NBC’s “Weakest Link” is back on the air, but needs improvement
By Ethaniel Reyes
“You are the Weakest Link, goodbye.”
It ranks high on some of the most popular catchphrases television has gifted us, including those like “Is that your final answer?” and “Survey says!”. For Millennials and older generations who were witness to the dawn of the television era in the turn of the millennium, watching sitcoms like ‘Friends’ and ‘Fraisier’, game shows like Weakest Link sit in the back of their minds as faint memories.
But these faint memories can be relived again through NBC’s 2020 revival of Weakest Link, hosted by Emmy-award winning actress Jane Lynch, famous for her role in Glee as the ruthless Sue Sylvester. Her demeanor on the show hints back to her time on Glee, acting just like her predecessor Anne Robinson who hosted the show almost twenty years ago. The show premiered on September 29, 2020, starting a 13-episode run for the Fall 2020 season.
How does it work?
For those who aren’t familiar, Weakest Link is a winner-take-all, rapid-fire trivia competition. Eight contestants take turns answering a round of questions in succession. In every round, the aim is to create chains of consecutive correct answers to reach the highest amount offered in the round, ranging from $25,000 to $500,000 — this can be achieved by correctly answering eight questions in a row. The longer a chain is, the more valuable it becomes. Wrong answers break the chains, losing the money in them and forcing the team to start again.
To secure the money from being lost, contestants can say “bank” before their question is asked. This adds the money in the current chain to the jackpot, but also causes the team to start again. As a result, frequent banking, often done by contestants, can lead to wasting opportunities to achieve higher gains.
At the end of each round, the contestants vote someone out of the game. While the premise of the game prompts them to vote the weaker player out, contestants are often strategic and often opt to vote the stronger players out. Ties in the vote tally are broken with the strongest player’s vote. The person voted out is eliminated, as the host sends them off with the iconic catchphrase, “You are the weakest link, goodbye”.
When the game reaches its climax with two players remaining, a simple, five-question showdown determines the winner. In the event of a tie-breaker, the showdown becomes a penalty shootout, and the winner wins the entire jackpot while the remaining contestant leaves with nothing.
How did the show come about?
Weakest Link premiered in 2001, featuring a million-dollar top prize, as was the norm in 2000’s game shows. It initially led to high ratings, causing Robinson to become well-known in the US and made notorious among American audiences. However, the show continued to have an excess of celebrity editions, lowering the relatability between the contestants and the viewers. As a result, it lost ratings and ended production for primetime in 2002.
The program switched over to daytime syndication, in the hopes of getting a chance at redemption. Hosted by comedian George Gray, the running time of the episodes was halved, and the top prize was reduced to $75,000, later increasing to $100,000 after the first daytime season. The show suffered the same fate as its primetime predecessor and ended production the following year. Weakest Link made no episodes for 17 years until the revival on 29 September 2020.
How do I feel about it?
The show does well to make an engaging trivia competition that viewers can play at home. The premise of the show encourages audience participation, with the rapid-fire trivia and deliberating which person should be voted off. I watch this with my family every week, so it almost engenders competition between my own family on who is able to answer the most questions correctly between family members.
The show has many parts that are integrated together repetitively, making the gameplay easy to follow. However, like many modern American game show adaptations, this version of the show fails to follow the original exactly, and as a result, misses the mark in some aspects.
Payout structure is terrible
The money trees have a lot left to be desired. This is because the money trees do not incentivize banking. In the first 4 rounds, the money trees are acceptable; they make it seem sensible to bank amounts of money that are easier to achieve. However the final two question rounds, which have a $250,000 and a $500,000 chain, act like chains from “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” — the amounts of money start small in the beginning and grow exponentially when the chain continues.
This essentially makes the chains misleading since contestants are more likely to risk too much, leading them to banking lower amounts like $2,500 or $5,000 — nowhere near the targets offered — when they run out of time. In fact, as the game progresses, contestants rarely bank over a threshold of $20,000 — which, compared to the prospect of winning half a million, is not impressive.
To improve, changes need to be made. The reason why the money trees consistently give away small winnings is because the production company NBC doesn’t have the money to constantly give away high sums of money. To alleviate this while incentivizing the aspect of banking, the game needs to lessen the amount of money on offer and make the chains much more reasonable.
