Two Match Game Obsessives Discuss ABC’s Quiz-Show Reboot

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The funk is back. Photo: Heidi Gutman/ABC

Twitter followers of Vulture's West Coast editor Joe Adalian know very well how much he loves a certain kind of late-1970s television. One of his great public enthusiasms is Match Game, the game show that ABC reintroduced last night, with Alec Baldwin as the host. As it happens, Vulture contributor Christopher Bonanos is also a Match Game obsessive, and this morning, he and Adalian took to IM to pick over the premiere. Here's their conversation.

@heybonanos: So you were the only person I know who was as excited about the return of Match Game as I was.

@TVMoJoe: We are a rare breed. But I think, like Trump voters, we are the new silent majority!

@heybonanos: Did you (as I did, many times) ever think, "You know, someone should revive that?"

@TVMoJoe: Oh, yes. For years, actually. And, full disclosure, I’ve personally lobbied network executives to consider doing just this, for the better part of a decade.

@heybonanos: Really! So you are the silent hero in this!

@TVMoJoe: Aw, no — the hero is Robert Mills, the (relatively) new head of reality programs at ABC.
I particularly thought Match Game would be suited to the summer. In my imagination, studios could use Match Game (and Pyramid, another show I’ve long hoped would be revived) to help promote their summer blockbusters.

@heybonanos: Good for promotion, because the celebrity guests are in summer movies?

@TVMoJoe: Yup: My thinking was, a couple of cast members from a big blockbuster would stop by [to] do the Match Game panel. Alas, I think too many movie stars are under the illusion that doing a game show signals a downward trajectory for one’s career. So that may be one reason we don’t have huuuge stars on Match Game 2016. But thanks to Alec Baldwin’s presence, I think the panel is actually pretty solid.

So let’s back up a minute. Why did you love Match Game so much growing up?

@heybonanos: I was thinking about that last night, and I'm still not sure. I was about 9 or 10 when I was watching it regularly, so it wasn't the innuendo. Though I guess the fact that the panelists answer "fart" and "boobs" a lot can't have hurt. I'm guessing that it was mostly that they were actually witty people. Charles Nelson Reilly, for example, was a genuinely funny person. I also knew that Brett Somers had a connection to The Odd Couple, which I liked.

@TVMoJoe: I think Match Game was easily the most adult game show of its time (Tattletales was close, but I don’t remember ever watching it until decades later, on GSN).

@heybonanos: When you're just old enough to consume adult things, they make you feel like a sophisticated grown-up.

 @TVMoJoe: Even if we couldn’t grasp the innuendo, you could tell that a bunch of adults were having way too much fun. I love Card Sharks and Pyramid, but there’s not laughter and funny looks every tw0 minutes.

@heybonanos: Right — the fact that it was so loose was unusual. It didn't feel as hardened and formatted as most television, even then.

@TVMoJoe: It’s just fun now seeing everyone in the ’70s and early ’80s being relaxed, and slightly bawdy. And a lot of the humor still holds up.
But those are the reruns. Let’s get back to the revival.

@heybonanos: Why did it take so long for a network to try bringing it back?

@TVMoJoe: I think a couple things were in play. First, even in the 1970s, game shows really weren’t big in prime time. Obviously, they were huge in TV’s infancy. But after that, games were for daytime TV and early-evening syndication. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire revived the idea of prime-time game shows circa 2000. We got The Weakest Link and that awful Howie Mandel show with the suitcases, Deal or No Deal.

@heybonanos: It has seemed to me a no-brainer, because game shows are so cheap to make! They can try one, and if it doesn't work, they've spent, what, 10 percent of what a sitcom would cost?

@TVMoJoe: I think what's made prime time safe for game shows again is how far overall network ratings have dropped, particularly in the summer.
Rerun ratings plummeted in the age of DVRs, and then Hulu and Netflix. So networks tried to ramp up with more reality shows and, then, cheaper scripted stuff (like Under the Dome and Mistresses).

