Ellen DeGeneres — the person, the talent, the (ugh) brand — is too big for just a talk show. I know this, you know this, Ellen and NBC certainly know this. The Ellen DeGeneres Show, or more often just Ellen, is now in its 15th season, and, barring cataclysm — a plague of acute laryngitis, a dearth of viral videos, a national ban on dancing — it will continue to be a hub of soft confessionals and family-friendly high jinks through at least 2020. But NBC and, one imagines, the greater Ellenopolis, wants more, and so now we have it: a weekly Ellen DeGeneres–helmed game show called Ellen’s Game of Games. A genuine ratings smash after debuting January 2, the nascent show has already been renewed for a second season.
The premise is simple. Ellen selects members of her studio audience — uniformly screaming, prevailingly female, frequently boogying, heavily floral-printed, upstandingly employed (third-grade teacher, police officer, aspiring law student, rescue-puppy owner, etc.) — to play in four different games, mostly ported over from her talk show. These vary by episode: You might see Dizzy Dash (two competitors in conjoined armchairs are spun semiviolently around and then must race to answer trivia), Say Whaaat? (a chain of five people play telephone while wearing noise-canceling headphones), or Aw Snap! (two competitors tethered to one another with a bungee cord race to collect apples on opposite sides of the stage … using only their mouths).
The winner of each of these goes on to a second contest, billed as “the most jaw-dropping game in TV history” which is maybe — maybe — true in a literal sense if not so much in any other, wherein the four victors stand on a 30-foot-high platform and answer more trivia. Get a question wrong and they are eliminated and dropped to their demise, or at least to someplace below the Game of Games set, never to be seen again. The last one standing goes on to the final round, where they are subjected to the ultimate test of wits: identifying 10 pictures of celebrities in 30 seconds. Do that, and the champion is given $100,000; name fewer and receive a proportionally smaller amount of cash.
Some segments pass without a single contestant getting a correct answer, but competence is not the currency on Game of Games. If there is one, beyond particularly spectacular falls, it might be the negs doled out by the host, who has adopted a Steve Harvey–esque mix of enthusiasm for her contestants and outright mockery of them. Here’s the question. Are you really that dumb? Take my money.
On Game of Games, the contests from Ellen exist with nary a child celebrity, self-help guru, or motivational story to distract from them — barring, of course, the odd contestant who sing-songily declares allegiance to the host: “But honestly I just want to say that I’ve been watching your show since the sixth grade and you’ve helped me through so much stuff and it’s just amazing to be here,” gushed one bouncing competitor. Apart from that, we’re left with one whole, uninterrupted hour of mashed-potato tubs, Macklemore sound cues, behelmeted tumbles, Ellen Bitmoji, squeals from the studio audience, and slow-mo replays. It’s fun.
Most of the games revolve around some sort of trivia, but Jeopardy! this is not: Answer wrong and you’ll have to pull a tooth from a giant monster head, risk getting squirted with a toothpaste-filled tuba, or plunge your spouse into said mashed-potato tub. Questions tend toward the absurdly mundane: “What famous Ed sings Shape of You?” Ellen asks in one episode; in another, “What potato would you need to make sweet potato fries?” (Not a trick question.) And yet contestants still find ways to mess things up. One contestant was eliminated after failing to name a single branch of the federal government; another met the same fate after identifying Duran Duran as the auteur responsible for MMMBop. Ellen’s go-to trick, if you can call it that, is to read an arcane list of unrelated facts before asking her question: “If there’s 12 inches in a foot and 3 feet in a yard,” she asks in one episode, “how many feet do you have?” Bizarrely, this is enough to trip up more than a few contestants. Her subject in that case, his mind still snagged on yardsticks, confidently told Ellen that he had three feet before she dropped him, cowboy hat and all, into the abyss.
The cumulative effect is like turning on the TV to find your parents’ well-meaning but ditzy neighbor — the one who is just so sweet to check in on Tinkles whenever they’re away, knits her feather toys — competing on a game show, maybe after a glass or three of chardonnay.
Except, well, sometimes that neighbor is asked to name a fact about Africa. Like, one of the most basic facts. A super-easy fact. One of 54 super-easy facts, in fact. And you know, even as the question is being asked, exactly how this is going to go.
Credit to Ellen: This world would be more entertaining if the immediate result of declaring Africa a country was to be jolted into the heavens as your countrymen stared skyward in baffled horror.
The whole affair is saved, perhaps predictably, by the host. Ellen DeGeneres is good at TV, but that’s not news. Game of Games is, like Ellen, often an exercise in schmaltz: new moms and just-popped-the-question boyfriends and retirees with quirky hobbies just living their best lives, seizing every last sunny day, training for the marathon, yasssss. It’s nice, if not exactly challenging — or conducive, as it happens, to trivia or obstacle-course prowess. But this is where Ellen raises an eyebrow — she knows, she gets it. Wave hello to your shelter puppy, who, by the way, definitely isn’t watching. Laugh sign. Ellen the game-show host isn’t mean, but she isn’t exactly nice, either, and it turns out that the best way to cover a goober in toothpaste is to invite him onstage first.