There’s a lot about Netflix’s new game show that you’ve seen on game shows before. For starters, there’s Howie Mandel. There is a large board of increasing cash prizes. There are candidates who answer multiple-choice questions about science, history, and geography. Sometimes – often, in fact – they respond poorly.
This is where the real game begins.
On “Bullsh*t the Game Show”, a lack of knowledge is not a disqualification. It’s practically a requirement. In this quiz game, being right is far less important than appearing to be right — a distinction that elevates an otherwise mundane game show into a devilishly timely symbol of our scam-saturated culture.
Once a candidate chooses an answer, we don’t know if it was correct or not. Instead, the player tells a story about how he or she was supposed to know the answer. Then three panelists decide whether or not they believe the story.
Finally, the real answer is revealed. If the contestant was right, it’s the next round. If the contestant got it wrong, they always move on to the next round – as long as at least one panelist was fooled by the false explanation.
Players can win up to a million dollars while getting more wrong answers than right ones. “You hardly know anything,” Mandel told an inaccurate candidate. “But it does not matter !”
What does ? Trust. Personality. Vivid examples, but not too vivid. The knowledge that it’s often easier to fool people not with total fabrication, but by taking real facts – for example, “My mother hated Kevin Costner” – and mixing them with made-up details in a real- Fake Frankenfiction.
You will notice that I did not say “lie”. That’s because there’s a significant difference between a lie and the subject matter of the game show, which is closer to the kind of bloviant hoo-hah that flows thick and free in our public lives.
In his essay “On Bullshit,” philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt distinguishes between his title subject and mere lying. Lying requires the liar to recognize the truth. A liar knows that a certain thing is true and wants the public to believe something that is not.
Bullshit, on the other hand, is indifferent to the truth. His practitioner, writes Frankfurt, “does not care whether the things he says correctly describe reality. He is content to choose them or invent them to meet his needs.
I’m sure it sounds like some people you know. It’s easy to look for parallels in politics: in 2016, Frankfurt identified Donald Trump, with his self-proclaimed “truthful hyperbole” and off-the-cuff campaign fantasies, as a master of the art.
But it’s also in the scam sagas of Anna Delvey, Elizabeth Holmes, the Fyre Festival et al. It’s in influencer culture, which is also reflected in Netflix’s social media reality show, “The Circle,” whose players can “catch” others using fake characters and images. As mediated by social app filters and thoughtful editing, a story doesn’t have to be 100% fake to be totally fake.
Now I doubt that the creators of Mandel’s new game show relied heavily on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. (Unlike Frankfurt, Mandel and The Gamers use the show’s title epithet and “lying” interchangeably.) But that’s not bad functional illustration.
When a player tells a story to justify a wrong answer, it’s not primarily out of a desire to fool the panel about, say, which volcano shares its name with an Italian dish. (Spoiler: It’s Stromboli.) It’s out of a desire to trick the panel as to if the player knows what a volcano and what a dish.
In other words, the goal is not to distort the facts. The goal of distorting the deformed.
Game shows are the forgotten workhorses of television, but they have a way of reflecting the values of their time. They tell us what good it is to be good. Egghead quiz shows of the 1950s and 60s, like “The $64,000 Question,” reflected a nation that trusted experts and promoted education amid the Cold War and the race for power. space – hence the existential crisis produced by the quiz show scandals.
The populist ’70s saw a move toward games, like “The Price Is Right,” that rewarded everyday skills like knowing the cost of a box of Rice-A-Roni. And the flashy, dramatic prime-time game shows of the 2000s — like Mandel’s mephistophelic “Deal or No Deal” — echoed the reality shows they competed with, advocating risk-taking, trickery and an aptitude for game theory.
In 2022, the path to wealth is paved with fertilizer. There have been other game shows, like “To Tell the Truth”, with elements of deception. But the Netflix show fully and playfully embodies the spirit of fake until you make it. As Mandel says to the candidate Katie Dolan, a high-spirited communications consultant: “You come across as a very good soul. People believe you. And it’s a skill!
The show is not petty; he just wears his comfort with our optional moments of truth like a snakeskin suit. Contrast that with “Jeopardy!”, that citadel of expert knowledge, which struggled to find a replacement for Alex Trebek to bring his just-right-to-the-fact sensitivity to the age of personal research. Many of his fans were uncomfortable with the hiring of Mayim Bialik, who questioned vaccination practices and endorsed a brain supplement that has been described as pseudoscience.
The Netflix show also indulges in our eternal fantasy that even if the world is full of bulls, you and I are personally smart enough to see through. (As Alyssa Rosenberg recently wrote in The Washington Post, that’s also part of the appeal of blind dramas like “The Dropout.”)
After all, when you watch it, who are you “playing” with? Not the competitors, like you do with, say, “Wheel of Fortune”. The questions tend to be less of the kind that you can reason about and more of the “you know it or you don’t know” kind of question. No, you’re playing with the panel, looking for the too-perfect tics and details, testing your personal BS detector against theirs. You are not fooled, are you?
To be honest, beyond that fun, the show is mostly forgettable; it suffers from the dragging pace of prime-time game shows like “Deal.” But there is something resonant about his concept of post-truth. You can also find this, in a milder form, in Netflix’s counterfeit celebration “Is It Cake?”, based on an internet meme, in which panelists guess whether objects are what they seem – designer bags, fast food meals – or meticulous confectionery shams.
This is the world of trompe-l’œil in which we live. Sometimes a great invention is a cake. And sometimes it’s something more spicy.