@heybonanos: I was going to ask you about that. You need to pull only five million viewers, or whatever the figure is, to have a success on the networks at 10 p.m.

@TVMoJoe: But now, even that scripted stuff has hit a wall. NBC’s second season of Aquarius is drawing a smaller crowd than sitcom reruns on TBS. And networks have been striking out bigly in attempts to mount new reality shows, à la Survivor or Big Brother. NBC and Fox have had some massive flops of late in the unscripted space. The one thing that’s still working in reality, especially in the summer? Brand names. Shows people already know and love. ABC’s The Bachelor. CBS’s Big Brother. NBC’s America’s Got Talent. Fox’s Gordon Ramsay shows.

@heybonanos: Aha. Which leads us to retro.

@TVMoJoe: Yup. These game shows already start as presold commodities.

@heybonanos: Match Game has 40 years of name recognition. The Game Show Network did ABC's promotion for it, stealthily, over the past decade.

@TVMoJoe: Don’t get me started on the network formerly known as Game Show Network (now simply GSN). They’ve all but abandoned the classics. They’re dead to me. It’s all about the Buzzr Network now, Chris!

@heybonanos: I will happily hear that rant at the bar sometime.

@TVMoJoe: Right, let’s stay on track. Networks as recently as five years ago worried that whatever awareness these shows had wouldn’t be enough to lure a decent-sized crowd, especially among viewers under 50, the ones advertisers want to reach. But now, ratings overall are so low, drawing 7 or 8 million viewers — as ABC did with its Sunday games — is actually a big win.

@heybonanos: So what did you think of the actual show itself? I went in braced for disappointment, because reboots are so often terrible.

@TVMoJoe: I am very, very happy this morning. Look, there are nits we could pick — and probably will. But the producers, and ABC, largely got this right.

@heybonanos: I'll tell you one thing that struck me. Usually when these things get remade, there is an urge to heavily update them to make them seem contemporar — to use a lot of cheesy faux-high-tech stuff.

@TVMoJoe: The first rule of game-show reboots should be: First, do no harm. Nostalgia is a huge part of the appeal. Why mess with that?!

@heybonanos: And they emphatically did not do that here. They still use blue cards and Magic Markers, which I thought was EXTREMELY charming.

@TVMoJoe: Not to sound like a flack for Mr. Mills of ABC, but: He gets it.

@heybonanos: I appreciated the gesture of reproducing Gene Rayburn's strange elongated ball-topped mic, which Google tells me is a Sony ECM-51 Electret Condenser Telescopic Microphone, and which has its own Facebook page.

@TVMoJoe: He’s one of us. He’s basically using his position at ABC to make his own TV geek dreams come true. He’s not programming based on focus groups. He’s not trying to exploit some property ABC already owned. He’s trying to make something he wants to watch (and, also, get big ratings). The first time I talked to him about Match Game — when he told me he was gonna try to make it happen — he said, “We need to bring back the show as close to how you remember it.” And they did.

@heybonanos: I'll take it. What'd you make of Alec Baldwin as a host?

@TVMoJoe: I was worried about Baldwin, just a little bit. He’s a very gifted man, very naturally funny. I worried he was, to be honest, too big a star to do this. I worried whatever ego someone of his stature justifiably might have would get in the way of his ability to let loose and have fun.

@heybonanos: Yes — I was a little concerned beforehand that he'd convey disdain. You know, "I did Mamet on Broadway, and now I'm reduced to this."

@TVMoJoe: Thankfully, I don’t think that happened. Was he a bit nervous at times? Sure — he’s replacing an icon. And he’s new to the business of hosting a game — it’s a very specific skill set. And he didn’t have years practice on some syndicated show (as Steve Harvey had with Celebrity Family Feud, and his talk show).

@heybonanos: He seemed willing and able to treat it as a goof, at least so far.

