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Sunday, July 17, 2016

The new Match Game is a very, very good revival. They finally got it right.

Gene Rayburn and the panel in the 1970s.
 Tonight is the fourth episode of the latest revival of Match Game, otherwise known to my friends as my favorite television program of all time. A reincarnation of the popular 1970s game show that lives on in GSN and BUZZR reruns, the classic show is back in full force on the primetime ABC Sunday and Fun Games lineup with Alec Baldwin as host. The results so far have been great in the sense that critics have provided resoundingly strong reviews and the ratings have been quite solid, beating the offerings on other major networks in the same time slot.

(I was even lucky enough to see a taping in person with my great friend Evan Feurstein in New York City. I should also mention that I am especially grateful to my wonderful girlfriend Erin and her parents who made time to watch the premiere episode with me recently when I visited Erin in Atlanta during her summer internship for The Carter Center).

However, when the revival was announced in April, a lot of Match Game fans, myself included, were excited but apprehensive. The nervousness is attributed to the fact that all previous efforts to revive the show disastrously failed. There was the anemic Match Game-Hollywood Squares Hour - which barely survived a single season - that felt incredibly forced: a lame effort to fuse two shows that had little to do with each other.

That effort failed in no small part because the Hollywood Squares portion was hosted by Sha-Na-Na's Jon "Bowzer" Bauman, an individual who was simply not cut out to be a game show host. Then there was the short-lived 1990 revival, a noble ABC effort that had its positives, like bringing back Charles Nelson Reilly on the panel, but was plagued by an unfortunate time slot and dry hosting courtesy Ross Shafer. Towards the end of the 90s, an even worse attempt was made in the form of a syndicated version that also suffered from poor hosting skills, a bizarre panel, a low cash prize, unfunny questions, a lackluster set, and terrible time placements.

Alec Baldwin and the panel on the new Match Game.
To be fair, it is a difficult task to revive Match Game and that's because the 70s version was simply so freakin good. The chemistry between energetic host Gene Rayburn, the fun (drunk) celebrities, and the contestants was what made the show so entertaining. It is hard to replicate that unique interaction. But what's also true is that the show pushed the envelope for its time, featuring risque double-entrende fill-in-the-blanks that could be answered with "boobs," "derriere," and "making love," all permitted terms on CBS daytime. As TV's social standards have relaxed over the years, it's become harder to elicit the same shock value and humor.

But where other revivals miserably failed, this Match Game succeeded -- with flying colors. Of course, it still is no match for (no pun intended) the 70s version but it's at least a solid B+ show. For one, Alec Baldwin is a genuinely good host. He skewers contestants, a la Steve Harvey but also a la Rayburn himself, when their answers are bad, and he has a hilarious rapport with the celebrities that is genuine and whimsical.

Speaking of the celebrities, they are solid picks who viewers recognize and are entertained by, like Titus Burgess and Sherri Shepherd and Sutton Foster AND especially the talented Rosie O'Donnell (occupying the Brett Somers seat but replicating Richard Dawson in mastery of the head-to-head match), and these celebrities clearly are drinking a little between tapings so that makes it more enjoyable.

Further, the questions are topical, with figures like Donald Trump and Justin Bieber implicated, so that gives it a sort of Cards Against Humanity feeling that folks enjoy. The questions can also finally actually be answered with words like "penis" and "vagina," disallowed on previous revivals, and that's liberating in a way because it allows for more freewheeling, laugh-out-loud moments. In that way, this version is envelope-pushing in the same kind of way the 70s program was. Another vital update from those prior revivals is that the dollar amount of the top prize is finally at a higher level: $25,000; the 1998 version unthinkably kept the top amount at $5,000 (the same level of the 70s show).

Beyond that, this revival works too because it retained so much of what works from the 70s show like the catchy theme song and think music, the signature skinny microphone, essentially the same vintage set, silly format, and cool logo, and even the same kind of opening. Previous revivals tried to change these things for more modern or different styles and features that were, frankly, not appealing. Don't fix what's not broken!

In fairness to the previous revivals though, this one has succeeded actually partly because a newer, younger generation, including me, are familiar with the 70s Match Game now thanks to its reruns. That wasn't necessarily the case in 1990 and 1998 when previous revivals tried and failed; consequently, there are millions of new fans who are undoubtedly part of the audience of this revival.

Lastly, it is important that they put the show on in primetime on Sundays in the summer: a time when Americans are watching television and want to see something funny and relaxing before they head to bed for the week ahead. It helps too that it is part of a lineup of game shows that include Celebrity Family Feud and The $100,000 Pyramid as viewers stick around from the previous shows at 8 and 9 pm, respectively. As the celebrities and Baldwin become increasingly relaxed and even more comfortable in their roles, this Match Game will continue to succeed.

For more on Match Game, including an in-depth explanation of why previous revivals failed, check out my website. (Thank you to my great friend Jack Cartwright for giving me this website back in 2004 when he set it up for me).

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