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Need trumps greed on new game shows

Step right up and win cash prizes, but first, some new shows want to hear how badly you need the money.

October 11, 2009|Jon Caramanica

Every generation gets the game show it deserves. To wit, take "Pay It Off" (BET, 10 p.m. Fridays), perhaps the first television show with a cash prize to openly acknowledge the financial need that motivates its contestants. People have been coming on television to win money for more than half a century, but rarely have they had to explain why.

Of course, while the contestants here relate their sob stories -- or in some cases, tales of comic relief -- there's no need. "Deal or No Deal" may have the Banker -- the omnipotent antagonist here is capitalism itself, maneuvering off screen to make the poor even poorer.

Only this fall has the television production cycle caught up to the economy's nadir, just as economists are beginning to suggest the country may be leaving it in the rear view. Never mind: a season of recession reality awaits.

Like many products of modest times, "Pay It Off" is a hand-me-down, a clear derivative of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "Deal or No Deal" and a thousand questionably lighted shows before it. For a recession-buster, it offers relatively modest prize money -- a maximum of $25,000 if the contestant wins all the games.

The language of recession is woven into host Kim Coles' chitchat. Win one of the show's games: "A chance to tell your creditors bye-bye." Lose it: "You'll be saying bye-bye to your credit score." Contestants are all too happy to play along. One of them 'fessed to screening calls from bill collectors: "I don't have any friends with an 866 area code."

Otherwise "Pay It Off," which premiered this month, is a conventional game show, with sometimes grammatically dubious questions. Sadly, it backs off of its original promise somewhat -- it would be far tenser, albeit tackier, if each game segment correlated to an actual bill.

"Pay It Off" has spiritual kin in "Hood Fab," which describes itself as "the brokest game show in America." It recently completed its second season, with episodes airing in reruns on MTV2 and MTV Hits.

Each episode features a series of hip-hop trivia contests between civilians on the street and rap stars. But for all its star wattage, this is a comically low-budget show. The notecards are handwritten. The winner's prize is a package of tube socks. (Win or lose, the citizen contestant always receives an actual prize, typically an iPod shuffle.) In a promo for the recent season, the show's host, Buttahman, stood outside the Department of the Treasury in Washington, D.C., and announced, "We need some more money. We know you have it, so stop being tight and give us some money."

He may as well be speaking for the subjects of "Bank of Mom & Dad" (Soapnet, 10 p.m. Wednesdays), a new intervention series that began last month in which women are forced to confront their financial malfeasance not by having to move back home with their parents, what most broke twentysomethings do, but by having their parents move in with them, which verges on science fiction. (Apparently, only women need this sort of shaking up: No men are featured on this series.)

Most of the scenarios cooked up by this show similarly have a sham feel -- a tow-truck driver willing to waive towing fees? A tasting of quality wines on Long Island? Some of the lifestyle suggestions are ludicrous. In the premiere, a woman was encouraged to trade work hours for her yoga studio membership, but the 20-plus hours per month she'd have to spend are worth, at minimum wage, $145. The monthly fee is only $20 more.

The parents are abetted by a financial advisor, Farnoosh Torabi, who sets spending limits and spouts truisms, somehow neither warm nor cool in approach. (Also, she arrives on site in a chauffeured car -- what, she can't take the train? No frugalista role model, she.)

If being scolded by your parents well into your 20s wasn't a sufficiently demeaning fate, a possible worse reality-TV fate awaits.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Fox Reality Channel was casting for another show in which intimates would give each other grief over financial burdens. In this case, though, it would be divorced couples forced to live together because of financial need. The show, "Living With Your Ex," hasn't been confirmed, but as time capsules go, it's a promising one. Here's hoping producers respond quicker than the economy.


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