@TVMoJoe: I think the reason ABC approached him at all was because it suspected Baldwin was a fan of the original. And it’s clear he was.

@heybonanos: I was guessing that myself. He's the right age, certainly.

@TVMoJoe: So let’s talk about the panel, which will change from week to week.

@heybonanos: They certainly cast that well also.

@TVMoJoe: One thing is certain: Rosie O’Donnell needs to be in every episode.

@heybonanos: If anyone was made for this, she was.

@TVMoJoe: Did you also catch her on $100,000 Pyramid, the hour before? That show came alive when she was on. 1990s-era Rosie was back in a big way.

@heybonanos: And they got a whole lot out of JB Smoove. I seem to remember that the old show would put a really high-energy goofball on the panel regularly  someone who'd kid around and get everyone loose — and that was clearly his role.

@TVMoJoe: Smoove was clearly imbibing whatever the Match Game bar was serving up that night. If only he was just a little bit better with the answers.

@heybonanos: I did notice, last night, that the very last shot of the show revealed a cocktail glass on one of the panelists' desks.

@TVMoJoe: Mills told me they all had Match Game–branded cocktail glasses. The liquor was flowing.

@heybonanos: Everyone always says that about the old show — that everyone was sucking down booze backstage.

@TVMoJoe: I also enjoyed watching Michael Ian Black’s facial expressions throughout. He was in the Charles Nelson Reilly chair...

@heybonanos: Did you notice (as someone did in my Twitter feed) that they put the three-named guy in the three-named seat?

@TVMoJoe: Ha! I didn’t even put that together until now.

@heybonanos: Maybe a coincidence, maybe not.

@TVMoJoe: I don’t know if MIB was really channeling CNR here.

@heybonanos: If he starts smoking a pipe on the set ...

@TVMoJoe: A future episode will have Issac Mizrahi opposite Rosie. THAT could be interesting.

@heybonanos: Could be. He's the right kind of personality for this.

@TVMoJoe: I had really hoped to see Billy Eichner somewhere on Match Game, or Vulture alumna Julie Klausner. Sadly, it appears that won’t be happening, at least in season one. So, what didn’t work for you?

@heybonanos: The contestants seemed to have been cast for energy (good) but also for screwy not-quite-eccentricity (not so good). That endless story about the Double Stuf Oreos seemed like a waste of air.

@TVMoJoe: That lady was the definition of a Dumb Dora (albeit in a lovable way).

@heybonanos: "HOW DUMB WAS SHE?"

@TVMoJoe: Hey, now! I don’t disagree entirely about the casting of the civilians. However!

@heybonanos: Oh, there's a However! I want to hear this.

@TVMoJoe: This is where ABC and the producers had to straddle a careful line in bringing the franchise to prime time (for the first time, save for some specials). They had to account for the fact that, unlike with five-times-a-week daily show, viewers are only seeing this Match Game once per week. So, somehow, the stakes needed to be raised just a bit. In the past, networks would try to solve this by adding in those bells and whistles (in some cases, literal bells and whistles). That was one of the problems with the $100,000 Pyramid reboot, to be honest. I also very much enjoyed Pyramid — especially when Rosie and Kathy Najimy played.
But they added music to the :30 question round. They needlessly tweaked the theme. Those changes weren’t fatal, but they were clearly the result of overthinking things.
And that’s probably why we saw Hyper Contestants. The network and studio wanted people who stood out. Who could help with cutting promos of Shiny Happy People having fun.

@heybonanos: Makes sense, I guess.

@TVMoJoe: You just can’t put Debby from Pasadena on in prime time. Debby needs to have skills. Even if it’s just goofy dancing or Oreo cereal.

@heybonanos: Now that I think about it, I think the old show often had odd contestants too.

@TVMoJoe: Oh, sure. Producers have always “cast” contestants to a degree.

@heybonanos: And odd in the same way: loopy, airheaded, strangely energized.

