Summer TV is all good fun

STEPH RUNS COURSE: ABC's "Holey Moley" offers minigolf like you've never seen it before.

Once upon a time, before cable and satellite and streaming platforms, there were three (then four, then five, then six, then five) major broadcast networks, and television ran by their clock. Fall was harvest time. In winter and spring, weeds were pulled and new crops planted. And summer was for taking it easy.

Between Memorial and Labor Day, prime time was filled with reruns and what were once called “summer replacement” shows, cost-effective and purposely impermanent. Though these might be revived in subsequent summers, they were born to die when September came.

That world has changed – in the cable-premium-streaming era, new series premiere at any time, all the time – but it is not gone. Though it may no longer dominate media coverage or the Emmy Awards, network television remains the most-watched, and the old seasonal rhythms and hierarchies still hold sway there. Whatever may be happening elsewhere in the expanding universe we call television, summer on broadcast continues to be a time for not-quite-mindless diversions, works of modest ambition and the sort of genre exercises a network might shy from the rest of the year. (I’m looking at you, CBS, with your summertime excursions in sci-fi.)

That is not a knock. What gets lost in the constantly reiterated insistence that television is not only better than ever, but practically better than everything, is that TV doesn’t need to be great to be good.

Game shows are an offseason staple; they have the benefit of being relatively cheap and seeming relatively expensive, and a history in television as long as the history of television. And they work: There is almost an imperial pleasure in watching other people compete while you recline on your divan with snacks.

They show up across the broadcast spectrum. Fox’s Dax Shepard-hosted “Spin the Wheel” premieres Thursday. NBC is bringing back “The Wall,” “American Ninja Warrior” and “Hollywood Game Night.” CBS has the returning reality competition “Big Brother” and the new “Love Island” (July 9). But ABC has placed a particularly large bet on them, giving over nearly half its prime-time real estate to what it’s branded “Summer Fun and Games.” (It’s not a new brand, but this year two nights expand to three.)

Like a bride’s lucky ensemble, it includes something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue – the predominant hue of modern game show starship-bridge-style production design. The network is bringing back its revivals of “Celebrity Family Feud,” “The $100,000 Pyramid,” “To Tell the Truth,” and “Match Game,” each of which have their particular charms, and adding four more series: the reanimated “Press Your Luck” and “Card Sharks,” on Wednesdays, and Thursday’s brand- new and very likable “Holey Moley” and “Family Food Fight.” (It is not all Fun and Games® at ABC. The network is also debuting two dramas that are the television equivalent of beach reads, both of which actually feature beaches: the French-American co-production “Reef Break,” a surf-and-crime thriller set in the South Pacific, also premiering Thursday; and the upstairs-downstairs Miami hospitality potboiler, “Grand Hotel,” which airs Mondays. This, too, is summer.)

These are games of luck more than skill or knowledge, and depend for their success on the personalities of the players – some of whom can become a little wearing – and the sort of vicarious excitement one might get from being in a noisy crowd watching someone beating the odds at craps or roulette. You can say to yourself, “This game is sort of boring,” even as you hang around to see what card is turned over next.

The network’s original series have the perhaps not entirely coincidental distinction of each featuring a celebrity Curry: NBA star Stephen Curry hosts “Holey Moley,” a giant miniature golf obstacle course competition, while his wife, celebrity cook Ayesha Curry, keeps things in order on “Family Food Fight.”

“Holey Moley” is both a game and a parody of a game – specifically shows like “American Ninja Warrior” – in which contestants make their way through an outlandish, oversized miniature golf course, where a hole might involve climbing a slippery slope, sinking a putt while a celebrity saxophonist gets in your face, or the chance of being dropped in a pond. Winners receive a “golden putter” and “the coveted plaid jacket.” (There is money too; this is America.) Real sportscaster Joe Tessitore and comic actor Rob Riggle provide the color coverage, which is long on absurd hyperbole. Some players take it seriously; others come in costume.

Host Curry, discovered in a clubhouse armchair before a fire and a big painting of a squirrel holding a golf club, sets the tone: “You might think I’m just another celebrity cameo at the top of an ABC show and that’s it. But actually, I’m way more involved than that. I’m also a celebrity cameo in the middle of the show, and maybe at the end.”

For better or worse (depending on your idea of fun), “Family Food Fight” does not involve the hurling of ripe tomatoes or custard pies – instead, it features teams of relations in a cooking competition. It is not the first of its kind. Food Network’s “Family Food Showdown,” hosted by Valerie Bertinelli, came on the air in March, and both were preceded by the BBC’s lovely “The Big Family Cooking Showdown,” available here on Netflix.

Though it deals in the compressed melodrama of most American reality shows, “Food Fight” also delivers a clear, convincing sense of process and character. One thing game shows give you that most of the rest of television does not is a look at ordinary folks – “people like you,” who may or may not look or think like you, but whose human struggle is for a moment your own.

I found myself becoming quite emotional at times (“crazy emotional” in my notes), though not because of the competition itself or the many departed relatives players are evidently encouraged to mention. In part, it was because there is nothing more powerful on television than when a legitimately impressed professional tells a hopeful amateur they’ve done a great job. (If that moment were a drug, I would need counseling.) Above all, I was moved by the mix of traditions and cultures, in an arena where respect is paid, difference is a virtue and anyone can win. You get at least a little of this in every game show. It’s an American dream worth having.

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