For example, NBC could lower the top prize every game to $500,000 instead of a million dollars. It seems the game isn’t designed to be a million-dollar game, so there is no reason to bother advertising the show with a million dollar prize every single time.
The chains could be lowered and become more consistent among rounds. A good example for an eight-question chain can have a target of $50,000 over the course of five rounds — starting with $1,000, then gradually increasing to $50,000. The penultimate and final rounds can double and triple every amount on the money tree, increasing the top prize to $100,000 and $150,000 respectively, making a total of $500,000 over seven rounds — as opposed to six rounds on the show. This would create an end result based on the success of the contestants and not based on small gains offered by high-value money chains.
Voting structure is nonsensical
Even the voting sequence needs to revert back to original. The original version showed the contestants casting their votes immediately before they were revealed. The banter came after, with hostess Anne Robinson often mocking contestants for their reasons choosing a particular player. This version sees the banter happen right after they cast the votes. Since no version of Weakest Link has ever done this before, it felt unnatural and cheesy. It’s nonsensical to have the contestants interact with the host in the middle of the voting sequence when there is no context for the banter to be based on.
This can easily be changed by switching the sequence of the show, which can be done should the show be renewed for a second season.
Casting needs to change, but so does gameplay
The casting for this show is terrible. They act like they are in a reality TV show. Everything about their personalities is superficial — the drama, the way they talk — it seems to fit very different stereotypes too well. They make the show boring and have no substance.
On top of that, the contestants always get rid of the strongest players, making the game lose its intended meaning. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the producers, but it is due to the poor gameplay. The show is designed without a higher-value final round when two contestants are left. As a result, contestants feel inclined to eliminate the stronger players since there is no incentive to keep them in the game.
To fix this, they need to have a question round with a final two — a round that offers the highest amounts of money yet no opportunity to vote — solidifying the dilemma between keeping stronger and weaker contestants. This goes back to the extra round I mentioned before when I gave an example for a better payout strategy.
The hostess does her job well, but needs to become more natural
Jane Lynch is a good hostess. Her demeanor follows her predecessor’s — cutthroat, derogatory, witty. She has a good sense of humor that relies on improvisation, which often shines and makes the show much more interesting than what the poor casting makes it out to be. However, it is limited by the constant use of a script that is overused on the show, making her sound very repetitive throughout an episode.
To fix this, Lynch needs to moderate the show using her skills in improv comedy, not through following a script. The show fails to characterize Lynch as a deep character on the show, and we don’t see much of her personality other than how she sticks by a script. Lynch needs to have more freedom integrating her sense of humor into the way she presents the show, given that she already knows how the show works. For example, instead of constantly saying, “It’s the team’s votes that counts, and it’s now time to reveal who the team thinks is the weakest link” before the votes are shown, she can add her own spin on the
On a positive note, Lynch succeeds in adding more diversity into the Hollywood industry by becoming one of few LGBTQ women to get In a 2020 interview she made to the LGBT-centered newsletter Advocate, she feels that her sexuality is an important part of her identity and that she was able to find an embracing community of people like her in Hollywood. She says that lesbian celebrities like Ellen Degeneres, at the height of their careers, with everything to lose, came out of the closet and took these huge samurai swords and forged the path for the rest of [the community of LGBT women].”
Bottom Line: It’s not NBC’s weakest link, but it needs to improve.
There are a lot of improvements that need to be made in order to make the show as fair as possible. The current gameplay doesn’t allow the show to live up to its predecessor, lacking in a final round, incentivized banking, and natural conversation between the hostess and the contestants.
However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything good the show executes. The show succeeds in creating an interactive connection towards viewers by incorporating a lot of rapid-fire trivia. The lighting makes the environment somewhat eerie, almost ominous — and the lights switching to blood-red when a contestant leaves solidifies the cutthroat feeling in the room.
Overall, I’m thankful that the show is back on NBC after 17 years. This has been one of my favorite shows in the past and I am happy the show is brought back with the original music. If NBC takes the next steps and adds these changes in, I have no doubt the show will be much more enjoyable for game show fans like me.