Game shows like Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune and The Price is Right have been around forever, but what about the ones that weren’t so successful? Today, I’ll be taking a look at 7 of the worst, least-inspired, blandest and most repulsive game and reality shows to ever hit airwaves. Brace yourselves. (If you dare, episodes of all of these excluding #3 are available on YouTube.)
7. Set for Life
In the wake of Deal or No Deal, game show producers started to think they could take a format that involved little-to-no skill whatsoever, find overly-excitable contestants, and still have a hit. This led to some terrible flops like How Much is Enough, Take it All and the William Shatner-hosted Show Me the Money (albeit that one had some trivia). None was as bad or as lazy, though, as Set for Life.
Let me see if I can explain this format concisely, because it’s complicated. There are 13 light sticks on stage. Pull a white light, your money goes up. Pull a red light, your money goes down. The game ends when you find all the whites, all the reds, or quit. That’s it! It’s almost an SNL-parody of overly simplistic game shows.
OK, so there is one twist and it makes the show even worse. The contestant has a “guardian angel” (a friend or relative) watching the game’s progress (but not the contestant), and can stop the game at any time. However, we don’t find out until after the game is over if the guardian angel has stopped the game. THIS IS JUST PADDING!
The title comes from the fact that the contestant is playing for an annuity instead of a lump sum, meaning the money tree shows the amount of time for which the contestant will receive a monthly check for a pre-determined amount, with the top prize being 40 years.
How is this amount determined? In an off-stage game before the show of course! Look, I don’t know what this offstage game was, but I’m sure it couldn’t have been more boring than “Pull a light stick.”
Jimmy Kimmel was clearly under contract to host this thing, as he slogs through it like the bore-fest that it is. Thankfully, ABC said “Lights out” to Set for Life after a mere seven episodes, meaning the forced catchphrase “Four red and you’re dead” never caught on.
6. Are You Hot?
A talent show that involved absolutely no talent whatsoever, Are You Hot? is exactly what it sounds like. According to robotic host JD Roberto, the producers had spent months scoping the country for the sexiest people in America, and now they were ready to show them off.
The show would start with the 32 contestants walking onto stage one at a time, trying to look as sexy as possible. The judges had already pre-determined whether they were hot or not, so it was absolutely pointless to air this portion, but the “hot” contestants stayed and the “not” contestants left, as JD tried to come up with 32 different ways of saying “What did the judges say?” So what gods of sex appeal did they get to judge this thing anyway?
Because who knows who’s hot like the woman who married Rod Stewart? Alright, she’s a supermodel, so I get it. Who else?
The rejected Dukes of Hazzard brother played by Danny Bonaduce?
That’s the best sexy TV actor you could get, ABC? A washed-out soap star?
The remaining contestants would then re-enter the stage one at a time in their bathing suits, and the judges would give them scores on their face, body and sex appeal. The contestants with the highest scores, plus whoever the home audience voted through, would move on to the finals where the best looking man and woman would be deemed The Sexiest People in America. Thankfully, this one got canned after its first six-season episode. I can’t imagine one home-viewer sat through a whole hour-long episode of this drivel.
5. The Million Dollar Word Game
In the wake of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, the Canadian network America One gave us the misleadingly-titled Million Dollar Word Game. Well it was a word game, and technically you could win $1,000,000, but it was near-impossible. Hosted by the antithesis of charisma Ian Jamieson…
The game was a series of 14 word puzzles, starting out relatively easy like re-arranging a few letters to make a word in 30 seconds.
No money was guaranteed to the player until level 5, at which point the puzzles were already challenging. For just $1,000, this contestant had to make four four-letter words out of these letters in 30 seconds!
In addition, the contestant has no lifelines, no free wrong answers, and the clock is never shown on the screen! The host takes forever to explain the rules of each round, spends an excruciating amount of time talking to the contestants, and is a slow talker to boot. This contestant missed the puzzle and left with nothing, even though her game took up half of the episode!
If the contestant somehow managed to make it through Level 14, they would win $1,000,000… Nah I’m just kidding. They would get to pick one of the 24 numbered boxes behind Ian, one of which contained $1,000,000. One episode is circulating online, but viewers recall another where one contestant made it to level 14 but lost when they could not unscramble the word BICENTENNIAL.
As if this wasn’t enough, the producers put up an online version of the game where one player could win $10,000,000. Yeah, it was easy. All you had to do was put up $100 up front, and the winner had to go to the Caribbean to claim their prize. Nothing fishy at all there. Somehow this thing lasted 40 episodes.
4. Shopper’s Casino
Did you ever watch QVC and say to yourself, “Yeah but what if we mixed this with gambling?” Well if you did, Shopper’s Casino is the show for you. Hosted by Miss America 1983 Debbie Sue Maffett and Jeff Maxwell of M*A*S*H fame, Shoppers Casino was one of the cheapest game shows ever produced.
In addition to the chintzy set, there’s one glaring thing you’ll notice right off the bat—Jeff Maxwell is clearly drunk. He stumbles over his words, he laughs at random times and in odd ways, and he makes some hilarious faces.
