Near the end of the first round of NBC’s new game show, Weakest Link , right before the first contestant was made to take the walk of shame, the series’ ramrod-straight host, Anne Robinson, began her first extended bit of contestant torment. Dressed in a black pantsuit topped off with a black leather duster, Ms. Robinson turned her attentions to Karin, a Philadelphia lawyer, who looked like a plump version of Shannen Doherty, replete with a black choker and a snug T-shirt improbably emblazoned with a gigantic off-center rose.
“Karin, how’s it going for you?” Ms. Robinson said, in a tone meant to convey the cheery menace of the Nazi dentist played by Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man .
“Not too bad, thank you,” replied Karin, looking both pleasant and uncomfortable.
“Don’t thank me, Karin, it’s very early in the game,” retorted Ms. Robinson. Then she sucked in her cheeks and turned her head sideways in an extended stage glower that posed the question:
Was that Mike Myers in there?
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Ms. Robinson is supposed to strike fear into the hearts of American audiences and, as a result, compel them to tune in week after week to watch a bunch of poor saps get a tongue-lashing. (“Whose mind is too small to be let out on its own?” Ms. Robinson asked the crowd and the contestants at one point during the April 16 debut.) But the show’s about as scary as Count Floyd’s Monster Chiller Horror Theater. Ms. Robinson seems to be conducting the game show atop the old Cineplex Odeon logo (Garth Drabinsky and Mike Ovitz sure don’t need it anymore), armed with questions that don’t elicit much sphincter-tightening. How can you strike the fear of God into anyone when, on the first episode, you’re asking the question: “In television, what fitness guru stars in the workout videos Disco Sweat and Sweatin’ to the Oldies ?” (Answer: Richard Simmons.)
Meanwhile, all the X-Files –style back lighting, terse synthesizer music and shadowy crowd shots just serve to push the show further into Ed Wood territory. This is the land of Columbine, after all, where the really scary stuff happens in broad daylight, at high schools and salad bars. And where strict nannies, who occupy so much of Britain’s fantasy life, only come to national attention when they’re on trial for the wrongful death of someone’s child.
But if you want to get at the crux of what’s wrong with Weakest Link , you have to look at the culture from which it sprang. It’s easy to understand why NBC wanted the program: Since its launch last summer, Link has triumphed over the (original) British version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire , which ABC has adapted with great success for American audiences. Certainly it’s not the first time. The U.S. networks have a long history of success with importing and Americanizing British series, from All in the Family to Sanford and Son to Three’s Company .
But Weakest Link is not such a straightforward case. Upon closer examination, it seems to be a game show that’s predominantly about losing. Indeed, it’s like watching an entire season of Survivor edited down to an hour. The show starts with eight contestants, and by the end of a single episode, there are seven humiliated losers-who’ve been voted off the show by their fellow contestants-and one winner.
Now, if there’s one thing that the British are better at than us Yanks, it’s losing. The Brits know how to lose big. They’re losing right now, in fact. In just a matter of months, the swinging England of the 90’s has devolved into a dismal swamp heaped with charred cow carcasses and dysfunction. In a “London Journal” headlined “Soggy Pastures Where All Things Crash and Burn” that appeared in the April 7 edition of The New York Times , reporter Sarah Lyall listed a whole host of ills, including a tuberculosis epidemic, a problem-plagued railroad industry and, of course, hoof-and-mouth disease, before writing: “Is anything going right in Britain these days? If so, it’s hard to tell.”
But that’s Britannia. As the actor Stephen Fry explained to Ms. Lyall in an e-mail: “To be honest, I can’t remember a time where one couldn’t say with authority that ‘the wheels have come off’ or ‘it’s all gone pear-shaped.’ … Perhaps we are the only people who take freude in our own schaden.”
Probably that’s because deep in the damp, depressive British soul can be found great stores of resilience-what used to be called that old Dunkirk spirit-that comes to the fore in the face of abject humiliation and disaster. With their stoicism and their stiff upper lips, the British lose with such class that they look like winners. And that’s one of the reasons why Weakest Link must appeal to their television audiences. It’s a great showcase for their strength. Even the prize money over there-reportedly a paltry £20,000-reinforces the notion of losing as winning. After running a gantlet of needling insults, the winner of the U.K. version of Weakest Link barely has enough to buy a modest automobile.
One thing you can say for certain: That’s not us . In America, game shows are about winning. If we want to experience shame, we’ll go on a show that’s loosely affiliated with the American judicial system, like Judge Judy . Americans can stand bureaucratic degradation-in court, at the D.M.V.-or the kind of family dinner-table abuse that serves as material for good revenge anecdotes later. (“So, I told him to shove it ….”) But the drop-your-knickers-so-I-can-cane-you kind of disgrace that Ms. Robinson is trying to serve is a speciality of the island nation we love so much. It is reminiscent of the kind of thing that Mary Poppins used to deliver so efficiently, or that Harold Pinter did in The Servant .
