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What I Learned From a Week of Watching Summer Variety Shows

From ‘World of Dance’ to ‘Beat Shazam’ to yes, ‘The Gong Show’

Steve Harvey, Jennifer Lopez, and ‘American Ninja Warrior’ contestants ABC/NBC/Ringer illustration

Broadcast networks are the only place on American television where time still matters. In the era of Peak TV, the concept of breaks in the never-ending deluge of new material is hilariously out of date; on the networks, however, the calendar is still law. Fall is when shows premiere, winter is when they go on hiatus, spring is when they return and wrap up for the year. Summer, though? Summer is the fallow period, and as any bored, underscheduled kid on vacation knows, that’s when things tend to get weird.

“Weird,” in this context, amounts to lots and lots of unscripted programming to kill time until the sitcoms and procedurals come home to pasture. Cheap, efficient, and drawn from the infinitely renewable resource of celebrities and laypeople craving their 15 minutes, reality TV makes a natural stopgap for content providers looking to fill space. There are many subgenres within this sprawling landscape: self-contained empires, like Big Brother, which takes over virtually the entire CBS prime-time lineup, and The Bachelor, which other Ringer staffers can speak to better than I; specific skill-based competitions, like MasterChef; and what we’ll call Everything Else, a grab bag of variety, game, talent, and some combination thereof. This week, CBS debuts TKO: Total Knock Out, both a rare non–Big Brother offering and an exemplar of the form. TKO combines a recognizable host (Kevin Hart) with a monetizable gap in his schedule (Hart called it “perfectly aligned with my global brand”), a behind-the-scenes heavyweight (power-producer Mark Burnett is at the helm), and an easily digestible format (an obstacle course). It’s as perfect for a 10-week run in the warmer months as illegal fireworks.

One of the ironies of my job as a TV critic is that I watch so much prestige-adjacent fare that I usually don’t have time for the lighter stuff most people actually watch to unwind. (Or if I do, I take it as a sign to step away from a screen for once.) So this editor-mandated quest to feed the hungry content maw—like Peak TV, content never sleeps, not even in July—by cataloging the full extent of summer variety programming proved something of a learning experience. Did you know that there’s something called the “otamatone community,” and that a member of it competed on The Gong Show? Were you aware Andy Cohen can, in fact, breathe the rarefied air outside a Bravo soundstage? Wait, is that J.Lo?!?!

With the crucial caveat that consuming dozens of hours of these shows at a time is decidedly not how they’re designed to be taken in, I’ve compiled my findings from a week of summer broadcast viewing below. Day by day, hour by hour, samba routine by juggling act, this is a field report from the purest form of summer TV. Think of it as the land that Game of Thrones forgot.

Celebrity Family Feud (Sunday at 8 p.m. ET, ABC)

In some ways, Celebrity Family Feud is the perfect introduction to this ecosystem. It’s hosted by Steve Harvey, perhaps the quintessential game show figure of the modern era. (Related: I can no longer look at Steve Harvey without picturing Kenan Thompson and/or “I am seeking more free time for me throughout the day.”) It takes place on one of those light-up, customizable stages that will inevitably be recycled for another taping the moment one has concluded. And it’s a spinoff of a reboot of a long-running franchise, a common attribute of many shows on this list. Jack Donaghy once joked that American broadcasters want to make it 1997 again through science or magic; in Family Feud’s case, that’s more like 1977, though the same sentiment applies. The combination of all three of these qualities makes Celebrity Family Feud an ideal kickoff.

Earlier this summer, the show got a fair amount of attention for pitting the Kardashian clan against Kanye and Kim in the effort to determine the most obvious answers to some deliberately dumb prompts—oh, and raise money for charity. Even before the episode was eclipsed by every other part of Kanye’s album rollout, the game itself was something of a snooze; the Kardashians won, because Family Feud, like the rest of American culture, is rigged. A recent matchup of Jeff Dunham against Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Ming-Na Wen wasn’t much better, pitting terrifying puppetry against dutiful ABC cross-promotion. But the jingle is catchy and the template infinitely reusable, making Celebrity Family Feud a decent bar for other shows to crash into or exceed.

The $100,000 Pyramid (Sunday at 9 p.m. ET, ABC)

The participants in this game show are not allowed to say that they’re playing Taboo, but they are, essentially, playing a giant, high-stakes game of Taboo. (Which is ironic, because both Taboo and the actual game component of The $100,000 Pyramid revolve around not being able to say things.) Under the warm supervision of Good Morning America’s Michael Strahan, normals partner up with famous people—whether “sitcom famous” or “Snoop Dogg famous” depends on the week—to win amounts of money that seem frankly disproportionate to the skills involved. The assignment is simple, and not particularly challenging: get your partner to guess the word on your screen without speaking the word itself out loud. Famous person and average Joe/Jane alternate the roles of word-guesser and hint-dropper.

