Some people get Advent calendars to count down to the holidays. Others keep their eyes on sales, which multiply in number and fervor as the year draws to an end. But for some (and most likely those who frequent this site), it’s the steady dwindling of quality television that signals the end of a year. Soon, all we’ll have to keep us warm until the New Year are Shrek Christmases, Hallmark original movies, and the warm embrace of Howie Mandel’s soul patch.
Which brings us to NBC’s latest budget-saving holiday game show, Take It All. Howie Mandel hosts and produces this frantic, high stakes version of Yankee Swap, or White Elephant, or Less Secret Santa, or whatever your office feels like calling it these days. And just like your office’s version, NBC’s is mostly spent explaining the rules, hiding disappointment over confusing presents, and abandoning any sense of propriety to grab the only good present there.
Just in case your office doesn't participate in Machiavellian Christmas, here are the rules: One person chooses a random gift, and then the next person has the option of either taking the first's prize or taking another random one from the pile. Basically, this means you size up the gifts as they go to decide whether to take the risk of an unknown gift over an unwrapped gift that could already be better than any left in the pile. This pattern goes around until all the gifts are unwrapped, your rival's landed the whiskey, and you're stuck with the spatula painted like a candy cane.
Of course, Take It All adds a few more rules just to keep things interesting, or more accurately, convoluted. The show starts with five players, eliminating the one who ends up with the least valuable gift at the end of every round. Seeing as these gifts run the gamut from one year of maid service to a snowmobile to "your very own mechanical bull!" the players' guesses were as good as mine, which is to say, they were pretty terrible. There's also a "lock" option a player can use to ward off a steal once and then never ever again (emphasis Howie's).
But wait! There's more! The last two standing then choose a mysterious cash prize to go with their amassed gifts, and then have to decide whether to try and keep their own gifts and cash (“Keep Mine”) or screw over their rival and “Take it All” (see what they did there?). Got it? Great! We only have one more idiotic twist to go! As Howie gleefully explains, if both players choose to keep their own stash, they both will. If they both decide to take it all, however, they'll both walk away with nothing. And if only one of them decides to take it all, that person will indeed take it all.
But while this show can be described as several twists on Yankee Swap, the most important differences are that a.) Take It All has no price limit, and b.) Take It All has no soul. This isn’t for lack of trying, or at least the appearance of trying; Howie spends much of the hour emphasizing how life-changing this amount of money is, and how no one seems to realize just how big and important this show could be. There’s no question that the kind of money Take It All promises could make a huge difference in any contestant’s life, but it’s very clear that the show couldn’t care less if it does.
Howie Mandel’s particularly aggressive hosting certainly doesn’t help the atmosphere. While he brought a guiding enthusiasm to Deal Or No Deal, his take on Take It All looks more like the cartoon devil sitting on a contestant’s shoulder. At one point, he circles a young woman menacingly, reminding her of the moves she made that could get her eliminated right now, until he finally realizes she’s crying. “And now you’re crying,” he helpfully points out, before letting her know that she did, in fact, screw everything up.
The show saves the most interesting and revolting part for last. Howie explains the final “Keep Mine” versus “Take It All” choice to the last two contestants, and then leaves them to talk it out. There’s a moment of genuine horror between them as they look at each other, realizing that they are either about to make a fool of themselves or become an irredeemable villain.
Then the pleading begins. One appeals to the other with their shared love of education, his religion, their kids, pretty much anything he thinks might make her choose to keep her own prizes so they can both walk away with something to show for this exercise in cruelty. She, in turn, asks why she should trust him not to stab her in the back last minute to Take It All, and literally in the middle of her teary crisis of faith in the human spirit, Howie steps in and says with a maniacal grin, “Trust! That’s the question!” No, Howie. The question is, at what point did turning an already sadistic tradition into a televised circus of morality seem like a good idea?
- SPOILER ALERT: One contestant did end up Taking It All, despite the other promising he would vote to keep only his own prizes. A quick scan of Take It All’s Facebook page tells me most viewers are putting their disgust solely on her, which seems hardly fair. If anything, the show encouraged the outcome. I mean, there might as well have been a parade of Take It All girls a la the Deal Or No Deal models, holding a “SCREW HIM OVER YOU KNOW YOU WANT TO” banner.
- Beware: NBC is airing this show every night this week (insert Community outrage here).