Television criticism, maybe even more so than other forms of arts criticism, has an implicit but rigid hierarchy. “Often, these biases involve class, gender, race, and sexuality, disguised as biases about aesthetics,” Emily Nussbaum writes in her book I Like to Watch: “Green/grey drama, serious; neon-pink musical, guilty pleasure. Single-cam sitcom, upscale; multi-cam, working class.” Nussbaum attributes this, in part, to television’s status anxiety: it wasn’t too long ago that TV was considered the idiot box, the boob tube, a vast wasteland. “So much of TV,” John Mason Brown told Steven H. Scheur in 1955, “seems to be chewing gum for the eyes.” For the rest of the twentieth century, at least, most people would agree with him. And so critics appeal all too readily to other, more respectable mediums – it’s a visual novel, a ten-hour movie. It’s not TV, it’s HBO.

I agree totally with Nussbaum’s argument, and have made versions of it myself over the years. But the privileging of drama over sitcoms, of gritty realism over silly genre fare, of masculinity over femininity, is a relatively small part of the equation. The types of television most neglected by critics are, if we’re honest, the same ones that make up most of the TV made and most of the TV watched: all the vast, vast area that exists outside of scripted comedy and drama programmes.

Despite the instinct to bundle television and movies in together, television was born out of radio. This relationship is clearest in television’s earliest days, when television was about as close as you could get to just being radio with pictures – some programmes would simultaneously air in radio and television. Many writers from the first Golden Age of Television, like Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone, started out writing radio scripts. But radio’s influence of television never disappeared, even if television thoroughly displaced radio’s cultural position. Think about the genres and formats that make up so much of what television is, that feel so specific to television: sitcoms, news shows, and quiz shows were all invented for radio. Competition talent shows. Cooking shows. Hell, even dancing: Fred Astaire used to dance on radio. In his book on Singin’ in the Rain, Peter Wollen writes that for radio Astaire would “concentrate … on ‘a lot of taps close together – a string of ricky-ticky-ticky-tacky-ticky-tacky-taps.’”

Thinking about TV’s relationship to radio, the broad swathes of critically neglected television assert themselves as some of the most important in the medium. Even in TV’s post-Sopranos critical ascendency, so much of television has been left behind – the TV of TV, still thought of as chewing gum for the eyes, even subconsciously.

I felt this with a jarring certainty when watching an old episode of Pointless. The round was about a list of the greatest television programmes of the last however many years, I think by Radio Times. Richard Osman, the co-host and creator, noted near the end of the round that the list consisted almost entirely of dramas and sitcoms – scripted television, essentially. I realised, with a shock, that I have been writing about TV for what feels like forever, and never written about Pointless. I’ve never written much about any quiz shows, or game shows in general, except Taskmaster. The game show is one of the best and most important genres of television. And I love them. I adore them. It is a rare moment indeed that you’ll catch me unwilling to watch The Chase. I have loved Pointless longer and more thoroughly than other TV show I can think of. I opened that article about Taskmaster saying, “If there’s one thing I love on this earth, it’s game shows.” And yet, I’ve neglected them, too.

So: let’s talk about The Chase.

The Chase is a show I love like all the mundanities of home. It’s soothing – not because that’s the tone the show is going for, particularly, but because that’s the role it’s played in my life. Background noise, not because it’s as nutritionally void as chewing gum, but because it’s rhythms are as familiar and wonderous as an old pop punk song.

The rhythms are these. There are four contestants, each of whom in turn complete the cash builder round – answering as many questions as they can, each worth a thousand pounds – and then face off against the chaser. The chaser is “one of Britain’s finest quiz brains”: the Beast, the Governess, the Sinnerman, the Dark Destroyer, the Vixen, or, as of recently, that one Irish lad. The chaser, uh, chases them towards the end of the table, with the chaser and the contestant each moving forward one square when they get a question right. The contestant has a choice: play for the money they earned in the cash builder, take a lower offer and start closer to home – or take a higher offer and start closer to the chaser.

If the chaser catches them, they’re out. If they make it home, the money goes into the pot that all the surviving contestants play for in the final chase. The contestants go first, answering a series of questions and moving a step forward for each they get right. The chaser goes next, tasked with catching them – but if the chaser gets one wrong, the question goes across to the contestants. If they get it right, they push the chaser back one square.

Like all quiz shows, it sounds much more complicated when you try to describe. On telly, it goes down easy. The Chase has a workmanlike simplicity, unadorned with glitz or gimmicks. Its channel mate Tipping Point tries to engineer stakes and strategy out of a kids’ arcade game. Pointless is driven by its gimmick, which works when you have the best gimmick in the biz. Only Connect is driven by its gimmick, which works when you only intend to appeal to losers and weirdos (not pejorative). The Chase doesn’t have a gimmick – it just has a format. A structure applied to pretty regular quiz show meat and potatoes. But it glimmers with magic all the same.

There are many aspects that make that format work. At the most basic level, the combination of rapid-fire questions (in the cash builder and final chase) and multiple choice (in the solo chases) keeps things feeling fresh. The questions are a nice, reasonable level of neither so hard they make you feel dumb nor such a piece of piss that it might as well be for babies. But the most vital quirk is the contestant’s opportunity to take the lower or higher offer for their solo chase. It’s a moment of character reveal that outclasses many a HBO drama. Depending on the standard established in the cash builder, going for the higher offer can be brazen stupidity and arrogance, and going for the lower offer can be disgusting cowardice and selfishness. Perhaps the greatest sin known to man is to go for the lower offer when it’s a minus number – taking away from the money in the pot instead of contributing to it. Anyone who would go for a minus offer is a scumbag and a charlatan with no human feeling. This is not just my opinion, but the opinion of everyone I know. There are lots of quiz shows that make me dismiss contestants as dumb or ignorant, but The Chase is the only one that generates, if not quite outrage, then something close to it.

 But The Chase’s secret weapon is Bradley Walsh, the presenter. Bradley is the special sauce that gives The Chase its flavour. Where most hosts would maintain a veneer of impartiality, Bradley is unequivocally on the contestants’ side. More than that, he acts like he’s part of the team. He refers to the contestants as “we,” “us,” “my team.” He says “you’re a better player than that” when somebody’s shit. The show never leans into it – Bradley never plays the game – but it frames the show anyway, making the endless contestant cogs seem part of Bradley’s big machine to take down the chasers. And though Bradley plays dumb, acting like he wouldn’t know anything about this subject or that, he clearly reasons out the answers when the moment comes. I sometimes say that Ben Shepherd, presenter of Tipping Point, is the hardest working man in show business – since he has to pretend like the coin machine is exciting, developing this whole lingo to describe it (“riders”, “flat”, etc). But Ben Shepherd feels like he might break a sweat. Bradley Walsh is majestic – but, like the show itself, workmanlike, unshowy.

This is the first instalment in I’ve Started So I’ll Finish, a series about TV game shows. Find future instalments here.

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