The game features contestants playing casino games for worthless overpriced items that of course you can buy from home, like a cookware set and Coca-Cola pins. Seriously. A set of Coca-Cola pins was a prize on a game show in the 1980s. Even the announcer stumbles over his words as he claims its “value” is $499.95.
At one point, Jeff and Debbie Sue “call” a home viewer, who is obviously in the corner of the studio speaking to them. You can even see Jeff trying not to look too long at the spot where the “caller” is.
The winner gets to spin the Big Wheel for an actual prize.
That’s not a Big Wheel! That’s just a regular wheel. Anyway, this contestant won a trip to the Virgin Islands, which I suppose isn’t bad, but since the announcer never described it, we don’t know the accommodations, how long it’s for, or even if it’s round trip! With this show’s budget, this guy might still be there.
3. The Swan
Did you ever watch The Twilight Zone episode “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,” miss the blatant social commentary, and instead think it would make a great reality show? For those who haven’t seen the classic episode, it’s set in a future society where at age 18, everyone undergoes a transformation to look like one of a small pool of models.
The premise of The Swan is basically that. Women who never felt beautiful are given a complete plastic surgery overhaul to look conventionally attractive, and the best makeovers move onto the final Swan Pageant, where the “winner” is crowned The Swan.
This is of course in spite of the fact that the title comes from a Hans Christian Andersen tale where an ugly duckling realizes it was a beautiful swan all along without changing itself. Whatever. Shocker, this show led to complications from extensive surgery and made already-present mental health issues even worse. It’s like if Are You Hot? said “No, and let’s fix that.” It doesn’t warrant any more than a few paragraphs. Next.
2. 3’s a Crowd
The Newlywed Game was controversial in its time, sure, but this one makes it look like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. In 1979, Chuck Barris gave us this clunker that asked the question “Who knows a man better—his wife or his secretary?”
First, the three men would be asked four questions, but gone were the innuendos of Newlywed. For example, in one episode the questions included “Is your secretary in love with you?” and “If you were single, what would stop you from having an affair with your secretary?”
Everyone seemed to be under the impression that all of the husbands and secretaries were one step away from sleeping together (if they weren’t already), as the contestant above answered the latter question with “I could fall in love with her.”
The secretaries were brought out and got one point for every match, and the wives then did the same. The team (wives or secretaries) that matched more answers won $1,000… to split.
This one was so disgusting, both to conservative audiences for its raunchy nature and liberal audiences for its blatant misogyny, that some theorized Chuck Barris was tired of producing game shows and was intentionally self-destructing. Let’s just say it’s possible.
How could anything be worse than a marriage dissolving in 30 minutes for a little over $300? I mean, the only way to top that would be putting someone’s life in danger…
1. The Chamber
In 2002, FOX gave us the worst game show of all time—The Chamber. Deciding that audiences were sick of just watching contestants answer questions, they decided that we should watch contestants answer questions from within a torture chamber. The only chambers we saw on the show involved extremely hot and extremely cold conditions, but the show promised insect and water torture chambers in the future!
The show was hosted (barely) by Rick Schwartz, who was basically just a color commentator, as a robotic voice would ask the questions within the chamber.
Two contestants played a preliminary game where they listed items back-and-forth to see who would enter the chamber, and the winner signed a release saying they knew the dangers they were about to forego.
The chamber consisted of seven 1-minute rounds in which the contestant was asked as many questions as they could answer. The conditions in each level grew more uncomfortable, but the answer value did not! That’s right, whether it was round 1 or round 7, the contestant only got $1,000 for each right answer. If a contestant thought the chamber was too much, they could leave the game with half their money. If a contestant got two consecutive answers wrong, they would leave the game with half their money. If the on-set doctors declared the contestant unfit to continue, they would (you guessed it) leave the game with half their money. The only way to win all of the money you earned was to make it through all seven levels. There was no bonus unless you answered 25 questions right though, in which case your money was tripled.
As if this wasn’t enough, there were all kinds of problems on set that made it to air. Due to the extreme nature of the chamber, it was often very difficult for the contestants to hear the questions being asked. One contestant even mentioned one of his earpieces had fallen out, but game play continued as normal.
Another question was about the astronaut John Glenn, and even though the contestant shouted “Glenn” twice, she thought her answer was not being accepted, so she shouted “Armstrong” out of despair. The producers judged her answer as “Glenn Armstrong,” and the game was over.
Only one contestant in the three aired episodes, Scott Brown, made it through all seven levels, answering 20 questions and leaving with just $20,000 for his troubles. (The clip of this episode shows that they were now letting Schwartz actually ask the questions.) Brown eventually received a nice bonus of $100,000 though… when he settled out of court with Dick Clark Productions for long-term damage!
I still cannot believe this show got past the developmental phase. Sportscaster Matt Vasgersian (who is actually personable) turned down the show because he found the premise repulsive, and I guess Rick Schwartz had access to so few emotions that he was the only one they could get to host. There was a similar show on ABC called The Chair, which was based around keeping your heart-rate down, and while it wasn’t good, no one’s life was in danger. The Chamber was just sick.