If I had to choose one of these shows to gamble my dignity and compete on, $100,000 Pyramid has the distinction of being the one I’d pick in a heartbeat. The game isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition, and there’s plenty of extra credit afforded. So even if I didn’t walk away with the full six figures, for the towering accomplishment of getting Mario Cantone to figure out that the word for “brown flying insect” is “moth,” I could basically win a down payment. Seems like a steal!

To Tell the Truth (Sunday at 10 p.m. ET, ABC)

This show, on the other hand, I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. In the introduction, Black-ish’s Anthony Anderson explains that there are no prizes to be won, let alone cash—just the bragging rights that come with, for example, convincing nonagenarian Mel Brooks that you got accepted to all eight Ivy League schools, not the rando sitting next to you. Do the people who sign up to be on To Tell the Truth know about The $100,000 Pyramid?! If they don’t, ABC better pray they never find out.

The third incarnation of the To Tell the Truth franchise—the original ran on CBS from 1956 to 1968, the second attempt on NBC from 1990 to 1991—is also where one starts to pick up on the de facto talent circuit that exists among these game shows for celebrities. It’s like the talk-show circuit, but even less demanding and unpegged to high-profile projects. Recent guests include Laverne Cox and Joel McHale, who appeared together earlier this month on an episode of Match Game; Tony Hale could very well have arrived at his taping straight from the set of The Gong Show. One player who’s definitely not on this circuit is Bill Hader, who spent his entire episode looking confused while his show Barry, which he was presumably there to promote, went unmentioned. Instead, Hader got to guess which of the three dudes in front of him won the world record for breaking toilet seats with his head. He guessed wrong.

So You Think You Can Dance (Monday at 8 p.m. ET, Fox)

I possibly picked the wrong week to drop in on this American Idol–of-dance competition, which had just pivoted away from the “auditions” phase (young dreamers give the judges their best and the producers a compelling backstory) to the “academy” one (70 dancers get whittled down to less than half that number over three choreography challenges). Or maybe I was just in a bad mood because my DVR recording of this episode’s scheduled time slot started with a Big Bang Theory rerun for no apparent reason. Either way, the relaxing mindlessness I’d come to appreciate from the Sunday shows was nowhere to be found in a nonstop flurry of overcrowded performances, anonymous faces, and rise-and-fall narratives compressed into 30 seconds or less. Judging looks great on Vanessa Hudgens, though!

American Ninja Warrior (Monday at 9 p.m. ET, NBC)

The upcoming TKO is a pretty transparent knockoff of American Ninja Warrior’s grueling obstacle-course setup, and it’s easy to see why: The show has blossomed over 10 seasons into its own self-contained sporting league, complete with a sideline reporter and homegrown stars. Successful athletes get an affectionate nickname that’s invariably some version of “the [Descriptor] Ninja”: the Island Ninja; in one truly regrettable instance, the Papal Ninja. One of the announcers, Akbar Gbaja-Biamila, is even a former NFL player. He’s also fond of shouting “I SEE YOU!!!!” at successful contestants.

Obstacle-course shows offer the best of both worlds: the triumph of the human body training itself to perform under extreme duress, and the hilarity of some random dude belly-flopping into a tank of water. Consequently, American Ninja Warrior plays to both of its strengths. A Cowboy Ninja whose wife has a chronic disease completes the entire course in a 10-gallon hat and jeans; then, when we come back from commercial break, the audience is treated to a rapid cut of failed attempts. It’s an ingenious vehicle for storytelling, action, and in one recent Los Angeles tryout, wall-to-wall Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom promotion in an unsubtle bit of NBCUniversal corporate synergy. Animatronic dinosaurs pair surprisingly well with a balance challenge.

Beat Shazam (Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET, Fox)

Yes, Shazam like the app: This is a solid hour of sponsored content on prime-time television, which is more money than I figured a widget for telling you what song your neighbors are playing too loud at their house party would have at its disposal. Teams of two have to identify a song title from four options faster than their competitors and, eventually, a computer algorithm you can download on your phone. Jamie Foxx hosts with a nepotistic assist from his daughter Corinne, a dynamic that gets milked for maximum comedic value when the pop song in question has any kind of sexual connotation. The game is simple and self-explanatory, with an additional audience-participation component should Shazam users decide they can identify the 2000s throwback in question faster than the onscreen competitors. As I discovered by playing an episode in another room while cooking dinner, the premise also makes for ideal background listening, which is a ringing endorsement: The highest praise I have for a midsummer game show is that it doesn’t demand your full attention.

America’s Got Talent (Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET, NBC)

The presence of Simon Cowell, Howie Mandel, Heidi Klum, and Tyra Banks should qualify the current version of America’s Got Talent as some kind of Reality TV supergroup. It’s where proven personalities—plus Mel B, I guess—go to live out their middle careers, judging a broad and miscellaneous assortment of talent in their efforts to win a million dollars. The problem is that the well-established personae of these onetime big fish get flattened out in a group. Cowell’s rudeness, Banks’s volatile den mother vibe, and Klum’s icy bearing don’t get much of a workout while giving a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down. (I have no preconceived opinions of Howie Mandel.) Mel B’s enthusiasm is positively contagious, though. Spice up our lives!