@TVMoJoe: I’m just glad ABC actually put contestants over 35 on the air.

@heybonanos: That too! They didn't just go for hot young things.

@TVMoJoe: In the ’70s, the Match Game contestants were probably on uppers.

@heybonanos: "Give 'em a Quaalude after the taping, they'll be fine." Any word whether they're going to bring in any of the old panelists for a few episodes? Fannie Flagg or someone?

@TVMoJoe: Sadly, I don’t know that any of them made the cut. The show taped in New York, which likely ruled out Betty White. I don’t know why Fannie Flagg isn’t on.

@heybonanos: Maybe they want to establish the newness, and will float some of the old-timers in later. Where's Joyce Bulifant when you need her?

 @TVMoJoe: Per Wikipedia, she’s 78 and living in Palm Springs.

@heybonanos: And her ex-daughter-in-law is Jenny McCarthy?!

@TVMoJoe: So here’s what I hope for this new Match Game (and for the new Pyramid, too).

@heybonanos: Let’s hear it.

@TVMoJoe: I hope ABC gives this show more time, and more episodes. Not that last night’s ratings weren’t really good. They were! Pyramid actually had a few more viewers than Family Feud had, and Match Game held on to a big chunk of its Pyramid lead-in. And they did all this on a night when Game of Thrones and the BET Awards and even Olympics trials on NBC were big draws. But I also won’t be surprised if the ratings drift down a bit in the next few weeks as the curiosity factor fades.

@heybonanos: That's just about inevitable. But it doesn't need these numbers to sustain itself, does it?

@TVMoJoe: So if they do, I’m hoping ABC just stays the course. Because what both Pyramid and Match Game — but mostly Match Game — needs from a creative point of view is time. Baldwin needs time and practice to become great in his role (he’s already good). And producers need time to see what combination of panelists work best, and for those panelists to bond with each other.

@heybonanos: I buy all of that.

@TVMoJoe: Obviously all six aren’t going to be in every episode, even in a prime-time version which produces far fewer episodes than a weekday version. But if three or four can become mostly permanent panelists, and start to know each other — as Brett and CNR did, for example — what we saw last night will look like amateur hour.

@heybonanos: That’d be hard to do with a weekly, rather than nightly, show.

@TVMoJoe: You’re right — it’s two episodes per week vs. five. In my perfect plan, Fremantle (which produces the new Match Game) launches a syndicated version in fall 2017.

@heybonanos: That's a great idea. It'd be better TV than, say, Wheel of Fortune, which seems exhausted to me.

@TVMoJoe: But even before that happens, I see no reason some combination of Match Game and Pyramid can’t become weekly fixtures on the ABC lineup, year-round.

@heybonanos: Don’t forget To Tell the Truth, which is also back!

@TVMoJoe: Repeats are mostly dead on network TV, save for some comedies. This, if it works, would be a great way to replace reruns. One more question: What other show or shows would you love to see brought back? I lean toward the ’80s shows. I think Card Sharks or Sale of the Century could completely work again. Just think of the product integrations for Sale of the Century! Mills also told me he’d love to see Press Your Luck come back. I’m agnostic on that one.

@heybonanos: I’d go for one of the relatively cerebral ’50s ones. I recently watched a bunch of episodes of What's My Line? and the cast is astonishing. I mean, one of the panelists was Bennett Cerf, the publisher of Random House.

@TVMoJoe: Aw, for the days when TV wasn’t afraid to let intellectuals on the air!

@heybonanos: I can't really see Sonny Mehta getting on a game show these days. Though I would watch the hell out of THAT show, let me tell you.

@TVMoJoe: Surprised Camille Paglia hasn’t done a game show yet.

@heybonanos: Tough Camille was so tough ...

@TVMoJoe: HOW TOUGH WAS SHE?

@heybonanos: ... when a student made a pass at her, she'd BLANK him.