Steve Harvey, one of the most vivacious television personalities of the decade, just began hosting a new game show entitled Steve Harvey’s Funderdome for ABC. This is a review of the entire first season of the show.
The premise of Steve Harvey’s Funderdome is similar to that of Shark Tank or Toy Box: inventors seeking funding to turn their product prototypes into full commercial lines go on the show to square off. One of them gets a large sum of money, the other leaves empty-handed. In this case, the members of the live studio audience vote for one of the two inventions on display using touchpads in the back of each seat to determine which inventor will take home the cash. A familiar concept, although it feels as if it has been done better.
A major problem with Funderdome is that the time spent familiarizing the audience with the inventions, which takes up most of the show, feels uncomfortably like a series of infomercials. The inventors pitching their products all want to make a big impression in the short time they are allotted, and the result is usually that they seem to just be coming off of eight cups of coffee. Their onstage actions are exaggerated and they often yell at the audience to make their points. It doesn’t help, either, that the majority of the presentations contain the phrase “there’s got to be another way!” or something to that effect. When the show itself begins to blend in with the advertisements with which it is interspersed, it’s difficult to decide whether you are being entertained or solicited.
The aspect that sets Steve Harvey’s Funderdome apart from any other competitive inventing show is the “cash-out” mechanism. After the inventors have pitched their products and the audience has voted but before the inventors see the results, they are given a series of opportunities to “cash out.” This entails a series of figures being flashed on a screen one by one. If one of the inventors wishes to take the amount of money shown onscreen and forego any money they may have won from the audience vote, they can press a button onstage to do so. This concept is a bit strange, because it basically means the inventor does not have faith in his or her product (something which they have probably worked on for countless hours already) and would rather opt for a small sum of money (always less than 50 percent of the amount they stand to win) than stay in the running. It’s also odd that the amount shown on the screen sometimes decreases.
The “cashing out” gimmick is obviously an effort to inject some suspense a la Deal or No Deal, but it more often than not falls flat. For instance, one contestant in a later show “cashes out” for $6,500 dollars, doing away with her chance to win $20,000. It is then revealed that she had won the audience vote but can not actually take home the full prize she would have had she stayed in the game. At this point, audiences may be confused about how they should feel. Obviously, both of the contestants are feeling bad (one because she missed out on $13,500 and the other because she didn’t win anything). The audience can’t even derive the Schadenfreudian pleasure gleaned from watching some tone-deaf sap get booted from American Idol, though, because a significant amount of money is still being given away.
The largest upside of Steve Harvey’s Funderdome is the Harvey himself. Whether you are a fan of the man or not, it is difficult to deny he does have a certain deadpan slapstick charm, and that charm is on full display here. He fills showtime by discussing the products with their inventors, peppering them with playful jabs as he does so, and some of what he comes up with is pretty funny.
Unfortunately, that well-meaning banter can also be seen as a downside. You can tell that the casting department made sure to choose people with at least some charisma to come on the show, but it’s also very obvious in most cases that these contestants are inventors first and public speakers second. With a few exceptions, they fail to keep up with Steve Harvey (and who can blame them?) when he begins poking fun at the products.
And that brings me to the next point: it’s hard not to feel bad for the inventors. The barbs Harvey throws when discussing a product and its uses with its creator are only meant as light-hearted jabbing and are supposed to add some edgy flavor to the show, but the crestfallen look in a contestant’s eyes when they find out they’re leaving empty-handed after having their product ridiculed is more heartbreaking then lethargic. It is true that much of the appeal of reality TV is watching “losers” react when they get their just desserts, but the difference here is that all of these inventors are people who had genuinely good ideas and are just trying to make them a reality.
Steve Harvey’s Funderdome is a decent game show. Harvey is at his best and the inventions themselves are interesting, but the “cash out” gimmick feels under-developed and the show has an underlying mean streak that keeps it from being truly fun to watch.
[Featured Image by ABC-Disney]