Television is not exactly in dire need of game shows. The Price Is Right continues to make contestants come on down every weekday morning on CBS, as it has for decades. Over on ABC, which successfully devoted a chunk of its summer prime-time lineup to rebooted retro fare, Match Game and To Tell the Truth will return this week, while Big Fan — a new series in which celebrities test their knowledge of trivia about themselves (!) against the knowledge of their admirers — will debut next Monday. Then there’s the Game Show Network, which devotes all 24 hours of every single day to re-airing Family Feud episodes hosted by Steve Harvey. (That’s not entirely true: Sometimes GSN also shows original programs as well as old episodes of Deal or No Deal and Card Sharks.)
Into this competitive landscape lumbers The Wall, the absurd yet undeniably diverting NBC series that debuts in its official time slot tonight at 8, after two preview episodes that aired last night and last month, respectively. One could describe The Wall as Plinko Writ Large, hosted by that guy who also hosts that talk show about The Walking Dead. (That would be Chris Hardwick, who, in addition to Talking Dead, also hosts @midnight and the Nerdist podcast and seems to be staging a successful coup on Ryan Seacrest’s remaining job opportunities.) That description would be accurate. But so is this one: The Wall is the most stereotypically American game show on television right now, and not only because its name is evocative of one of President-elect Trump’s most prominent policy plans.
In many ways, The Wall embodies values that are distinctly red, white, and blue. It attempts to sell us something new, even though its concept is really based on old ideas that someone put in a blender and mixed up just enough so they would seem fresh, which is the same guiding principle that has kept American capitalism running for decades.
The Wall, executive produced by, among others, Hardwick and LeBron James, seems to have been dreamed up one night while James & Co. were on a sugar high, couldn’t find the remote, and then got stuck watching GSN for five hours. “What if we take Plinko from The Price Is Right, and the basic trivia questions from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, then add contestants who are related, like on Family Feud, and — oh! oh! — throw in an isolation booth from that corrupt game show that Robert Redford made that movie about. That sounds like a totally new thing, right?” Technically, it is a totally new thing, and one realized on a grander scale because of — and here I will write in all caps in order to evoke the appropriate degree of grandness — THE WALL.
“The Wall gives,” Hardwick tells us at least once an episode, “and the Wall takes away.” Which makes the Wall sound like the Lord, and that’s just ridiculous, because there’s no way God is as tall as the monstrosity constructed by The Wall production team, who were apparently given the following instructions: “Build a pachinko game like the massive Connect Four at Dave & Busters. Then give it a case of gigantism.”
The Wall is huge because, like all good things in America, this version of Plinko must be supersized and also made more complicated. In every episode, one half of the competing pair — so far, the contestants have been married couples — drops a massive glowing orb into a tube that then shoots the ball out of the top of the Wall until it lands in a slot that has a dollar value assigned to it. When the other half of the pair — who is in that isolation booth — answers trivia questions correctly, the board lights up green and dollars are added to the tally. But get an answer wrong and the board turns red, then starts to subtract from the earnings based on where the ball drops. In addition to being a carbon copy of Plinko, the way the Wall works is also vaguely reminiscent of watching a lottery drawing. Those mega-ping-pong balls fall where they may and, potentially, change lives.
And this is another way in which The Wall is very American: It keeps emphasizing, in highly dramatic fashion, that the lives of its contestants will be transformed because of how much cash they win on The Wall. This is true of all game shows, but they lean into the concept extra-hard on The Wall.
Another element in the multilayered competition requires the isolated contestant to decide whether to sign a contract that guarantees the couple a certain amount of money, or to tear it up and gamble on what the Wall has given them, even though he or she, having been in isolation, has no idea what that amount is. Again, this is so American — this is exactly how many citizens made their choices in the recent election! — but it also guarantees that there will be high stress, tears shed, and the sense that a dream has been either realized or deferred during each episode.
Unlike Hollywood Game Night or Big Fan, The Wall is not celebrity-focused, and that’s another thing that makes it a show with hot-dog-at-a-baseball-game values. Its contestants are real folks who you want to see win that money, either because one of them recently lost a job, or both spouses served in the military and deserve something in return for that sacrifice. And they’re all working for it by answering questions about things that are thoroughly American, like, “Which NFL team did Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character play for in Jerry Maguire?” or “Which of the ghosts in Pac-Man was the color orange?” (Against all logic, last night’s contestant, Kate, went with Pinky as her final answer. Pinky! The one ghost whose name is a color that isn’t orange!)
The audience for The Wall so far has been decent enough — more than 4 million people tuned in last night — and I can also report that my 9-year-old son is an enormous fan. Personally, I think The Wall is silly, and probably not that good for me, but something I still kind of enjoy, which are things I would also say about McDonald’s, the Super Bowl, most summer blockbusters, and select hair-metal bands. Like I said: It’s very, very American.