Saturday, March 3, 2007 by

Having now watched the second series of Pokerface through to its much-trumpeted million pound final, I have decided it’s been the most intriguing game show I’ve seen in a very long time. Since five’s The Mole, probably. The problem is, while The Mole had me on the edge of my seat every week, Pokerface has been intriguing because I felt like I ought to be loving it, whereas I actually found it merely “quite entertaining”.

If you want to be cynical about it, it’s just another attempt at the “non-smiley” game show, a ball that was set rolling by The Weakest Link all those years ago, and while that programme has most certainly outstayed its welcome, nothing has ever come close to what made its early outings so enjoyable.

The crucial thing imitators all missed about those early runs of The Weakest Link was that, although players had to vote each other off, the majority of contestants were shown to be fairly uncomfortable about doing so, and it was rare anyone would take any pleasure in others’ misfortune. In other words, they were shown as perfectly nice people plonked into a hostile environment. Moreover, both thrived on the dichotomy created by the need to work as part of a team, while looking out for number one.

The clones, when they came, failed to recognise and incorporate these key characteristics. The worst offender, Dog Eat Dog, actively encouraged contestants to slag each other off, which not only made for uncomfortable viewing, but also led to the viewer finding contestants so repellent they didn’t actually want any of them to win. Furthermore, whereas we knew the nastiness of The Weakest Link was all pantomime villainy, we were given the impression Dog Eat Dog‘s lot were genuinely not very nice people.

This is where Pokerface hits its stumbling block.

The show reverses The Weakest Link‘s formula of “nice contestants/nasty host”, and sees the ever-chummy Ant and Dec trying to make the viewer care about players who are engrossed in an intentionally hard-nosed game. The problem is that, when a game rewards the very same character-traits that make someone difficult to like, there isn’t that much scope to encourage the viewer to root for a favourite. This was difficult enough to ignore in previous editions, but when we reach the final – with its line-up of the winning (and therefore, logically, the most hard-nosed) players from the earlier episodes – it adds up to a piece of television which is very difficult to enjoy.

Most curiously, the format of the show includes an initial “grilling”, where players can cross-examine each other as they reveal a mixture of true and false information about themselves (complete with captions to tell viewers how much of their story is for real). Whereas this is clearly meant to enable us to build our sympathies with the players, it has precisely the opposite effect on me. With the grilling being part of the game, the players are already in their inscrutable mode, rendering everything they say redundant.

Likewise, after each round of questions, players are allowed to talk to each other in an attempt to bluff, double-bluff, and manipulate opponents into believing they should fold, and thereby voluntarily leave the game. Again, this usually involves one player adopting an overly aggressive and arrogant persona, and once this happens, the others usually follow suit. Again, the result is any sympathy I have slowly ebbs away to the point where I hope there is some method built into the game mechanics that allows nobody to win anything at all.

Of course, another key aspect to The Weakest Link was that the prize money – although theoretically good – was in practice fairly paltry. It was easy to root for people when you knew they were more-than-likely there for the fun of the game. With Pokerface, and its million pound jackpot, the spectre of greed looms large. Not only do I start to feel the players see the game as simply a means to an end, but I begin to dislike the programme for offering such massive rewards to people who are being shown in this rather unpalatable light.

In the end, as I admitted earlier, I did watch the series through to its conclusion, so it must have been doing something right. Maybe it was to do with the hilariously pompous face that Ant would pull every time Dec read from the autocue. Or perhaps there was something more. There were occasions when, thankfully, the game seemed to be played in a more honourable way, but more often than not, the whole thing degenerated into something of an ignominious fiasco, with a group of contestants I simply hated.

Despite Ant and Dec’s attempts to humanise the players, this simply did not work, as the participants remained “in character” throughout. Perhaps a more successful strategy in this respect would be to interview contenders in isolation so we can hear more of their true personalities. As it was, there was always a sense that the hosts knew they were fighting a losing battle.

I suspect Pokerface is a format that would play better in other countries, such as the USA, where contestants’ attempts to win at all costs are generally regarded as more commendable. To make the game truly work for British audiences, I suspect you’d need to drastically reduce the prize money, and up the fun quotient. Huge prizes may draw in viewers, but they can all too often ruin the spirit of the game.

I’ve had to conclude the reason I didn’t like Pokerface as much as I expected is the same reason I’ve never really enjoyed The Apprentice. Quite simply, I don’t like anyone in it. I want to see nice people being rewarded on television, not hard-nosed cynics and bland executives.

Maybe I’m overly romantic in feeling TV should provide a means to reward people for niceness, modesty, and selflessness. But, remember, the premise of The Weakest Link and The Mole was that nice, genuine, gifted people would triumph over the oppressiveness of the game. Pokerface, as it stands, rewards those who make others feel inadequate, and that is something I simply can’t forgive.


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