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‘The Weakest Link’ Is Back (and Maybe Just As Mean As Ever)

The punchy, sometimes-vindictive quiz show returns Tuesday night with Jane Lynch as the host. All hail the celebrity game show boom!

NBC/Ringer illustration

Seventeen years after it left American airwaves, The Weakest Link is finally back Tuesday night in a reboot with Jane Lynch—yes, that Jane Lynch—as the host.

The basic premise of the revival remains the same: A group of eight strangers join to answer a string of questions, periodically voting out one of their number for underperforming—the so-called “weakest link”—as they stash a growing pot of winnings in their “bank” and forge fragile alliances. (If that sounds a little Survivor-y to you, consider that the original The Weakest Link debuted just three months after islanders first began to snuff one another’s tiki torches to smash ratings. Inaugural Survivor winner Richard Hatch was considered as The Weakest Link’s American host, going so far as to tape a pilot.)

It makes for an unusually vindictive flavor of quiz show. Anne Robinson, who hosted both the original British and spinoff American editions of the show, had her own catchphrase, delivered cuttingly and poshly to her exiled contestants: “You are the weakest link—goodbye!” For a time, it rivaled Regis Philbin’s “Is that your final answer?”—hardly a coincidence given that his edition of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire debuted in 2000, just a year before The Weakest Link’s U.S. arrival.

Generally speaking, game shows are chummy, affable spaces where nice people do their best and are roundly cheered by the studio audience; “Thanks for playing” is applied with utter sincerity. Robinson’s Weakest Link was emphatically, and enthusiastically, the opposite. Those who failed to stick around on her stage—well, they were disappointments, and she went out of her way to make sure they knew.

The BBC, in dubbing her “TV’s rudest woman,” noted that “[s]he has been described as acting like a cross between Cruella de Vil and Hitler’s mother, a dominatrix, a bossy school ma’am, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and a PoW camp commandant.” Much is made of Alex Trebek occasionally raising his eyebrows at his contestants’ personal details on Jeopardy! Robinson made an art of it, so much so that a contestant occasionally getting a word in edgewise was cause for viral clips:

The Weakest Link was massively popular, pulling in NBC’s best time slot numbers in five years, per Vulture. But it was a divisive hit, to say the least. After its U.S. debut, The Daily Mail gleefully rounded up responses from scandalized American commentators, who declared the show “S&M TV” and Robinson both “nasty” and the show’s real weakest link. “The poor old Titanic of course never made it to these shores,” offered The Washington Post’s Tom Shales. “Neither should have The Weakest Link.” As the show thrived regardless, Robinson came for the critics themselves, dubbing the New York Post’s reviewer “an old fart” and wondering whether he was “out of jail on day release.”

While Robinson carried on hosting the British edition of the show until 2012, The Weakest Link was not long for American television—less because of Robinson’s persona than because of simple audience fatigue. By 2002, NBC was feeling some of the same prime-time game show ratings burnout that came for Philbin’s previously mega-successful Millionaire on ABC. The network bumped the show to syndication, where it lasted a single season with a deliberately “nicer” George Gray as host.

In early promos, it looks like Lynch has carried over some of the spiciness of a predecessor who was dubbed “the anti-Regis.” If there’s a little network schmaltziness, OK, but to some degree, meanness is built into The Weakest Link’s DNA—how much camaraderie can there be on a show that requires its contestants to tell one another to get the hell out? (Thanks to COVID-19, there’s no studio audience this time around.)

It’s hard to say whether Lynch’s edition of the show will stick around for the long run. Either way, we are living through a boomlet of celebrity-hosted game shows. This spring saw Who Wants to Be a Millionaire return to prime time with Jimmy Kimmel as host, a version that will be back with more celebrity contestants next month. October will also see the much-ballyhooed reboot of Supermarket Sweep, now with Leslie Jones as host. All were planned before the pandemic, but given that the built-in structures of game shows lend themselves easily enough to social distancing, it’s not hard to imagine that the networks will keep ’em coming.

Which is great—but don’t make them all nice.