Total Blackout debuts tonight on Syfy at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Not that there’s been any chance in hell of saving the integrity of SyFy’s programming in many moons—surely the last vestiges of the viewership that still believed the network would someday go back to an all-science-fiction format departed the day that ECW made its debut in the lineup—but, not unlike when a new reality show premières on A&E or Bravo, a little piece of me still dies whenever SyFy debuts a series that has no goddamned connection to sci-fi whatsoever.
The weirdest thing about Total Blackout, though (aside from the fact that it’s legitimately entertaining), is that it would have felt at home on another member of the NBC-Universal family of networks. Take a gander at the concept: a group of competitors—sometimes individuals, sometimes couples—must enter a room that has been placed in a state of total darkness and perform a series of tasks which, as a result of the contestants’ utter inability to see, have the potential to prove somewhat terrifying. Did it never occur to anyone that this series might prove a better fit on, say, Chiller, a network devoted to horror and suspense?
Nah, probably not. Or if the subject ever came up, someone probably argued, “What, are you kidding? Hello, we’ve got Urkel hosting! Do you know how much Jaleel White costs? If you think we’re going to waste our money by airing this thing between reruns of The Outer Limits and Harper’s Island, you better think again!”
Before all of the angry Jaleel White fans write in to complain how The A.V. Club has disparaged their hero’s name, take a deep breath and relax. It’s just a joke. For one thing, any former child star that successfully transitions into being a responsible adult without making tabloid headlines certainly deserves our praise, but for another, whoever decided to go with White as a host deserves a raise for their foresight. The executives at SyFy are surely as giddy as schoolgirls about the decision, given that White’s profile has jumped sky high (or certainly higher than it’s been in a decade or so) as a result of his stint on Dancing With The Stars.
But let’s not pretend that White is really the star of Total Blackout. That honor goes to the darkness itself, specifically the effect that it has on the people who find themselves deep in the heart of it. In the first episode of the series, several items are placed in aquarium tanks, with the contestants challenged to see who can identify the most items. Given that the first tank is filled with cockroaches, it’s no wonder that they’re still freaked out when they reach the next item, a pineapple. Hey, have you touched a pineapple lately? Touch the wrong part of it, and you could easily believe there’s a porcupine sitting in front of you.
Although the “Guess what’s in the tank” game is being established as the series’ signature segment, there are a variety of different challenges offered on the show, including one where contestants have to taste and identify the food or beverage sitting in a person’s navel, a scenario made doubly weird by the fact that the contestants aren’t let it on where these various culinary delights—which range from a cherry to crumbles of bleu cheese—are housed. Another challenge tests the contestants’ sense of smell in a segment that will almost certainly leave viewers convinced that at least one of the women has some sort of nasal dysfunction. (She repeatedly sniffs a dirty, sweaty sneaker and grows increasingly convinced that there’s a bunch of flowers in front of her.) But perhaps the most entertaining moment of Total Blackout’s first two episodes comes in the second installment, when the competitors are tasked to walk across a balance beam. Although they’re assured that the beam is situated several feet off the ground and are ostensibly hoisted up to their starting point, it’s a fake-out: it’s actually just above the floor. It’s not that anyone really believes they’re in serious danger, since they’re all on harnesses, but watching and listening to the reactions when they fall and realize the reality of the situation is pretty hilarious.
Although Total Blackout has the potential to grow very old very quickly depending on the contestants involved and how annoying they are when they’re scared—even in these 30-minute episodes, the screaming wears thin, though it looks like the worst offenders have a tendency to be the first to depart the proceedings—it’s undeniably entertaining, and, at least based on these first two episodes, it doesn’t stoop to Fear-Factor-level gross-outs with the tasks the contestants are asked to complete. Between the relatively small cash prize ($5,000) and the limited budget required (the only thing that looks expensive is the set, which features trap doors as the exits for the lowest-scoring contestant at the end of each round), Total Blackout seems like a show that SyFy could keep on the air indefinitely, provided it scores even halfway decent ratings.
It still really ought to be on Chiller, though. Just sayin’.