Weakest Link (Reboot), and How to Make it Stronger

Weakest Link was a trivia game show that first aired in the year 2000 on the BBC in the United Kingdom. The following spring, it became a sensation in the United States when both the show’s format and infamous host, Anne Robinson, were hired by NBC to present the program with American contestants.

The first U.S. episode of the show, complete with the wonderful “time capsule” advertisements from the day.

The game revolved around a team of strangers attempting to correctly answer six rounds of rapid-fire trivia questions worth various amounts of money, with a total prize of $1,000,000 eligible to be won.

The most profitable way to amass money for the team’s treasury was to build streaks of correct answers, with the amount of money offered for a single right answer increasing as the streak grew. If the group could manage to correctly answer eight questions in a row, they would collect the maximum amount of money available in the round, and it would immediately end. If a question was missed though, the chain would be broken, and the group would have to start building it again from zero.

With so many unknown quantities in play, answering eight random trivia questions in a row was no easy task. In order to give the contestants a fighting chance to collect some amount of money in a round, the person who was next to answer was given the option to shout the word “bank,” and depending on how many questions had been consecutively answered correctly to that point, the equivalent amount of money would be added to the team’s pot of money. Performing this maneuver did not come without a cost though, and doing this would reset the answer-chain to zero.

To keep the game driving toward a finish line, at the completion of each round the participants would all cast a ballot for the person they most wanted to eliminate from the competition. The votes were then read publicly, and whomever received the most would be eliminated and go home empty-handed. When only two players remained, the pair would then face off against one another in an alternating series of five questions, with the contestant who answered the most correct being declared the winner and taking home the team’s entire bank.

In hindsight, while the general public has enjoyed many televised trivia games over the years, the aspect that set Weakest Link apart from shows like Jeopardy! and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire was the scornful energy of the host, Anne Robinson. Generally speaking, when a show becomes popular enough that it gets produced in other countries, the format is the only element that’s exported; in the case of Weakest Link though, NBC thought so highly of Robinson as the host that they hired her to continue on in the US version.

While there’s no structural reason for Weakest Link to feature a host who does anything more than read the questions clearly and concisely, Robinson brought a strict yet lively personality to the moments between the rounds. Commonly, she would admonish the contestants for missing easy questions, or failing to bank anywhere close to as much money as they could have. Due to the presence of a live studio audience, often Robinson’s quips would elicit strong and favorable reactions from the crowd, and some contestants wilted under the pressure. Other times, the mood of the competition seemed to influence the competitors to be brash to one another, creating a tone that hadn’t been seen on television much at that point in time.

Though Robinson ended her run on the US version of Weakest Link after about a year (the show itself was completely gone from US television a year after that), the impact it had on the American TV viewing public was undeniable. To this day, the famous catchphrase “You are the Weakest Link. Goodbye!” that Robinson uttered to outgoing contestants can be easily identified and mimicked in her British accent.

In a television landscape where every show gets resurrected at some point in time, when a press release over the summer announced that Weakest Link was being rebooted in 2020, the only surprise was that it took nearly twenty years to transpire. When the new episodes began airing in the fall, I was all too happy to check in and observe how the cultural touchstone had aged. In short, what I found was unsatisfying.

Firstly, while not surprising given her current age of 76, it was nevertheless disappointing to learn that the rebooted version did not include Anne Robinson as the presenter. To replace her, NBC chose American character actor Jane Lynch, who, while serviceable enough at reading the questions, is trying too hard to embody a “hosting persona” that replicates Robinson’s sardonic demeanor. If I had to speculate, one reason Lynch’s identity on the show doesn’t work is because she herself is a known quantity to audiences, and is overall perceived as being a nice person. Hence, when she is laying into the participants between rounds it seems discordant and overly forced considering who the public regards her to be.

Further, the show’s overall vibe is made all the more baffling by the fact that Covid-19 protocols clearly prevented studio audiences from attending the tapings, so Lynch’s pre-written barbs come off even stranger due to the presence of a laugh track in an otherwise empty studio. In short, it’s a shame that Lynch and the show chose to be so fixated on attempting to recreate the wholly unique and natural charisma that Robinson brought with her, instead of either casting someone who could more capably pull off the impression (i.e. a fresh face), or by establishing a variation of the persona that better called on Lynch’s many strengths as a performer.

As for the show itself, the gameplay is fairly similar to the original version, with money being banked each round and players being voted off along the way, until the final two go head-to-head for the whole pot. In a sense though, this comes off as a flaw as well, because the finished product just feels dull. With the numerous cutthroat game shows that have permeated our televisions since Weakest Link debuted two decades ago, the show would’ve been well-served to introduce an evolved version of itself.

Now, I’m well aware that no one enjoys the people who criticize without also offering solutions, and in service of that I have come up with some ideas that might inject new life into the show.

Of course, the only way to know if a modification will work is through trial and error, and by definition that means that not every suggestion will succeed. The power of being aware of this fact is that it disables any single failure from feeling final, which motivates a productive hunger for progress. It’s difficult to know which concepts will be winners until they’re removed from theory and put into practice so the kinks can be worked out and a fair judgment on viability can be made, but we’ll never know if we don’t try.

Without further ado, here are a few thoughts on what Weakest Link 2.0 could be:

1) The voting portion of the game is anti-climactic. I haven’t totaled up the amount of time that the show spends on asking contestants why they voted for someone else, but the answers are always the same, and they’re never interesting (“I voted for Steve because I remembered him answering a question wrong.”)

