The "Tell Us Your Sob Story in Order to Be Showered with Material Goods" genre is almost as old as television itself, dating all the way back to "Queen for a Day" in the 1950s. On that show, women were fêted for overcoming obstacles in their lives, and lavished with prizes to compensate them for their struggles. The spirit of that show lives on today in "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition"; and on "The Nate Berkus Show," the latter of which recently finished fulfilling the promise of Oprah Winfrey's late daytime show by building a custom house for Monica Jorge, who, after giving birth, developed an infection in the hospital that ended with the partial amputation of all four of her limbs. "You Deserve It," which premiered last night on ABC, wants to join this noble tradition, but its very structure makes it a much more cynical affair.
On the surface, "You Deserve It" looks and functions pretty much like all the heirs of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," like "1 vs. 100," "The Weakest Link," and "Million Dollar Money Drop": mostly black set, with blue searchlight-esque accents; frustratingly easy questions; disappointingly few questions; excessively long running time for the amount of content in the episode. But here's the twist: The contestant is playing not for herself, but for another person who has no idea she's about to be the beneficiary of her loved one's efforts. Last night's player was Stacey; her deserving recipient was Michelle, a friend since their first day at college. Michelle is a recent widow with two young daughters, her husband Drew having recently drowned in an apparent diving mishap. Michelle has been left with bills, of course, and Stacey makes a point of adding that there's "not much health insurance" for Drew's survivors.
It's clear as one watches the episode that Stacey loves Michelle, still feels the loss of Michelle's late husband, and desperately wants to be successful on the show in order to help ease Michelle's burdens in a way she's not able to do with her own money. As the game, such as it is, keeps getting stretched out past the point of interest or suspense (no kidding: The episode is an hour long, during which time Stacey answers five questions. "Jeopardy!," this isn't), host Chris Harrison continually reminds Stacey of what she's doing. She reiterates how much she wants to be able to give Michelle as large a gift as possible, to which Harrison responds with sentiments like, "We all want this for you."
But DOES everyone involved in the show REALLY want Stacey to give Michelle the biggest possible gift? Because the show doesn't seem to work that way. "You Deserve It" sets up a game in which, if the contestant played it perfectly, would net her $435,000. As each round begins, she is given one clue for free (but since they're "clues" like "White Collar" or "Hundreds in Vegas," they're pretty worthless on their own); from there, she can buy additional clues, but their prices are randomized. The more clues the contestant needs, the less money the round will be worth to her deserving friend. As I mentioned above, the questions are very easy, and answering takes forever, making the show a doubly frustrating experience for the viewer: There is less interest in each question the longer it goes on (probably because those of us at home guessed it much faster than poor Stacey, under the lights and the pressure, was able to), in addition to which each new clue means we're watching the jackpot tick down for the nice young widow we just met and for whom we wish only the best.
If the point of the entire enterprise is to give a deserving person a surprise financial windfall, why make a game of it at all? Audiences have proven, by embracing "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," that a show premised on a person in challenging circumstances receiving free assistance is perfectly compelling, without incorporating an element of chance. And a show like "Surprise Homecoming" proves that getting free stuff doesn't even have to be part of the show: It will still make audiences cry. If ABC wanted to give the "You"s of "You Deserve It" $435,000, it could...just do that. Instead, it sets up hoops for charitable loved ones to jump through, cursing themselves at each one that makes them trip and, thus, reduce the size of the ultimate gift. So instead of feeling impressed by the generous network, we're left pitying the poor player who couldn't guess "Lady Gaga," and thus cheated her best friend out of a potential $7000 worth of groceries or new shoes or vaccinations for her kids. Happy holidays from ABC.