Love Connection (Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET, Fox)

This reimagined dating show—its slogan is “Scrap the apps and get straight to the dates!”—is executive-produced by The Bachelor’s Mike Fleiss, but Love Connection attempts to gamify, even monetize, the complex and unpredictable search for human connection, making it too grotesque not to check out. Each suitor—one man and one woman per episode—goes on a date with three matches. Before the audience is shown video evidence and in-person testimonials of said dates, they try to guess which of the three the suitor picked for an overnight date (the Bachelor DNA is strong). If they picked the same match as the suitor, the suitor wins $10,000, for … predictability? Picking the most conventionally hot one? I don’t quite understand what this show is rewarding, but I’m happy some people get to walk away with cash.

As any good Bravo fan knows, host Andy Cohen loves to stir some shit, making him a seamless fit for a show that goes two-for-three on the death-sex-and-money list of taboo topics. The first words out of his mouth to one match are, “Do you date black guys a lot?” (She’s made out with a few.) You’ll probably find yourself enjoying Love Connection, but you definitely won’t feel good about it, which puts it right in line with Cohen’s other offerings.

World of Dance (Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET, NBC)

The J.Lo vehicle of which I spoke earlier, World of Dance is basically identical to So You Think You Can Dance apart from the “world” component, which adds styles like samba and tango to more traditional routes like ballroom and hip-hop. J.Lo heads the judging panel, though she’s flanked by Ne-Yo and Derek Hough—you know, the guy who partnered with his own sister for a La La Land couples’ costume. After each minute-long performance, the judges make a hilariously overwrought show of essentially pushing a bunch of buttons on their iPad screens, grading each act on criteria like choreography to determine if they’ll make it to the next round. (Jenna Dewan adds some color as the largely superfluous host, whose function is mostly to walk up to dancers backstage and ask them if they’re excited to be here. Spoiler: They are!) I don’t know much about the mechanics of dance, but that’s not necessary to zone out and appreciate the moves. Only cringeworthy soundtrack choices could truly dispel the magic. Remember Owl City? The hip-hop trio in man buns sure do!

Little Big Shots (Thursday at 8 p.m. ET, NBC)

An hour each week for gifted youngsters to show off their chops—no competition, all positivity. This is the Great British Bake Off of American television. (For the purposes of this analogy and my sanity, The Great American Baking Show does not exist.) There’s something almost Zen about Steve Harvey’s side hustle, where the involvement of children means that everyone’s talent is impressive, praiseworthy, and expertly designed to induce awws; that the adorable blonde prodigy who loves astronomy also has a British accent just feels unfair. The inexperience of his bantering partners also has a way of emphasizing Harvey’s undeniable skill at his job. He may be an SNL punch line, but Harvey’s really, really good at keeping the conversation flowing with awkward kids who have stage fright—or worse yet, not-so-awkward kids who seem a little bit too polished for a show about cutesy amateurs. “Appreciating the talents of Steve Harvey” is not where I expected this assignment to steer me.

The Gong Show (Thursday at 8 p.m. ET, ABC)

No amount of Steve Harvey admiration, however, could prepare me for what came next. I think I … love The Gong Show? The talent show where especially cringeworthy competitors can be punted offstage by a judge ringing a giant gong? The postmodern, head-scratching, why-is-this-happening version Mike Myers hosts in prosthetic-laden character as a British jokester named Tommy Maitland, a fact Myers didn’t publicly acknowledge for more than a year? I know. Let me explain.

Alone among the summer variety shows, The Gong Show is fully cognizant of its own absurdity, sprinkling creepy clowns and bros who clearly don’t have an act prepared among the genuinely accomplished musicians and acrobats. And while the stunt is certainly a little much, the Maitland gimmick has the effect of emphasizing how all one-liner-shilling game-show hosts are playing a character, whether or not they say so explicitly. There’s real fun being had here, a psychedelic sense of showmanship that keeps the viewer entertained, the contestants in entirely too much makeup, and Regina Hall looking like a deer in the headlights during her turn as a guest judge. Same, Regina. Same.

Match Game (Thursday at 9 p.m. ET, ABC)

After all that, Alec Baldwin’s Match Game revival perhaps inevitably registers as a comedown. Baldwin uncritically inhabits the rakish persona Myers-as-Maitland is sending up, rattling off groaners like, “Young children are a blessing … or at least that’s what my nanny tells me!” The game itself is less exciting than the version offered on Family Feud, where a half-dozen notable guests try to come up with the same answer to a one-word fill-in-the-blank as the everyman contestants playing for money. And for this devoted viewer of RuPaul’s Drag Race, it’s impossible to watch Match Game’s panel of blandly game celebrities and not wish you were watching a stacked Snatch Game, the show’s highly anticipated impressions challenge. Match Game’s reboot feels especially tiresome because it’s redundant. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel when someone already has. Now that this experiment has come to its natural conclusion, that’s exactly what I’m about to do.