My suggestion would be to add a brief, Survivor-like, discussion period to the game by allowing the contestants to engage in open dialogue with one another prior to voting. This would allow people to make a case for why they should stay, or to rally votes to target a specific player.

This could be overkill (I’m throwing everything at the wall here), but perhaps there could also be a digital display that explicitly discloses the rankings of everyone in the group, from strongest to weakest link, before they vote. Though I lean away from advocating for this idea in tandem with the group discussion (because the point of the open conversation would be to witness how the individuals go about using their wits to strike a balance between logic and emotion, which would be diminished to some extent when hard facts are displayed), this direction could be workable if the group isn’t allowed to speak.

The bottom line is the game’s voting element feels a bit too impersonal and random at this point in time. Instead of Lynch awkwardly roasting the contestants whose names we barely know, why not instead watch them try to work with or against each other to jockey for position to win?

2) To some extent, the show actively incentivizes the best player (AKA, the “strongest link”) going home as the game nears its conclusion, which would be fine except there’s absolutely nothing the player can do to avoid that fate. I’m not advocating that the game be made completely fair, because it would be tough to know where to draw that line, but as it stands now the perks for being the strongest link at the end of a round are: 1) the right to break a tie vote (a fairly uncommon occurrence), and 2) the privilege of beginning the next round with the first question. Plainly, the downside to being recognized as the strongest link outweighs the upside, as the other contestants are alerted to who the biggest threat to win the game is, while the strongest link is powerless to fend off any majority. While I don’t have one single solution that stands out as a go-to to solve this dilemma, I do have a few ideas that could be play-tested.

One is that the strongest link from a given round is granted immunity from that round’s vote. This could either be a “public” immunity in the sense that the strongest link may not be voted for, or a “secret” immunity, where votes may be cast against the strongest link, but they are made void, causing the votes cast for eligible contestants to become more powerful. In either iteration, the show would obviously have to thoroughly explain the process of how the strongest link is determined to both the contestants and audience at the beginning of the game, because that status would become very powerful.

Another (somewhat separate) idea for an added power could be that the strongest link from the previous round is the only one who’s allowed to bank for the group in the next round, and this person may perform the action before anyone’s turn, including their own. This would at least guarantee that in any given round the group’s banking strategy would be singular (an issue I address in the third bullet), and other contestants could focus entirely on answering the question asked of them. It could also add more good interaction with the other player’s potentially congratulating or yelling at the banker at the end of the round depending on how they performed.

On the topic of banking, another idea could be to lean into the greed aspect of the game by offering players the ability to bank money into their own pot in certain situations, with this obviously being done at the risk of being voted out. In relation to the suggestion that only the strongest link could bank in a round, this would add a fun benefit/quandary to the process for that player. In general, due to the vast number of ways this could be implemented, a lot more thinking would be required to determine the exact mechanics of how this would work in the context of the game without breaking it (would players simply always bank into their own pot on their turn?), but the point is that the show could become more exciting if it better showcased group communication and individual greed amongst the participants.

3) Every round begins with the contestants being reminded that the optimal way to achieve the maximum amount of money available is to string together eight correct answers in a row without banking along the way. Similar to the trouble with the semi-random voting process though, the contestants have no opportunity to get on the same page with one another to align on a cohesive banking strategy, so the result is that teams rarely, if ever, attempt to go for the top prize.

As I briefly mentioned in the bullets above, allowing for an open group discussion could allow for the team to decide on some kind of group strategy where they could bank a larger amount of money than they might’ve otherwise. The ideas for how this could be implemented are numerous, with one being that they cut into their voting discussion time to formulate a banking game plan (a strategic trade-off), or that one single player could be awarded the power to bank on behalf of the entire team for a round (like the strongest link idea I proposed.) As it stands now, without some kind of strategy discussion amongst contestants, despite the round-by-round reminders of the perks of building an answer chain, it could actually be considered bad gameplay to focus on the all-or-nothing goal of the round’s top prize.

As for a reason why the show would want to encourage teams potentially forcing them to write a more expensive check to the winner, just like in Millionaire, the game is a more exciting and marketable product when the top prize is being both challenged for, and even occasionally won.

To reiterate, while these ideas would be worth testing out, they only exist in theory and have no guarantee of working. Due to the increase in the existence of social strategy games though, the audience now understands and is at least comfortable with how these higher-level cutthroat shows work. Ultimately what I’m positing here is that Weakest Link has a unique opportunity to exist as a condensed version of a more vicious and advanced competition than it used to be.

To attempt to create a new iteration of the game leaves open the real possibility that contestants eventually break it, but I believe emergent gameplay is a fascinating and appealing phenomenon to watch play out, and that component alone can draw a certain type of die-hard audience. The worst-case scenario is, if the new version of the game does get solved by players, then the rules can always be tightened or modified in the future to keep new contestants on their toes.

I understand that rebooting network game shows is probably chiefly an avenue to create quantity over quality television content (while simultaneously lining the pockets of producers and executives), but what’s wrong with making an effort to create a slightly better product? Aren’t the rewards higher, and doesn’t the enjoyment level of the process increase when something radical is being created? I understand that it’s easier said than done to make something special, and I’ve conceded that my ideas may not bear any fruit, but shouldn’t the goal always be to try for something superior, even if occasional missteps are a part of that process?

For those who are content with the status quo, I say “You are the Weakest Link. Goodbye!”

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