'The Weakest Link' and 'The Hustler': life lessons from game shows
Jack, John and Violet were the three remaining contestants on this week’s episode of the NBC quiz show, “The Weakest Link.”
Jack, a nuclear engineering grad student, had been the best player throughout the show.
John, a police detective from Rhode Island, had been the steadiest player.
Violet, a contortionist and “professional organizer” from New York, had been the wild card sometimes playing well, other times a train wreck.
At stake was the $82,000 accumulated by these three and five other contestants — eliminated one by one over a series of votes from the group — by answering a series of trivia questions.
Since the beginning of the evil axis of pandemic, wildfire and elections, game shows have been to our household what the blue blanket was to Linus — a constant of security.
We get to know contestants on a first-name basis (since last names rarely, if ever, are mentioned). We play along and guess answers and, ultimately, watch as a winner emerges through some combination of luck and knowledge.
It’s television as comfort food — easily consumed, filled with useless calories and reassurance, evocative of tranquility.
Along comes “The Weakest Link,” a reboot of a fondly remembered show from the early days of the 21st century, which tickles the baser elements of human nature, and maybe tells us something about the head-spinning world in which we live.
Having more in common with, say, “Survivor” than “Jeopardy!” the show revels in the cutthroat nature of eliminations as players cast rolled-eyes at one another for incorrectly answering such puzzlers as the name of the New York department store famous for its Thanksgiving Day parade.
“The New York Store Company,” guessed the soon-to-be-vanquished “weakest link.”
The ringmaster, Jane Lynch paying homage to original host Ann Robinson, dismisses the contestants throughout — mocking their mistakes and chiding them for the low money totals they achieve out of a possible bonanza.
If this starts to feel too much like a depiction of modern-day America, wait until we get to “The Hustler.”
But first, we head back to Jack, John and Violet. There’s one more “weakest link” to be sent packing. Having watched for the past 45 minutes or so, you think you know who will be dispatched and you’re right.
Sacré bleu, you exclaim, as the best player all night does the walk of shame from the set.
After all, if you’re the second- or third-best trivia contestant in this game, it’s your duty to gang up on the person most likely to come away with that $82,000.
Lynch gleefully says how proud she is of the remaining pair and even Jack, in his post-elimination interview, says he would have done the same thing in their shoes.
Besides, he doesn’t say (but I will), as a nuclear engineer he’ll likely earn more than a detective or a contortionist.
As a game show, there’s an inherent fatal flaw with “The Weakest Link: The strongest player will always be eliminated before the final round. As schadenfreude, however, it’s hard to imagine anything more devious to warm the cockles of our cold, cold hearts.
Did someone say “The Hustler”?
Here we have another game show in prime time, this one on ABC, where five strangers gather in a library straight out of a Sherlockian fever dream to answer even more trivia questions and determine which of them is really the titular character — a contestant whose job it is to build the pot of money and walk away with it all to themselves by keeping their devious nature a secret.
Our final three contestants on the most recent episode are Rachel, Erica and Tifini (never trust anyone with an alt-spelling to their name) since The Hustler has dispatched David and Eric through the secret bookcases.
Craig Ferguson, doing his devious best, has sown seeds of distrust among the final three who have worked their cash prize up to 80 grand. If The Hustler is discovered, it’s $40,000 a piece to the others; but, if not.
And it’s in this moment that the hero-villain employs what is known in my family as “The Four Diamonds Stratagem.”
A zillion years ago, my three brothers and I were playing poker with Dear Old Dad. Things had gone just as one might expect when, out of nowhere, a large kitty of poker chips came down to my eldest brother and the old man.
My brother lays down two pair and starts to pull away the pot.
Not so fast, my father suggests ominously, before showing his cards and proclaiming ... “I have four diamonds.”
It’s here that I should inject that the brother in question is very much in line with those game show contestants who believe they understand the rules correctly, and are oblivious to the potential for treachery.
He starts mumbling, darting his gaze around the table, as my father reaches for the chips.
“I have four diamonds,” he repeats, as assuredly as Picard’s torturer insists “there are five lights.”
The rest of us are barely able to keep it in as the ruse continues and, ultimately, my brother actually concedes the hand.
This not being televised and with no real money at stake, the joke is revealed, and a family legend is born.
Back inside Ferguson’s library, Rachel and Tifini enter the final vote certain that Erica is The Hustler. She, however, is not through playing her cards.
Erica stands up, lifts her skirt and reveals a badly mangled ankle — an injury from childhood, she points out, that would keep her from being the Olympic athlete presented as one of the clues to The Hustler’s identity.
Faster than you can say “Four Diamonds,” Rachel and Tifini turn on one another — each trying to convince Erica to join them and split the reward.
After much hemming and hawing, Erica sides with Tifini, and it’s a 2-to-1 vote that Rachel has been the mole.
And then the reveal. Ferguson asks The Hustler to stand and sacré bleu it IS Erica after all.
The former Special Olympian, now $80,000 richer, does a victory dance with Ferguson while the others sit there in bitter astonishment as to how they could have been so easily fooled by lies and deception.
You know, maybe weakest links and hustlers do tell us about our head-spinning world ... maybe more than we want to know.
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