Dog Eat Dog

Saturday, April 14, 2001 by

Saturday night might not be the ratings battleground of yore, but the age-old rules still seem to apply.

The need for a light entertainment hit in BBC’s early evening slot has accursed the Corporation since the popular demise of Noel’s House PartyRed Alertwas an abject failure in both of its incarnations, and the Beeb are still to find a suitable vehicle for the National Lottery (don’t Gordon Kennedy and Anthea Turner seem a distant memory now?) Measured success was attained with Ant and Dec andFriends Like These, yet even though it is some time since there was a palpable new weekend light-ent hit (Stars In Their Eyes) on either BBC or ITV, both channels keep trying. Over at ITV there is a growing body of opinion that Cilla and Blind Date may have finally had their day, meanwhile BBC1 – perhaps in anticipation – have brought us Ulrika Jonsson and Dog Eat Dog.

Pre-publicity has attempted to liken this programme to Big Brother and The Weakest Link, yet in truth Dog Eat Dog is more similar to Friends Like These than either of these two programmes. The show’s premise pits together six contestants for a day of gruelling challenges designed to test their physical and mental ability. They are then invited to use their newly accrued knowledge of each other’s weaknesses to select the contestant they think is most likely to fail in a number of studio-based challenges. No longer, it would seem are game shows to be judged solely on the standard of their games.

In tonight’s programme, the audience gasp as the first challenge is wheeled onto the stage – a big swing. This is by no means a daredevil stunt in the Saturday tradition of the Whirly Wheel, yet the audience’s seemingly stage-managed reaction would suggest that we are in for a thrilling spectacle. The contestants seem somewhat stage managed too. Arrogant Page is rudely and rather unnaturally confident of his chances of success in round one, yet his subsequent demise is met with evident and rather overacted glee by eventual programme winner Helen. In time we learn that she doesn’t like anyone. Strong opinions seemed to have crystallised in her mind after having spent only one short day with her fellow contestants.

Little is made of that oft mentioned “day out”, save for a little bit of footage as each of the contestants are introduced, and some more scenes forming part of that staple challenge since time (or at least Screen Test) immemorial – the observation round. Consequently, that part ofThe Weakest Link that Dog Eat Dog attempts to pilfer (namely the contestant’s attempt to gauge each others’ strengths and weaknesses) is rendered rather meaningless, as we are unable to view the evidence upon which such judgements are based. There are other things wrong too. Surely the criteria for the selection of the contestant to take part in each round would be better verbalised within the studio as opposed to running previously recorded justifications with each participant? A good opportunity to heighten the underlying conflict amongst the contestants would seem to have been missed. Also, is it just me, or does each pre-recorded interview at the beginning of every round happen to account for those contestants that have already been knocked out?

So, Dog Eat Dog is ultimately left to stand and fall by the quality of its games and the skill of its presenter. Taking the latter first, here we find Ulrika in post-irony mode. Returning safely to the bosom of Saturday night telly, she is competent enough, but certainly no Anne Robinson. Her biggest crime is to fail to capitalise on the stage-managed hostility provided by the contestants, but perhaps she is aware that were she to push the point further this little artifice would surely crumble. The games are adequate (although can anybody explain to me what the final elimination round was about?) but unoriginal. In fact, it is here that Dog Eat Dog effectively becomes Friends Like These – except with your “friends” willing you to lose, not win. Even the last round is but an inversion of Ant and Dec’s nail-biting finale, with the winning contestant up against the losers in a surprise battle to secure the £10,000 prize money.

So, the intention is clear then. Another Friends Like These would seem to be the aim: a slightly credible, moderately performing game show. The TV laws of diminishing return would suggest that Dog Eat Dog, albeit cleverly packaged as the next Weakest Link, will not attain even those meagre heights. It is palatable enough though: a diverting succession of rather predictable games, but crucially lacking any real “bite”.


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