According to my planned schedule for discussing TV shows in this space, this month was initially reserved for the classic Nickelodeon competition, “Legends of the Hidden Temple.”
However, Jon Bois over at SB Nation beat me to it by a few weeks. I thoroughly enjoyed his countdown of the worst moments from the show’s history, and I recommend that you read both the original article and his subsequent interview with a former contestant if you were fan during its original airing.
Therefore, to avoid retreading the same ground, I’ll be delving into some other Nickelodeon game shows from that era instead.
When I was a child, no older than seven or eight, Nickelodeon served as my primary destination for television watching. I’m sure others my age felt the same way.
It was that transitional period in growing up when Saturday morning cartoons seemed a bit too young to enjoy, but we hadn’t quite made the leap to the older youth channels like Disney or ABC Family.
This is precisely why it was crucial for Nickelodeon to excel in finding the perfect balance between broad slapstick entertainment and appearing mature enough for its target audience.
Preteens occupy a unique standpoint, somewhere between thinking they’ve outgrown the things they enjoyed as toddlers and not quite comprehending how far they are from the shows their older siblings and friends watch, even if it’s just a Disney Channel Original Movie or something similar.
In this regard, Nickelodeon‘s strategy of modeling most of their game shows after successful adult counterparts was a clever way to create the illusion of maturity while delivering loads of entertaining silliness.
The two prime examples of this approach are Double Dare (and later Double Dare 2000) and GUTS.
Double Dare made its debut in the mid-eighties, hosted by Marc Summers, and had its game premise mostly well-defined, with some minor evolutions that naturally occurred over the years.
In this show, two teams of two children each would vie to win cash and prizes by correctly answering questions or taking on physical challenges.
It essentially borrowed its set design and part of its concept from Family Feud but injected it with the zaniness and offbeat challenges that could only have been conceived in 1986.
What was particularly clever was the twist in the way questions were handled. They managed to transform a childhood taunt into a game show element without it feeling forced.
If one team couldn’t answer a question, they could “dare” the other team to answer for double the points.
However, the opposing team could counter by “double daring” them back for quadruple the points. It added an element of risk, was often necessary, and provided an entertaining way to enliven what might have otherwise been a straightforward and repetitive segment of each episode.
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Double Dare 2000 debuted in the later years, continuing the tradition with a fresh appeal for a new generation of viewers, maintaining the show’s popularity and legacy.
GUTS was another notable example. By introducing minor celebrities to guest star and compete, Nickelodeon not only solidified the show’s popularity but also explored its potential to the fullest.
Although the show’s name suggests that the question and answer segment is the focus, it’s in the physical challenges that Double Dare truly excelled.
One of the essential aspects of designing a game show often involves striking the right balance.
Winning should be challenging enough that not everyone can do it, yet it should appear easy enough to make everyone believe they could.
A part of the enjoyment in watching shows lies in the belief that you could easily accomplish any on-screen task at any given moment.
Did I think I could have correctly answered every question, completed each physical challenge, and won the jackpot at the end? Absolutely.
But now, I realize that in no way, shape, or form would I have accomplished all of this as a 12-year-old. Double Dare camouflaged the difficulty of winning the show with the outrageous nature of its challenges.
Even before the final obstacle course came into view, the in-game challenges provided a good glimpse of what was to come.
Kids had to do anything from catching cream pies tossed by their partner while wearing oversized pants to filling a container with slime, with the only means of transferring the slime being a sponge attached to a helmet.
With children frantically trying to complete these tasks and the incredibly messy nature of each challenge, it didn’t take long for the gameplay to reach absurd levels.
If the standard gameplay was already wild, the obstacle course took the craziness to an entirely different level.
Attempting to navigate through ten obstacles in just 60 seconds was a daunting challenge, and the addition of slime or other liquids made it even more chaotic, with contestants often slipping and falling.
At the outset, participants might need to slide through a giant nose with slime simulating snot, only for their partner to have to swim through a tank filled with slime, pudding, or a similar substance.
To make things even more challenging, there was a flag to be retrieved from each obstacle.
Missed one? You had to backtrack and get it! To this day, I’m still baffled by how kids managed to convince their parents that appearing on the show would be a great and not at all embarrassing experience.
If I were a parent watching this and my child told me, “They’re doing a family version!” I probably wouldn’t be eager to sign up.
GUTS also tapped into the desire of kids to be part of a more grown-up show but in a much more direct manner. Everything that transpired in the GUTS arena was simultaneously grounded in reality and supersized.
Each event that the three contestants competed in was based on an actual sport but was then given a twist or exaggerated to make it larger and more thrilling. For instance, they might have had to dunk a basketball.
However, instead of just attempting to jump up and dunk on a child-sized hoop, the pre-teens were harnessed and had to dunk on a basket that not even Shaq could reach on his best day (possibly a slight exaggeration).
All of this tied back to the inherent desire in every kid to do things that adults can do.
Every 12-year-old who watched the NBA in 1994 aspired to dunk like Jordan, but that was practically impossible unless you counted on your dad lifting you to put the ball in the net to feel awesome.
The entire setup was like professional sports on steroids, including how they categorized the events. By dividing them into “Track,” “Field,” “Pool,” and “Aerial,” it lent the proceedings the aura of Olympic trials.
Granted, the events falling into each of these categories weren’t precisely the same as those in the actual Olympics, but that didn’t matter to kids.
Glory, prizes, bragging rights, and the chance to participate in an awesome competitive arena were all that counted.
The highlight of GUTS, and the part blatantly borrowed from another show, was the Aggro Crag.
Taking a page directly from the final segment of American Gladiators, the Aggro Crag was a massive mountain complete with smoke and lights that contestants had to conquer as their ultimate challenge.
This was the quintessential task on kids’ shows, something that appeared so enormous and difficult that it was all the more impressive to witness kids your age reach the summit and all the more disheartening if they failed to do so.
At the end of the day, I’m quite certain that every kid wished to be a part of GUTS, if not solely for the bragging rights and the incredible feeling, then certainly for the opportunity to be introduced and interviewed just like genuine professional athletes by Mike O’Malley, who was notably more upbeat than his current role as our favorite Detroit mobster on Justified.
With both of these shows, Nickelodeon managed to tap into a demographic of kids who aspired to be older than they were, all the while enjoying programming perfectly suited to their age group.
Nickelodeon hasn’t ventured into anything akin to these shows in recent times, and even special revivals of GUTS and Double Dare were last witnessed nearly a decade ago.
Hopefully, children’s networks, even if not Nickelodeon and Disney, will endeavor to capture the fun and competitive spirit of these two shows.
Because for the fortunate kids who had the chance to participate and for the audience, it was truly all about enjoyment and having a blast.
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