Monday, December 18, 2006
Mistaken 'Identity'
NBC's New Game Show: One Magician, No Rabbit, Old Hat

Penn Jillette, of the comedy magic team Penn &  Teller, hosts

Penn Jillette, of the comedy magic team Penn & Teller, hosts "Identity," an hour-long guessing game show. Even Jillette seems bored.

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 18, 2006; C01

Television didn't invent excess, of course, but it probably has done more than any other medium to explore the outer reaches of wretchedness. That search has accelerated in the 500-channel universe, what with all those additional nooks and crannies to be plugged full of content -- the good, the bad and the cruddy.

"Identity," an NBC game show that debuts tonight and airs every night this week, emerges almost logically from the relatively new age of Trends Gone Wild. It crossbreeds the game show and reality formats, as has been especially popular since "Deal or No Deal" became a hit earlier this year, thereby serving as a vivid new cautionary example of what might be called high-speed "genre-fication."

Programmers -- especially NBC's -- are so desperate for exploitable commodities that almost the moment a show becomes a hit, instant imitations turn it into a trend and, if even one of the imitations also succeeds, we're suddenly facing yet another new genre.

To what genre, exactly, does "Identity" belong? The reality game show, perhaps. Or the reality fantasy (contradictions in terms go with the territory). Or just more of TV's simplistic gadgetized gimmickry. It's hard to keep up when a new show might become a new genre in a matter of a week or two.

The ponytailed Penn Jillette, who could be called a whale of a magician but only because of a certain physical resemblance, plays the Howie Mandel role in "Identity," Mandel being the singularly ingratiating host of "Deal or No Deal," the template for this new programming hybrid (a new edition of "Deal" will give "Identity" a fail-safe lead-in tonight). Bob Saget has experienced a brief and unnecessary career revival by filling the Mandel role on the execrable "1 vs. 100," another show of this ilk, and William Shatner, whose career now consists almost entirely of mortifying self-parody, also has done a Mandellian turn in ABC's horrific monstrosity "Show Me the Money."

The idea -- so to speak -- behind "Identity" is based on the premise that, as Jillette explains at the outset, we are all guilty of making snap judgments, of sizing up people based on our first impressions of them. First impressions can be accurate, of course, and one's first impression of "Identity" is likely to be that it is a miserably tedious mess, a reaction that probably will grow stronger the further one slogs into the Big Muddy that is the show.

Instead of trying to guess the dollar amounts printed inside suitcases held by curvaceous models -- as happens on "Deal or No Deal" -- contestants on "Identity" try to match up professions ("night-club bouncer") or pithy descriptions ("donated a kidney") with a dozen human props ("strangers," in the show's parlance) who stand before them. And stand and stand, until they are identified.

(Maybe the format should be called Standing-Room Game Show -- a tradition that harks back to "The Weakest Link," that grandmommy of the genre -- because it appears to be a rule on these things that large groups of people spend an entire hour or so on their feet while contestants go about their business.)

Professions represented on "Identity's" premiere include some that seem designed to be dead giveaways based on common conceptions: a sushi chef (one Asian man stands among the 12 "strangers" gathered together), opera singer (a "fat lady," perchance, in a fancy dress), Las Vegas showgirl (leggy babe?), alligator wrestler (man with no limbs? Just kidding) and break dancer. Yes, apparently there are still professional break dancers living among us, survivors of yet another trend that ran its course but hung around anyway.

In the show's most embarrassing moment -- and there are plenty to choose from -- the contestant suggests that the stranger most likely to be the bouncer is a muscular black man. As it turns out, he's not the bouncer at all. If the producers were seriously interested in the mistaken assumptions we make based on appearances, including racial stereotyping, the gaffe might have value, but they aren't -- and it doesn't.

Similarly, the producers probably think they lucked out big time because their first contestant, a woman from Streamwood, Ill., is bouncy, noisy, shrieky, jolly and gabby as all get-out. She's everything you don't want at a dinner party but which producers do want on game shows. It could be, though, that they've miscalculated, because the contestant is so obnoxiously over-the-top from the get-go that many a viewer will stick around purely on the hope that she'll suffer a humiliating defeat.

NBC has asked that critics not reveal the outcome of the program -- the top prize, if all 12 strangers are correctly identified, is $500,000 -- and so, abiding by the rule, we can't tell you how much dough, if any, the peppery little barracuda does carry away, but we can say that she seldom passes up an opportunity to behave like an imbecile ("You know, No. 1 does look like a bad momma-jomma"). Taking yet another page from "Deal or No Deal," members of the woman's family and a friend or two are trotted out to give her moral support and scream useless advice.

Jillette looks largely baffled as the host, perhaps because he usually works with a partner who is not only quiet, as opposed to the contestant, but silent -- the mute Teller, a kind of cross between Harry Langdon and Harpo Marx. Will Teller make a guest appearance on a future edition of "Identity"? Not if he sees the premiere and has any sense or self-esteem.

There's no moment-of-truth catchphrase on "Identity" to equal Mandel's hokey but suspenseful "Deal? Or no deal?" Instead, after the contestant makes her latest guess, Jillette will say to the stranger in question "Is that your identity?" or "What is your identity?" That just falls flat.

It's too early in the show's history to know what happens if a contestant gets the first guess wrong and scuttles the ship right out of dry dock; do the producers have to bring in 12 new strangers as well as a new contestant?

And if so, is there a kind of creepy purgatory backstage, a human zoo of would-be strangers waiting to be dragged out onto the soundstage and under the blinding lights? What a creepy place that must be -- a cross between Guantanamo and "The Twilight Zone." Or maybe Devil's Island and Howdy Doody's old Peanut Gallery.

The game and the show have one more gimmick: a panel of three "experts" on whom the contestant can call if stumped about the identity of one particular person. On the premiere, the experts include a bored-looking psychologist and a bored-looking FBI man. Jillette, whatever his attempts to seem otherwise, is bored-looking, too, come to think of it, but in this aspect of the competition, nobody is likely to look more bored than whatever unfortunate viewers give the show a sampling.

Those who do tune in will feel like lonely tourists who've lost their maps -- and whose SUV's navigational device has broken down -- and thus have wandered into the first inhabited spot they could find, little dreaming they're about to enter the standing reality game show equivalent of the proverbial Living Hell.

Identity (one hour) debuts tonight at 9 on Channel 4, then airs tomorrow through Friday at 8 p.m.