[Note: Another kind of game night overran a portion of tonight’s finale; thanks to football, we do not know if Terry Crews is as awesome at TV ID as he was at I Love a Charade.]
Games are serious business. Even discounting the current landscape of high-stakes, extended competition, the visceral thrill of watching people try to succeed as you yell at them is a time-honored one. Parlor games are no exception–friendships live and die by them, and a remarkably large portion of daytime TV has been dedicated to seeing how far they can go; they stopped worrying about it when no one called out Supermarket Sweep no matter how many times they reminded people it was a game show about running through a grocery store. The adrenaline rush of rooting for strangers will, honestly, never get old.
Tonight was the season finale of Hollywood Game Night, the show about party games you never really thought were that fun, but played by celebrities who are just enough cooler than you that you might have secretly imagined the day you’d sit next to a tipsy Amy Poehler and say, “I will kick your ass at this off-brand Name That Tune.”
If the premise sounds familiar, it should; aside from the long track record of making celebrities pretend to have spontaneous fun on national television (from Hollywood Squares to Jeopardy), there’s a more recent trend in late-night talk shows to incorporate self-consciously quirky segments; Jimmy Fallon, perhaps, has the corner on this particular market, skipping promo-clip sound bites to play pie roulette with Lucy Liu and beer pong with Chris Evans.
And as the line between stars and the public has gotten thinner, there’s a particular breed of proprietary fondness that pop culture feeds, making these seemingly behind-the-scenes glimpses a hybrid performance somewhere between public relations and possible candor. (Jimmy Fallon figured the world should know how Chris Evans is at beer pong; it’s weirdly nice to know he’s not that great at it.) And even more than that, there’s an endless appetite for dish behind the scenes about what famous people are like in their own environment.
And Hollywood Game Night knows it.
This candyfloss competition, in which Jane Lynch pits two couches’ worth of B- and C-listers against one another for an evening of parlor games under the leadership of a civilian, has been pulling in pretty respectable ratings; with that formula, why wouldn’t it? Not that it’s overly cynical. In fact, despite its careful setup, it seems to embrace an earnest, low-stakes ’70s smarm, with cash prizes so modest you can almost imagine the half-dozen celebrities showed up just because host Jane Lynch called them up, and not because many of them are contracted by NBC or affiliates to appear on the network occasionally in the off-season. There are other smart touches designed to keep things feeling cozy–a small studio audience that gives the space the feel of an improv show, a jazz band just waiting to riff as necessary, and a working bar.
The games themselves are a carefully-calibrated hybrid of recognizable classics and internet memes you’d send a hip aunt. Everyone recognizes I Love a Charade, Timeline, and the singing challenge How Do You Doo; meanwhile, Picture Purrfect replaces actors in movie stills with cats, because of course, and the occasionally-sublime Lil’ [sic] Picassos makes everyone try to identify a children’s drawing of a celebrity. And to the show’s advantage, each round is lighting-paced, ensuring no one outstays their welcome while bombing Take the Hint.
The real draw, of course, are the celebrities bolted to each couch for the duration. Wisely, no particularly controversial figures appear, and despite some viewer-baiting titles like “The One With the Friends” in which only Lisa Kudrow and Matthew Perry are present, each round of casting works essentially smoothly. Some of the teams are oddly inspired (Stacy Keibler, Rose Byrne, and Anthony Anderson nail it), and others illuminating; the mostly-SNL episode plays like a family reunion where no one wants to talk about The Thing That Happened. They all offer the chance to catch a celeb with their guard momentarily down, as with a mortified Aubrey Plaza – or, alternatively, to confirm that dude you always knew was trying too hard (Matthew Perry) or who’s working the “I’m hilariously drunk” angle like that friend you always want to send home (Jason Sudeikis).
And of course, there’s the wild card factor the team captains, who rise from civilian status for a single, blistering forty-two-minute shot at making famous people think they’re cool. The true measure of the viewing audience is in the glimpses of the civilian captains you want to be (Keilani, who had her shit together and may have won the silent yet understated respect of Felicity Huffman), and those you secretly fear you might be (David, who whipped out Full LARP voice during an elimination challenge with Al Roker and demanded, “Destroy the Weatherman!”).
But when even your most dramatic moments are so low-key, it makes sense that the show opted for a season finale as reliably middle-of-the-road as most of its others. The two celebrity teams – David Giuntoli, Hoda Kotb, and Terry Crews against Emilie de Ravin, Jerry Ferrara, and Tom Arnold – and their charming yet focused civilian leaders Christopher and Amber maneuvered their way through the sort of parlor games football has no problems preempting.
Despite the decidedly oddball rosters, however, the crucial aspect of an episode’s success is whether the teams reach the tipping point where the thrill of nonsense game play suffuses everyone until the celebrity-matching round is a chorus of desperate shouts – or, in this case, until Hoda blows the last seconds of I Love a Charade trying to mime Empire of the Sun to a team that, united as one, silently tells her she should have passed on it. To see a celebrity become, even for a moment, as invested as your friends in your living room, is the sort of familiar thrill on which game-show empires have been built.
If this sounds staged, it is; if this sounds like goofball fun, it is. Hollywood Game Night has proved impressive enough to have already gotten an order for season two, PR departments, start your engines.
- Jane Lynch is doing a Fred Willard impression. Intentional or not? Has he noticed?
- Dominic Monaghan showed up to kick ass at Lil’ Picassos and try to wrap his arm around Aubrey Plaza, and he was all out of Lil’ Picassos.
- There is never a game so heated that we can’t take a break to let someone get in a bit about dancing badly, is there, Sarah Chalke?
- If you play a musical game against Yvette Nicole Brown, you will lose.