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Ben Bailey, left, and Amanda Sestak in Who's Still Standing?
Ben Bailey, left, and Amanda Sestak in Who's Still Standing?

Andrew Ryan

Get-rich-quick game show invites contestants to drop in Add to ...

‘Tis the season for recycling.

If the TV schedule suddenly appears barren, blame the Scrooges running broadcast television for never, ever airing fresh programming the week before Christmas. Why waste new shows when most available viewers are caught up in last-minute shopping or loopy from eggnog?

As a result, virtually everything airing on regular television is either a seasonal repeat – tonight’s highlight being last year’s festive episode of Glee (Fox, Global, 8 p.m.) – or a blatant time filler, which explains the umpteenth airing of the 2001 TV-movie Stolen Miracle (CTV, 8 p.m.) and The Santa Clause 2 (CBC, 8 p.m.). Tim Allen movies don’t improve with age.

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But this holiday season, there’s a shiny Hanukkah gift among the retreads: Who’s Still Standing? (NBC, 8 p.m.) is a brand-new game show in which contestants come seeking the usual life-changing cash prize, but are invariably rejected – in this case, by a hidden trapdoor. Ho-ho-ho! Launched last night and running nightly this week and next, Who’s Still Standing? is the U.S. television adaptation of a hit Israeli game show called Still Standing, which made its debut this time last year and immediately became one of the country’s most-watched programs. Franchise editions of the show are already under way in France, Spain and Hungary.

As should be expected, the NBC version is slicker than the original Israeli series, but adheres to the same get-rich-quick concept. Hosted by Ben Bailey of Cash Cab renown, the show is brusquely efficient in its chase for the big bucks.

How it works: Each contestant has a chance to win $1-million (U.S.). To get the cash, he or she has to beat each of ten challengers in a trivia-question faceoff, with contestants alternating the increasingly difficult questions until one gets an answer wrong; hints come in the form of large blocks showing the number of letters in the answer, with some letters filled in.

Each time the contestant beats a challenger, he or she adds cash to their winnings. Should they beat five challengers, the contestant has the option of walking away with $500,000.

If the contestant reaches the final round and gives the wrong answer, they get bupkis, and are immediately dropped out of sight through a trapdoor. Talk about your hasty exits.

But of course, nobody walks away. The format works off the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire premise of richly rewarding people capable of retaining fantastically arcane trivia knowledge.

In the first show, one player knew that country star Conway Twitty chose his stage name by looking at a map (he combined Conway, Ark., and Twitty, Tex.) and another contestant was able to correctly identify a picture of the infamous Dominique Strauss-Kahn, thereby earning, I kid you not, a standing ovation from the studio audience.

There’s nothing particularly innovative about Who’s Still Standing?, which in the first episode took viewers beneath the studio stage to show that failed contestants aren’t really plunging to their dooms. But the show does push hard in providing wide-eyed wish fulfilment, which is likely why NBC scheduled it during the festive season.

You do realize these things rarely happen by accident. Given the current torpor of the U.S. economy and dire forecasts for the year ahead, a little wish fulfilment hardly seems out of place and for the next several nights, there’s an expansive cast of working-class Rockys reaching for the big time.

Last night’s opener of Who’s Still Standing? focused on a high-school volleyball coach trying to win the money (he didn’t). Tonight, the contestant is a cosmetics salesperson, tomorrow there’s a bartender playing the game and Thursday it’s a video-game reviewer. The great American dream continues, as a game show.

Check local listings.

John Doyle will return.

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