A little over two years ago, I wrote a blog post called “Trivial Pursuit vs. Cash Cab: No Contest,” in which I complained about the tendency in modern syndicated and network game shows toward showcasing contestants who are whooping loons, chosen more for their attention-hoggery than their game-playing skills. I contrasted that trend with Discovery Channel’s game show Cash Cab, which I praised for the “realness” of its contestants, by which I meant the unpredictability of their knowledge-base and the genuineness of their joy and satisfaction when they got a question right. Well, almost immediately, in-the-know folks popped up in the comments to set me straight about Cash Cab’s contestant-selection process, which isn’t as random as I’d assumed. Some people on Cash Cab really are off-the-street pickups, while others are people who’ve been pre-selected and told they’re going to be on a TV show (although they’re not supposed to know that the show will be Cash Cab until the producers direct them to take a taxi to their location). In the years since, stories have popped up—including a couple on this very site—detailing the process by which Cash Cab works and explaining how judicious editing creates the illusion. I’ve even seen the label “fake” slapped onto the show.

But with all due respect to my colleagues (seriously, no offense intended, you guys; you’re all aces in my book), let me make a couple of points:

  1. Given the rocky history of game shows—a genre that’s been beset by scandal in the past—I’d be reeeeeeally careful about using words like “fake” or “fraud.” The ‘50s TV quiz show Twenty-One, where the preferred contestants were given answers in advance… that was faked. There’s been no evidence that anyone on Cash Cab isn’t a real person answering real questions to the best of his or her knowledge. The only “fakery” is how some of the people came to be on the show, and again, by all accounts, even the pre-selected contestants haven’t been told they’re going to be on Cash Cab, which means the surprise factor is on the up-and-up. The other complaints I’ve read—that contestants don’t really get to walk out of the cab with the money they’ve won, and that the street shots don’t always match the route the cab is supposed to be taking, and that the actual length/structure of the rides is truncated and inconsistent—well, that’s television. Given 22 minutes to fill, how would you rather the Cash Cab producers apportion it: With questions and answers, or with long shots of people filling out release forms and having the game explained? Really, I’m more bothered by the editing trickery of other docu-style televised competitions—like American Idol, for example, which skips over the culling process before the judges arrive in town, purposefully sidestepping the part where truly terrible singers are tricked into believing that they’re good enough to get a callback. Compared to that, Cash Cab’s fudging is practically virtuous.
  2. No matter how the Cash Cab contestants make it into the actual cab, my original point is still valid: the people on the show are more down-to-earth than the contestants on, say, Minute To Win It or Deal Or No Deal. It’s fun to watch the arc of most Cash Cab segments, which usually start with the passengers being tentative and/or giggly and end with them becoming deeply invested in the game and their performance. Add in the amiable, matter-of-fact host Ben Bailey and the location footage of Manhattan, and Cash Cab achieves the effect its producers are going for: a game show that doesn’t look or feel like any other game show on the air.

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Well, except, there is another game show like Cash Cab on the air now: Cash Cab: Chicago, with host/driver Beth Melewski. Like Bailey, Melewski has a background in comedy—she’s a veteran of Second City—and like Bailey, her main assets are her relaxed demeanor and the way she genuinely seems to like and encourage her contestants. And like Cash Cab, the Chicago edition offers three games per half-hour, cut together with shots of local landmarks and businesses.

I don’t live in Chicago (though I visit The A.V. Club offices there once or twice a year), so I can’t nitpick whether the exterior shots match the trips the contestants are taking or whether the destinations/routes make sense. I watched the full first week of Cash Cab: Chicago last week, and I didn’t spend a whole lot of time trying to figure out what was “real,” or what had been edited out, or what would make a local roll his or her eyes. I was more interested in how well the Chicago production compared to the New York version.

Answer: fairly well. Melewski’s not as charismatic as Bailey, and she falls back too often on a chipper, “That’s right!” rather than mixing up her reactions or offering additional facts about the answer. But she’s got a disarming presence, and most importantly, she doesn’t look as shellacked and phony as most modern female TV hosts. She fits the feel of the show. Also, after several years of Manhattan, it’s refreshing to see some different chain stores outside the window of the cash cab.

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I have a few qualms about the structure of the show that are the same qualms I have about Cash Cab. Since just about every episode features one losing ride, one winning ride, and one winning ride where the contestants try a double-or-nothing Video Bonus, by and large, it’s easy to predict how well any given set of passengers will do. On the other hand, the Video Bonuses remain fairly difficult, and the contestants’ genuine excitement at winning a pile of money is one of the most reliably enjoyable moments on television these days. And if those same contestants have to give the money right back when the cameras are switched off and wait for a slightly smaller, post-taxes check in the mail… well, that’s showbiz.

Grade: B+

Stray Observations:

  • Yes, I’m aware that New York and Chicago aren’t the only Cash Cab locations in the world. I haven’t seen the UK original or any of the other spin-offs, so I can’t compare “our” Cash Cabs to theirs. Any of our far-flung correspondents want to weigh in?

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