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The World Series of Pop Culture

The game show has fallen on hard times of late. Except for the supermodel-festooned exercise in greed and guessing known as Deal or No Deal, there are no more traditional contestant-based shows on primetime television. Never fear: VH1 and Entertainment Weekly have co-sponsored a summer-long tournament to determine the world champion of pop culture trivia. Unfortunately, it’s less a test of trivia knowledge than a test of viewer patience.

The most important factors in successful game shows are clever format and adequate challenge. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire offers the relatively innovative “lifeline” and “tough but fair” questions. The World Series of Pop Culture, by contrast, has a boring set-up (teams competing in rounds of six questions each) and too-easy questions (aside from a couple of categories that demand a geekish grasp of detail, they require only basic knowledge).

After each round, the losing team (three members each) is sent out into the audience, condemned to endure the rest of the show with the rest of the captives. Lisa Guerrero tries to enliven the proceedings with backstage interviews and pre-competition inquiries into “strategy.” For his part, inert quizmaster Patrick Kiernan delivers the questions like the eulogist at a funeral.

You can see why he might feel that way, given the decidedly lackluster contestants. Arriving in coordinated outfits and sporting allegedly clever names like Lazer Wolves, Three the Hard Way, Peanut Butter and Ginelli, and The Velvet Rope Revolution, these everyday Joes and Jolenes demonstrate the difference between photogenic, charismatic “stars” and those who should just stay home. It’s not a matter of attractiveness or fashion sense. No, the contestants here seem wholly unaware of how to act in front of an audience. Aside from all the hand signs, frat boy whooping, and brazen mugging, they tend to blurt out completely moronic answers (for “Which Brady Bunch character has a doll named “Kitty Carryall?”, the response is “Jan?”), or come up with only a goofy grin (sometimes accompanied with, “I don’t know”).

Reactions to not knowing run a short gamut. A member of Three the Hard Way (dressed like “Baby” in The Devil’s Rejects) grimaced and grabbed her face like she was in labor when presented with each question. The entire PDX 503 squad looked sad and lost, while Pan-Asian members looked more worried, their faces frozen. Still other contestants postured: when asked about the name “Lazer Wolves,” one member said, “Because there’s nothing cooler than a wolf shooting lasers out of his eyes.” Another participant, a motivational speaker by trade, couldn’t recall a single answer during his stint onstage, but when his fellow team members competed, he was a nonstop aggravating cheerleader.

If Napoleon Dynamite was the nerd Messiah, leading thousands toward the promised land of mass appreciation, then The World Series of Pop Culture takes us 17 steps backward. No one should be proud of knowing a movie by its studio-manufactured tagline or the ability to list all the drinks in the Chumbawamba song “Tubthumping.” Granted, a working knowledge of trivia is a byproduct of our increasingly micromanaged lives, organized by “originals,” sequels, and reduxes. Products — such as bits of information — are introduced, improved, and then redesigned again, so consumers can believe they have uses for each subsequent incarnation.

Game shows should reward intelligence and strategy. But all The World Series of Pop Culture requires is an average attention span. Focused almost exclusively on the mid-’80s through the current TV season (probably the hardest category, as it demands knowing that shows like How I Met Your Mother are still on the air), the material is aimed at Gen X. The “contest” skims the surfaces of the entertainment industry and comes up with the usual suspects: Tom Cruise, Run-DMC, Sex and the City.

Perhaps The World Series of Pop Culture needs physical challenges, Double Dare-style, or to up the difficulty factor. Questions about movie theme songs and old school rap are, well, old school. How about discussing the current trends in J-horror or B-movie actors? Better yet, just resurrect Comedy Central’s Beat the Geeks and be done with it. That show, with its outrageous level of difficulty and virtuoso dorks, has it all over this lame trivia tourney.

RATING 3 / 10