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When it was first announced, the new game show The Wall from NBC sounded like a bizarre project. The show was produced with help from NBA superstar LeBron James, and the Chicago Tribune’s early look described it as “a high-tech Plinko game.” But almost immediately people began suggesting it could be a new generation’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. A little more than a month into the show’s first season, we have a clearer picture of what it’s all about. And though it is indeed strange, it seems to be working.
The show is actually a bit tricky to explain despite being relatively simple in practice. The game is played by pairs of contestants who take the stage together to answer questions from host Chris Hardwick in front of the giant high-tech Plinko board. For each question they answer correctly, they may choose to drop a green ball in one of seven slots, and watch it fall to a given dollar amount to be added to their prize total. For each incorrect answer, they must drop a red ball, with the resulting amount being subtracted from the total. Eventually, one member of the team must retreat to an isolation booth to answer trivia questions alone, while the other partner makes strategic gambles related to the prize totals.
Things change some over the course of several rounds, but that more or less covers the basics. You need only watch for 10 minutes or so to realize that this is quite different from the game shows that were popular in the early-2000s.
The game itself is seemingly more random and sporadic than some of those earlier game shows. Take, for instance, Deal Or No Deal. Some viewed this as the most random, chance-based game show of the early-2000s era, largely because there was no actual trivia involved. But even in that show, there were established mathematical strategies that contestants could use to gain an edge. Even though a great deal of the game came down to chance, there were theoretically “correct” answers for contestant. It’s not unlike the way there is always a mathematically advantageous decision to make in a game of Blackjack. That doesn’t guarantee results, but it guarantees that the odds for a strategic player could always be as favorable as possible. With The Wall, things feel a little more haphazard. There are right and wrong trivia responses, but the other elements of the game feel as if they could go any which way.
The presentation of the show is also very different than what we’re used to. Take Millionaire, which was probably the biggest sensation among game shows in the 21st century, and in a way set the tone for programs like The Wall. On Millionaire, viewers were able to narrow their focus to a very small area. There was just one host, one contestant, and a couple of computer screens all clustered together. The rest was about graphics that could display the questions and answers. The Wall couldn’t be more different. Hardwick and the contestants move continually across a large stage, and the camera moves from one end to the other, panning over the crowd, and focuses on the titular wall. Eventually, when one contestant retreats into isolation, we also get looks through a set camera in the isolation booth. The presentation is all over the place, and a far cry from the typical game show. Millionaire and other examples felt more intimate and contained.
All this is to say that The Wall really is different. That may be good or bad depending on your personal preferences, but it seems to be working for NBC. Despite some hit-or-miss early reviews, a recent report indicates that the show has been picked up for 20 more episodes, likely indicating a life beyond 2017. It’s hard to imagine the show becoming the sensation Millionaire or Deal Or No Deal was, but at this point it’s easy to imagine it sticking around awhile nonetheless.