One of the joys of any good game show is playing along from home. That joy is outranked by just one other: the delicious thrill of convincing yourself that you would absolutely beat the chumps onstage, if you only had the chance.
Apologies, but you almost certainly would not. But wouldn’t it be nice to have the opportunity to put your—er, a TV network’s—money where your mouth is?
Such is the premise of The Chase, which premiered Thursday night on ABC. The chumps that contestants get a chance to take down? Ken Jennings, Brad Rutter, and James Holzhauer, the Jeopardy! champs who starred in last January’s smash-hit Greatest of All Time tournament, also an ABC production. The trio serve as the show’s “chasers,” in-house masterminds whom contestants face head on. Sara Haines of The View plays host—which on The Chase means rooting for the contestant as the evening’s big, bad brain plays the villain, a role she’s wonderful in.
The Chase—which first came to the U.S. in 2013 after taking off in the U.K. in 2009—has long been a favorite of trivia obsessives. American game shows tend toward the flashy and are usually contests that turn on gimmicks or luck, be that Family Feud or Wheel of Fortune, which usually top the ratings for syndicated television, or new entrants like the rebooted Supermarket Sweep. Even the shows that flirt with quiz show territory, like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or The Weakest Link, often have material that skews decidedly populist. (David Chang recently won a million bucks on the celebrity edition of Millionaire; his run included correctly identifying the elephant—over the kangaroo, rabbit, and frog—as an animal that can’t jump.) That’s not a knock on those shows, which are all great fun, but part of the reason that Jeopardy! holds the vaunted position of Nerd Everest is that there aren’t really any other televised options for academic showdowns.
That’s not the case on British television, where a slew of cerebral quiz shows reliably find a massive and reverent audience, from University Challenge to Fifteen to One to Mastermind to, of course, The Chase. The show’s first American edition lasted only a few seasons before it got the ax (though that was enough time for a pre-Jeopardy! Holzhauer to win a $175,00 team prize on it). But now, after the success of Jeopardy!’s all-time tournament—with the geeky kayfabe of Jennings, Rutter, and (especially) Holzhauer, not to mention the fact that the tournament was one of the highest-rated non-sports telecasts in all of 2020—ABC is trying again, slotting weekly, hour-long installments of the Chase reboot into prime time.
The Chase’s format sees three contestants face off against one of the trio of chasers, who alternate nights—first individually and then, depending on how well the challengers do, as a group. The central premise is that the players race the chaser to a pool of money: Get a question right and they get one step closer to it; miss one, and the chaser has a chance to get closer instead. The questions are emphatically not the sort of thing you might learn in kindergarten: Thursday’s players needed to know where to find the Khojak Tunnel and identify what NASA’s Lonnie Johnson invented in his spare time. (But OK, the show’s not totally serious—an early round asked for the last name of the Count on Sesame Street. Fear not, 5-year-old game show fans.) While one chaser holds court onstage, the other two bicker in a private room—chiefly about how the chaser might have done better.
To the show’s great credit, the contestants are forces to be reckoned with. The first episode features high school valedictorian Jackson Musker as well as a pair of notable Jeopardy! alumni: James Hill III, who was a semifinalist in the 2010 College Championship, and Kristin Sausville, a five-day champ and quarterfinalist in the 2015 Tournament of Champions. (Not for nothing, but one of her games featured her competing in Final Jeopardy! all by herself, with her two opponents having been eliminated by negative scores.) The Chase is at its best when its players give the resident egghead a real run for his money, something the new show seems to be well aware of. There are no pies to be thrown or pools to be dropped in here—with the amount of material a single episode manages to cram in, The Chase is meant for trivia die-hards, both onstage and at home.
Thursday’s premiere starred Jennings—dubbed “The Professor” and exhibiting a sudden fondness for Burns-ian finger steepling—as the inaugural chaser, as Rutter and Holzhauer looked on from afar. ABC doubtlessly hoped that putting one of Jennings’s episodes first, just days before he will debut as Jeopardy!’s first guest host following the passing of Alex Trebek, would be a handy bit of cross-promotion. It comes instead at a strange moment, with Jennings having recently apologized for past remarks on Twitter and then waded into the Bean Dad saga. (Full disclosure: I know Jennings and he wrote the foreword to my Jeopardy! book.) Bean takes aside, The Chase is, at least, a reminder of why Jennings is there in the first place. Much of the show’s fun is in finding out whether the chaser got an answer right, which usually entails them confessing why they knew such a cartoonishly obscure fact cold. Even when Jennings insists that he guessed, the guesses are almost always right. Almost 17 years after he first appeared on Jeopardy!, his noggin still makes for good television.
In the end, The Chase isn’t likely to put Jeopardy! out of business. But as we sail deeper into the ’20s game show boom, it’s about time a network started catering to a perennially underserved group: the dorks.