When NBC’s Hollywood Game Night invited a bunch of celebrities to an ersatz living room for a few simple party games last year, it revived one of the oldest formats in American television. The “stars on couches” conceit stretches all the way back to Pantomime Quiz Time, a charades game show that premiered locally on Los Angeles’ KTLA in 1947. Pantomime Quiz later went national and stayed on the air until 1959, but despite its success, few game shows have replicated its homey trappings. Game Night is one, and in the late ’80s, Win, Lose Or Draw was another. Its cozy set, complete with beige carpet and ficus trees, was a good fit for the program’s light, laid-back game, which was essentially Pictionary.
Disney Channel’s tween-centric revival of Win, Lose Or Draw, which premiered tonight, brings the game out of the fake house and onto a soundstage. Like so many game shows in the post-Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? era, the set is a dark, vast-looking space painted with isolated spots of colored light. The easel of the original Draw has been replaced with touchscreens that resemble giant iPhones. Rather than clambering around each other in a tight space, the players—two teams with a Disney celebrity and a pair of kids each—run around the roomy stage. Everything has gotten bigger, except the game. It is as modest as ever, and as a result, this remake feels both noisy and empty, like a ball rattling around in an empty can of spray paint.
The problems with this show run deep, but the talent is not one of them. Justin Willman is the emcee—he’s a magician who also hosts Cupcake Wars. I’ve never seen that show, but Willman is poised and charming here, offsetting the plastic feel of the production with dashes of self-effacement. He opens this episode by gesturing to the audience and repeatedly shouting “Dudes!” and then makes fun of himself for this strange fit of bro-ness. When a magic trick fails to get any reaction from the crowd (probably because the direction is so poor that it’s hard to see what’s going on), Willman playfully snipes at them a bit. These are brief flashes of humanity, but they go a long way.
Your special celebrity guests in this episode, Disney XD stars Olivia Holt and Leo Howard, are assiduously bland and unthreatening in the way that Disney’s TV stars are. In their defense, the hurried pace of the show leaves them little room to express themselves, so it’s no wonder they come off like they bought their personalities at the mall.
The producers of the new Win, Lose Or Draw clearly worked hard to come up with exciting new twists on the guess-what-I’m-drawing game, but each “innovation” is worse than the last. In the first round, two players have to share drawing duties as their canvas “swoops” from one touchscreen to the other every few seconds. This is the one decent new idea that the show has to offer, although it’s hampered by short time limits that keep the teammates from building off each other’s drawing in any meaningful way. (Time limits are a problem throughout the show, in fact, and they consistently prevent the kids’ art from developing very far beyond a few chicken scratches.)
The swooping of the opening round gives way to a second round so poorly conceived that I wonder whether the producers even bothered to play-test it. The contestants flit between three touchscreens in this round. At the first, they wear a pair of glasses that distort their view. At the second, they stand on a jiggling platform. And at the third, they contend with a screen that constantly rotates the image. It’s almost as if the Win, Lose Or Draw creators went straight to designing the home game. Because while crazy-vision glasses are a neat gimmick in theory, they’re a pretty pointless wrinkle for a TV show when nobody in the viewing audience can see what the glasses kid sees. Plus, in practice, those glasses seem to have little effect on the contestants’ ability to draw; ditto the wobble-matic. The spinning touchscreen, on the other hand, is such an extreme handicap that it turns these grade-schoolers’ scrawls into even more of a mess.
After a brief magic-show interlude that I imagine was negotiated into Willman’s contract by a savvy agent, Win, Lose Or Draw proceeds to a fill-in-the-blank round. “Sorry if you’re crushing on [blank],” Willman says as the clock starts, “but someone already put a ring on it.” Meanwhile, Olivia Holt tries to draw a picture of Saturn for her teammates to guess. The clues are well-written; the trouble is that they practically turn Win, Lose Or Draw into a word game. Still, I enjoy this round, if only because I decided to treat it like Match Game and assume that the answer that belongs in every blank is “dick.” (I realize this is a benign childrens’ game and that I am an awful human being, but it’s hard to resist.) “The [blank] in my toolbox is a cut above the rest,” Willman says. “I always end up with more food on the [blank] than my plate.” “Who needs a manicure when you have a [blank]?” “I would pounce on the opportunity to spot a [blank].”
The bonus round is the strangest of all. Here, contestants draw not on the touchscreens but by waving a large wand in midair. It doesn’t even work very well: Willman has to reposition a contestant at one point because the wand detector—I assume there is a wand detector—apparently has a narrow range. Even when the kids stand in the right place, the technology is spotty at best. It’s like they’re playing a poorly programmed Wii game.
The reason behind these misbegotten twists is obvious: The creators were desperate to make a modest party game into something more than it is. Lavish set design and zany rules, though, don’t change the fact that you’re watching people make lousy drawings and shout at each other. You can take Win, Lose Or Draw out of the living room, but you can’t take the living room out of Win, Lose Or Draw.
- The title of this show has always seemed off to me. Okay, you adopted an existing phrase with the word “draw” in it—that part is great. Except it doesn’t apply to this game, in which you draw to determine who wins or loses. There’s no “or” about it. I suppose that Draw, Then Win Or Lose isn’t as catchy.
- Production tip: A laugh track is less effective when you can clearly see the stone-faced audience in the background.
- The two best friends on the girls’ team boast about their “epic sleepovers,” one of which apparently went for 72 hours—with no sleep, they say. One of them adds that next time, she’s shooting for 10 days, again with no sleep. A future Lynndie England, this one.
- All of the contestants have obviously been pre-programmed by the contestant coordinators to be enthusiastic! and express themselves! throughout the show. One of the kids on the boys’ team, Daniel, really takes to it, outshining his buddy, Aaron. When Willman asks the boys about their love of basketball, Daniel delivers his response—“Hey, Justin! You, me, Leo, Aaron—two-on-two after the show!”—with such gusto that you can practically hear all the times he rehearsed it in his head. (Daniel is the kid wearing the plaid shirt in the image up above, which gives you a pretty good idea of his stage persona.)
- Willman is saddled with perhaps the clumsiest catchphrase in game show history: “Tell them when to start!” he says to the crowd at the beginning of each round, and then they count down to start the clock. “Tell them when to start”? If the Win, Lose Or Draw producers ruled the world, Johnny Olson would have told The Price Is Right contestants to “Proceed down to the stage!” and Richard Dawson would have punctuated Family Feud bonus rounds with cries of “The respondents to our survey RESPONDED…!”