Saturday, June 02, 2007

Channel surfing: Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?

(Sorry for the conspicuous lack of posts over the last few days. Your SDD bloggers have been very busy doing things that aren't blogging, and there hasn't been a lot else on. We have a number of exciting articles planned, though, and we'll hope to start getting those up as summer TV starts up in earnest over the next few days. Look for a few movie and concert reviews as well, because, let's face it, man does not live in TV alone. Not even a blogger. -- ed.)

Someday, when the good folks of SDD have taken over the broadcast networks (and don't try to stop us), we will make sure to institute a policy I'm calling the "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader Clause." By far the best thing about Fifth-Grader, the unspeakably dumb game show that has inexplicably gained a toehold for Fox on Thursday nights, is its theme song, which actually begins with a chorus of schoolchildren SINGING THE NAME OF THE SHOW. Now, I love me a good theme song, but even better is a theme song that just states the name of the show point blank for you (there are other lyrics as well, but I honestly think the Fifth-Grader producers should just chant the name of the show over and over, the better to mock those of us who find it distasteful). So, henceforth, all shows are required to have theme songs that just state the name of the show ad nauseum until you know what, exactly, it is you're watching. Even The Sopranos, airing its next-to-last episode tomorrow night, will be required to follow this rule.

So I liked the theme song. What else did I like? Well, I liked Jeff Foxworthy, which is a bit surprising, as I haven't found the guy that entertaining before. Here, though, he's a highly capable host, shuttling around the various kids and contestants and just generally seeming to have a good time. He's not the world's greatest ad libber, but he manages to come up with a punchy line here and there to zip the proceedings along. The tone of the show is one of genial, down home mockery, and nothing says that better than the guy who came up with the "You Might Be a Redneck" routine.

So why check this out when I had been assured by most everyone I knew that it wasn't all that great? Well, I have a great weakness for game shows, even the dumb ones. I spent the last Thanksgiving and Christmas watching the extra-special editions of Deal or No Deal and 1 Vs. 100. While I wouldn't be caught dead watching Deal on a day other than a major holiday, I kind of enjoy 1 Vs. 100, which has questions which are too easy, sure, but also has the possibility for a wide variety of guest stars, the capable hosting of Bob Saget and an element of strategy that makes the show more interesting to watch than Deal, which is mostly just pretty lights and loud noises distracting us from probability problems that could be aced by, well, by a fifth-grader.

So I had sort of high hopes for Fifth-Grader. I didn't think I'd be sliding it onto the old top ten list, but I thought it might be something fun to watch in the summer months (since Pirate Master appears to be DOA). I'm not a big fan of TV where the point is to make fun of the dumb yokels, but Fifth-Grader kept reminding me that NEXT WEEK, there would be a ROCKET SCIENTIST on the show. What's more, I could see a way to do this show without mockery, since everyone forgets a lot of useless crap they learned in grade school. I mean, I used to be able to recite all of the presidents in order in under 30 seconds (I had a friend who had it down to seven), but even in a line of work where useless trivia knowledge is rewarded, I haven't had a tremendous need to know whether Van Buren or Polk came first. I mean, I've got the Internet. It's right there on my computer!

So, I could see a version of this show where the mockery would be rather gentle, all things considered. The middle-aged contestants would sigh in exasperation as they realized they had no idea how to find a lowest-common denominator anymore, and America would smile wistfully and realize it didn't know how to do that either. But here's the thing -- the WHOLE TONE OF THE SHOW is one of the audience being invited to laugh at the dumb people on the TV when the whole environment the show is filmed in is invented to promote brain freeze. I mean, when's the last time YOU found a lowest-common denominator* (rocket scientists need not apply)?

Instead, we're supposed to laugh at the people who've forgotten the stuff they learned as kids (and, indeed, the questions are almost insultingly easy; I didn't even have to strain to get a one). But why should this be a surprise? As pointed out above, people don't use this stuff every day, and once you pass 18 or so, it's all downhill for remembering more stuff. There's a difference between letting a person laugh at how dumb they feel and laughing AT them for being dumb, and Fifth-Grader tiptoes over it a little too often for comfort. It's humiliation TV, like the American Idol audition episodes or, apparently, the whole of So You Think You Can Dance? (And yes. Yes I do.)

This might be OK if there was something strategically interesting about the game or if the questions were hard or something. But the game just isn't that exciting, and the rules of it are pretty dumb. The "lifelines," as they were (and weird how this has become an expected element of a trivia-based game show since Millionaire hit it big), didn't seem to affect play all that much, and I can't wrap my head around one particular rule. When a contestant gets a question wrong, he or she is given a second chance only if the fifth-grader they are facing off with at the moment gets the question RIGHT instead of WRONG. This seems backward to me -- if both players got the question wrong, they would both be expected to get another chance (i.e., the question was too hard). But, instead, a wrong answer on the part of the kid gets the contestant dismissed while a right answer on the part of the kid but a wrong answer on the part of the contestant leads to the contestant staying. The situation when the contestant is right and the kid is wrong leads to the kid being dismissed, which seems right, but the other two situations seem puzzling.

Furthermore, the kids here are kind of a smug, unbearable lot. Not that they should be bopping around like irritating professional actor children (which you just know they are), but they could, at the very least, be allowed to show a little personality instead of being a mass of young faces. They're not even used properly as a Greek chorus of shame. I mean, if you're going to mock people, go all the way, right?

There's so much else about Fifth-Grader that just doesn't work that I can't write about it any more for fear of making this longer than whatever I write about The Sopranos tomorrow night. Suffice it to say that every segment of the show ends with a promo of what we can expect after the commercial break (I mean, can't we just stick around?) and that there's an irritating tone of "down home values" that gave the episode I watched a disquieting air of sexism (sure, it was of the "woman beats the man" variety, but it still had that undercurrent of surprise at a woman being smarter than her husband). Anyway, I won't be watching Fifth-Grader again, and I don't recommend you start.

*--I'll bet you forgot, so I'm here to help. Take the two or more denominators (the bottom numbers on the fractions) and figure out all of their multiples, then find the smallest one that both have in common. Some people think you just take the two denominators times each other, but while this gets you a common denominator, it's not the lowest one. Here's an example. The lowest-common denominator between 1/4 and 1/6 is 12. Why? Because the multiples of 4 (4, 8, 12, 16, 20, 24, 28, 32, 36, 40) and 6 (6, 12, 18, 24, 30, 36, 42, 48, 54, 60) match up in a number of places, but do so first at 12. This is mostly useful if you're going to be adding and subtracting fractions, and isn't that why you have that shiny scientific calculator anyway?


Ms. Harris said...

So how do I apply for this show? I have been a 5th grade teacher for 18 years. My students really want me to apply for this show!

Todd VanDerWerff said...

I imagine has the answers you seek, Ms. Harris. I haven't checked yet, but they usually have this information somewhere buried within the show's web site.