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Give Him... "The Chair!"

There are three different kinds of contestants on ABC's new game show The Chair. The first kind are somewhat knowledgeable and quite excitable; they can't make any money because they can't calm down enough to answer questions in any reasonable amount of time. The second kind are crazy ninja masters you see in Outer Limits episodes or read about in "Doctor Strange" comics. Stop their hearts with the mere force of their minds? That's chump change, buddy -- these people are so masterful, they can get that sucker pumping in reverse. Unfortunately, these contestants have been spending so much time on the astral plane, they don't know the answers to any of the questions The Chair poses for them. So they can't win any money, either.

The third group? Well, those are the losers who are so hopped up, we will never know if they're intelligent. They come out, sit in the chair, watch their pulse blast through the roof like a cartoon thermometer stuck in boiling red-hot lava, and then silently slink away, having never uttered a useful word in their brief moment of network TV exposure. Poor saps.

The Chair, if you haven't heard, is at the forefront of the latest wave of game shows to arrive on our TV screens. If you set your TiVo to record The Simpsons last Sunday, you may have caught The Chair's direct competitor, The Chamber, which pre-empted The Simpsons at the last minute in order to get it on the air before The Chair. (Coming soon on CBS: The Gallows! And NBC will undoubtedly follow with Bag of Rocks and a Good Strong Current, hosted by Joe Rogan.)

The Chair's host is, oddly enough, former tennis great John McEnroe. And yet, despite the oddity of this athlete-turned-broadcaster (he's actually quite a good tennis commentator), McEnroe is the least of The Chair's problems. See, McEnroe is effusive and abrasive, but he's actually quite personable and damned fun to watch. In fact, I wish he were the host of The Weakest Link, because his demeanor is a much better match for that show than the trying-too-hard, schoolmarm approach of Anne Robinson.

However, McEnroe has one major weight dragging him down, and it's likely a mandate from The Chair's producers: Enunciate the name of the show, for pete's sake! We've got a brand to market here! That means that every other sentence, McEnroe ends his sentence by inserting a pregnant pause and then barking out, "THE CHAIR!" For example: "Welcome back to.... THE CHAIR! Missy from Los Angeles is our next player, and she'll be trying to win $250,000 in... THE CHAIR! If she doesn't answer, she'll be removed from... THE CHAIR! But if she wins in... THE CHAIR, we may have her back in... THE CHAIR during the next episode of... THE CHAIR!" You get the idea.

Of course, the producers of The Chair know that besides McEnroe, their pricey piece of furniture is the show's only asset. Contestants are strapped into it and forced to answer a series of questions, all while hooked up to a heart monitor. The chair swivels around and occasionally other shocking things happen, like the sides of the chair emitting 4th-of-July sparklers or a live alligator being lowered from the rafters. The goal of The Chair's contestants? Answer the questions correctly while keeping your heart below the target heart rate, which begins at 60 percent above their resting pulse and drops as the game goes along.

Sounds interesting, and the show's definitely following the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire rulebook when it comes to sound effects, music, lighting, and lots of sliding-around camera movement. There's just one problem -- the aforementioned contestants.

See, quiz shows have two things going for them: interesting questions and interesting contestants. However, The Chair has neither. The questions aren't particularly interesting (with the exception of a "did you spot it?" photo montage), and half the contestants are unable to answer them anyway, due to their elevated heart rates. And when a contestant finally does start answering questions, it doesn't matter -- because they're practically catatonic.

The result is a game that's not fun to watch -- again, beyond the fun of waiting to see what funny statement McEnroe will make next. That's not a recipe for success. That said, The Chair is a cut above The Chamber. I was able to make it through a whole hour of The Chair, but The Chamber lost me after 10 minutes.

Perhaps it's a subtle difference in the intention of the two shows. The Chair is about the contestants' (however uninteresting they might be) and their own self-control. The Chamber is about torturing contestants with showy special-effect torments. In the battle of two game shows that don't stand a chance of making it through to summertime, at least The Chair can take solace in its superiority to its soulless, unpalatable rival.


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