Take It…Please!

I like Howie Mandel and I like game shows. I liked Deal or No Deal up to a point, that point being when it started to feel repetitive and manipulative. It also began to feel like a good half-hour entertainment padded out to an hour.

He has a new show on — a limited-run series that for me started at that point. That it also looks and feels very much like Deal or No Deal (minus the prize models) adds to the feeling of déjà vu. Mandel spends an awful lot of Take It All telling us how exciting it is and how much more exciting it'll be after the next commercial break…so don't go away now. If it really was that exciting, he wouldn't have to keep telling us that.

Take It All is based on an old party game sometimes called White Elephant, sometimes called Greed, sometimes called something else. The first round has five contestants and one gets eliminated per round until the last round is two folks going head-to-head. In the first-through-penultimate rounds, the first contestant picks a colored icon from the "Dream Screen." That gives them a fabulous prize and they find out what it is but not what it's worth. The second contestant then has the option of taking that prize away from them or picking an unknown quantity from the Dream Screen. The third contestant can take one of the previously-selected prizes or an unknown from the Dream Screen, etc. If someone wants to take your prize away, you can lock it (once per show) and keep it or you can take one of the other contestants' prizes or you can go pick from the Dream Screen.

After everyone has a prize, the person who picked first can take someone else's prize, presuming they don't lock it. Then prices are revealed (in an agonizingly slow and teasing manner by Mr. Mandel) and whoever has wound up with the least-expensive prize is eliminated and goes home with bupkis. Nothing. Zero. Not even a case of Turtle Wax. The others move on to the next round.

In the last round, the two survivors go head-to-head. Each has three huge prizes plus an unknown (to all, including them) quantity of cash which could be as high as $250,000. In a moment, they will be asked to secretly lock in one of two selections: Keep Mine or Take It All. It's like Rock/Paper/Scissors in that neither knows what the other has chosen until both are revealed simultaneously. Then…

  • If both pick "Keep Mine," then each contestant goes home with his or her three big prizes plus their cash amount.
  • If both pick "Take It All," they both go home with nothing: No prizes, no cash, no Turtle Wax.
  • If one picks "Keep Mine" and the other picks "Take It All" then the "Take It All" person takes it all: He or she gets their prizes, their opponent's prizes and both cash amounts. That has happened a few times this week.

So what's wrong with this? Well, for starters, up until the last round, it's all high in guesswork, low in strategy. For another, there's the same problem that Million Dollar Drop had. On that show, contestants started with a million dollars and then the whole game was about how much of that they wouldn't lose. Most players lost everything in a game that didn't feel entirely fair. On Take It All, you meet five interesting players and then watch as they amass huge prizes…and then three, four or all five of them lose everything. So it becomes more a game about losing than about winning.

On Deal or No Deal, it was possible to go home with almost nothing but almost everyone had several opportunities to take a nice piece o' change and quit. They kept getting banker's offers, sometimes in the six figures, and they had to decide to grab the cash…or go on and see if the offers would go up. That's an interesting dilemma for a person to be in, one some of us can identify with. We all go through life facing issues where we have to decide when to play it safe and when to gamble. Very little in Take It All reminds me of any game I play in my day-to-day existence.

The closest they come is in that endgame. There's a moment there which I'm guessing the producers feel is the real "gold." The two finalists talk and try to convince each other with some plea that goes roughly like this: "It would mean so much to me and my family if I could just go home with what I've won so far. I'm going to pick 'Keep Mine' and if you do too, we can both go home happy. So please, please…trust me and pick 'Keep Mine.'" This may be sincere but is probably not. Before and after the exchange, Mandel reminds us that under the rules of the game, it's okay to lie.

Thursday night, one woman feigned crying, said she was going to select "Keep Mine" and begged her opponent to trust her and do the same. She did that but her opponent didn't. He pushed "Take It All" and took all her prizes and cash away. Friday night, another woman made a similarly impassioned plea: She would pick "Keep Mine," she said…and if he did likewise and they both won their prizes and loot, she would donate the cash amount to his favorite charity. He trusted her. She picked "Take It All" and wiped him out.

In both cases, someone won around a half-million bucks by lying and convincing someone to trust them…then kinda screwing them over. I suppose that does parallel a situation some of us encounter in the world but I don't really want to watch lying and betrayal succeed. That's pretty much what it takes to win big.

So far, Take It All isn't doing badly in the ratings. NBC is. Their prime-time schedule usually finishes in fourth place for the night. But they have to put something on and Take It All is getting better numbers than many programs which certainly cost more to produce…so after its little tryout week is up, the network may well decide to order more. I suspect folks will tire of it even faster than they've tired of all these prime-time game shows before long but it might be around for a while. So if you're good at getting people to trust you and then knifing them in the back, you might want to apply.