosh. Away she went. Much as I appreciated the slo-mo replay of the moment, I found her disappearance terribly unexciting. Why, later, when another contestant plummeted, she didn't even lose her silly red hat! Back in my day, one get could slimed for confessing one's ignorance, and the roster of things you can do on television to humiliate your fellow man has expanded dramatically since. Let me put it this way: When, during a commercial break, I heard a tease for the 11 p.m. news—"video of teenagers beating a homeless man for fun"—I kind of halfway assumed that it was a promo for a new reality show. Why does Who's Still Standing? stubbornly insist on allowing human beings dignity?
Perhaps NBC intends the program as a gateway drug or a foot in the door, and its mission is to begin putting 4-year-olds on training wheels for Fear Factor. Indeed, given the tone of the proceedings, the show seems designed to distract children whose presents are being wrapped in the next room and, simultaneously, to entertain in-laws who are going to be here for a whole goddamn week. An elf-strewn graphic identified this as the beginning of "The Who's Still Standing? Holiday Marathon," and Santa Claus, presumably doing voice-over work for scale, chuckled us through the bumpers. It's almost as if the show is trying to pass itself off as a special edition of a long-running family favorite—and the production is so perfectly generic and comforting that some viewers might have assumed that to be the case.
Jared won five rounds, decided to play it safe, and walked off with $49,000. The host wished him well and offered him a choice of exit strategies: "You wanna go through the door or you wanna go through the floor?" Then the remaining panelists played a speed round. Whoosh whoosh whoosh. Away they went. One of them was eliminated because he couldn't puzzle out "Nadya Suleman's maternal nickname": "_ _ _ O _ _ M". Now, ignorance of Nadya Suleman is its own reward, but it would have been nice if the guy had earned a consolation prize—a ride around the studio on a flying rig, say, a little something for being above it all.
And who knows? Maybe when Who's Still Standing? resumes tonight, it will emerge that the fallen panelists from yesterday are still down there, weepily begging to be released from a stinking oubliette, the spiked walls of which won't stop contracting until they solve the world's hardest crossword puzzle. Your in-laws will love it.