You Deserve It debuts tonight on ABC at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Combining the exploitation of Queen For A Day and the self-congratulatory mania of Extreme Home Makeover on a set that looks like it was constructed in two hours out of posterboard and glitter, You Deserve It is ABC’s latest attempt to make crap TV a redemptive experience. Overseen by the pleasantly sterile presence of Bachelor/ette host Chris Harrison, the show is a single-contestant Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?-style game show with a twist (!): The contestant isn’t competing to win up to a quarter-million dollars for themselves, but rather for a much less fortunate friend of theirs who, due to varying degrees of personal hardship and bad luck, deserves it. This is “the show that thinks its better to give… than to receive,” Harrison announces cheerfully at the opening of every episode, followed by the studio audience’s loud, approving applause. Your blue ribbon is in the mail, noble audience at home.
It’s rare to see a show stress its “high stakes” so desperately, and in the process somehow lose any sense of tension whatsoever. The contestants have obviously been coached to bring up their ailing/troubled/broke friends as frequently as possible, especially in “big decision” moments, and co-host Brooke Burns check in with the unknowing benefactee at various intervals throughout the show via hidden camera, but every mention of them is a reminder of the fact that this show isn’t going to screw them over. Hell, the way the game is designed (which is to say, needlessly complicated—its system of “buying” clues for a randomized price is complex enough to likely mystify a casual viewer tuning in mid-show,) this show isn’t even going to not give them money. There is no Daily Double on You Deserve It, no opportunity for the contestants to do anything stupid or surprising or walk away empty-handed.
But it’s not just the game mechanics that make the show damningly boring, it’s the motivation of the contestant. When someone competes for themselves, solely fueled by the fact that, yeah, it would be cool to have more money, they’re far more frequently compelled to take crazy risks and make wild guesses and generally do the things that make other game shows more fun to watch. But the contestants on You Deserve It are too self-serious in their quest to change their friends’ lives to be anything other than obsessively prudent and cautious—never mind that any amount of money would probably be a pleasant surprise for the friend. One of two things can happen on this show: the contestant wins a lot of money ($10-50,000) for their friend, or wins a lot of money for their friend ($100,000 and up.) So basically, we come into this show knowing that a sad person is gonna get some money—the suspense lies in how much. Hardly nail-biting stuff.
What You Deserve It seems to have forgotten is that the most enduring game shows never relied on any stakes outside the studio to fuel them. When we watch Jeopardy! or Wheel Of Fortune or Family Feud, we are enjoying it as spectators (watching people play a game) and vicarious participants (playing along with the game.) The more elegantly constructed or challenging the game is, the more fun it is to watch, but in the end, the game is the enduring star of the show, not the contestants, who may get their literal 15 minutes on screen but are forgotten by the next day whether they win or lose. You Deserve It tries to make us love and care deeply about these people in its molasses-slow hour-long runtime, but at the end of the hour they still fade back into oblivion the same as any attention-starved housewife plucked out of the audience on The Price Is Right.
There’s a point at which all brainless fun starts to become more sinister, and what tips this show almost instantly is the reductive manner in which it approaches its self-appointed mission to change lives. All reality shows exploit their stars to a degree, but with the added business of a game to attend to in the middle of the exploitation, You Deserve It only has time for the broadest of strokes in painting its guests. Dead spouse, unemployment, terminal illness—one could almost play Bummer Bingo as the guests describe their friend’s particularly shitty lot in life. But there’s an underlying acknowledgment that the only reason these people are being trotted out on TV is that their life sucks—they don’t even have a hidden talent or even moderate singing ability, and that just makes them that much more disposable. At least Oprah would sit down with these people and let them talk about how it got so bad—Harrison just makes their friends play some dumb game.
The kicker is that in an economic climate that has inspired thousands of people to enumerate their woes on paper and post them on the Internet, many of the stories on You Deserve It aren’t going to seem so outlandishly tragic, give or take a lost limb or two. The commodification of personal tragedy has always been a part of our media landscape, but more and more it’s just becoming how we talk about our lives. Times are tough, and bad things happen to good people, but there’s nothing empowering about You Deserve It to counteract that negativity in a meaningful way. By the logic of the show’s titular justification for all this noise, 99 percent of the country deserves it as well; it’s just insult on top of the injury of having to sit through such a shoddily made show that some TV producers somewhere think that “it” is a few thousand dollars.