But remember, Weakest Link has been brought over here. When Walt Disney brought Mary Poppins here, she was not Beatrice Lillie or Alec Guinness in drag, but a rather good-natured nanny. This is a mean nanny, which is a difficulty. She is on a program that produces more losers than winners and, Ms. Robinson made it clear, the losers went home with nothing. And on the premiere of the show, you could see the American contestants bristling at this lack of opportunity.
Both Jeff, the personal trainer from Wayne, N.J., and Marcus, the airline employee from Miami, gave the back of their hand to their fellow contestants as they took the walk of shame. “Second place doesn’t count. Third place does not count. The experience does not count,” Marcus told the cameras after he was voted off. The distaste on his face was evident. “I came to win,” he added. “And I blew it.”
And when Renee, the hard-nosed trucking company placement adviser from Lake Stevens, Wash., was bested by John, the funeral director “and embalmer” from Camden, N.J., she concluded: “I am so disappointed …. I feel that I was cheated out of a lot of money.”
Millionaire ‘s American host, Regis Philbin, seemed to be hinting at the same thing when, commenting on Link to The New York Times , he said: “It’s another way to play the game; it’s not my way.”
It’s funny-both Mr. Philbin and Ms. Robinson are of Irish descent. She’s a former journalist; he’s a longtime talk-show host. Mr. Philbin proved long ago that he can be a curmudgeon, too, but Mr. Philbin’s grousing has a good-natured tone to it. He’s the noisy uncle that didn’t have his morning coffee, not some strange, quasi-Orwellian specter who’s making you do spit-takes with your postprandial Budweiser.
And while Millionaire is just another nail in the coffin of American culture, it’s infinitely better suited to our culture. This is a show about winning, American-style: The questions are multiple choice, the audience helps, and you can reach out to mom or your friendly neighborhood astrophysicist when things get tough.
So, then how does one explain Millionaire ‘s original success in Britain? Why, Tony Blair, of course. Fashioning himself as a kind of Anglo Bill Clinton, Mr. Blair attempted to usher in a new Britain: a country where everyone can make it, where money and winning are part of the psyche.
But now that England is burning once more, it has collapsed back into a fetal position, remembering the hard years when the economy was in free fall, when cars were small and a series of nondescript P.M.’s stood for reelection and succeeded each other. The Brits perhaps feel that a little tough love is in order. Thus the success of Weakest Link , a game show that captures the national longing for the Queen Nanny, Margaret Thatcher, to return from the wilderness and bully everyone back into shape. Ms. Robinson even looks like a sleeker version of Ms. Thatcher. “Team,” she said to her poor, hapless contestants in a kind of evocation of the Iron Lady at her nanniest, “we have tried very hard to give you money tonight. Three-quarters of a million dollars has been at your disposal, and you have managed to claim less than 10 percent of it.” No wonder the British economic recovery never took place.
So now NBC has brought the horrible English nanny to push around the optimistic, buoyant Americans. And she doesn’t remotely have the nuance or the authority. When Marcus the airport-operations supervisor from Miami … Florida … told Ms. Robinson quite wittily, after flubbing the question of George Bush’s middle name, that “being that I’m a Democrat, the W. is one I want to forget,” Ms. Robinson responded, with the bone-headed arrogance of a second-grade teacher chastising her students’ language skills while she herself spoke English with the facility of Bill Dana as Jose Jimenez: ” Oh, I see. So it’s of no interest to you who the President is of the United States.” No, Ms. Robinson, and it’s of no interest to us who … the host is … of this dumb facking quiz show.
Which is one reason NBC may be in trouble on this one. The American game is winning. And if anybody out there remembers the Revolution, a certain impatience with tyrants. Did it ever occur to one NBC executive that an angry mob with pitchforks would not be a pretty sight in a TV studio? Of course, Ms. Robinson isn’t even quite good enough to be a satisfying stock villainess-their stock-in-trade is cool meanness, whereas our hostess seemed flustered and itchy, Mrs. Danvers without the sang-froid.
Still, the one thing Americans have discovered lately is that, if we don’t put that disinfected doormat at customs, who knows what will be stomped and traipsed into the country? As Hugh Grant assured David Letterman’s audience the other night, “The Travel Office wants me to assure everyone that it’s perfectly all right, absolutely all right, for anyone to visit right now. It really is.” Really.
And when Weakest Link was done Monday night, Ms. Robinson-as if to give the American audience some reassurance she was not quite the monster she was trying to present herself as-gave a slightly coquettish wink to the camera, almost a pathetic plea-bargain admission that the tyrant shtick wasn’t successful. It didn’t work. As an import, the timing on Weakest Link could not have been worse. On some level, the show-surprisingly unguardedly-understood that at least, most of all when Ms. Robinson posed the following self-defining question: “What ‘A’ is both a heavy-metal rock band and an infectious livestock disease?” she asked.
The funeral director got it right.