Today’s game shows can’t just be child’s play

When I was growing up, TV quiz shows were child’s play. “Tic-Tac-Dough” was based on an activity designed to coax 8-year-olds into nap time. The main goal of “Press Your Luck” was avoiding “whammies.” The biggest challenge on “The Joker’s Wild” was making sure you didn’t strain a muscle while pulling the lever.

Stupid game shows still exist (did we really need a new version of “The Match Game”?) but today’s viewers are getting a more stimulating mental workout than they have in decades.

My brain still hurts from ABC’s “500 Questions,” a summer series so difficult that “Jeopardy!” champ Ken Jennings couldn’t get past the first round. Game Show Network’s “The Chase” pits trivia-bowl regulars against a British mastermind with the body of Buddha and the heart of Mussolini. Crackle’s “Sports Jeopardy” reduces ESPN fanatics to bench warmers.

And then there’s GSN’s “Idiotest,” a show that challenges an entirely different set of cerebral muscles. The picture puzzles seem easy — which pageant winner doesn’t belong? — but optical illusions, deceptive directions and mind tricks can make even Mensa members look like, well, idiots.

“I never wanted to be the cheesy game-show guy with the fake smiley face,” host Ben Gleib said recently. “Contestants have to come in and prove themselves to me.”

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During television’s early days in the 1950s, game-show emcees were as menacing as prison guards, making contestants recite a list of vice presidents in alphabetical order before giving them a peek at the money. But the revelation that popular contestants on “Twenty One” and “The $64,000 Question” were spoon-fed answers in advance practically killed the breed.

With the exception of “Jeopardy!” the new quizmasters resembled snake-oil salesmen who were more than happy to roll out barrels of cash if you could properly tie your shoes. Viewers don’t want to be challenged, programmers seemed to say. They want to see winners.

“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” changed all that.

Regis Philbin, perhaps the most energetic grouch in TV history, introduced the experiment in 1999. It was so well received that the network expanded its red-hot property to three nights a week in prime time, an almost unprecedented commitment - and one that assured a quick burnout.

The show now exists in syndication, where it belongs, allowing viewers to enjoy its various levels of multiple-choice questions as after-school exercises or as the basis for friendly bets at the neighborhood bar.

“You get to play along and feel just as smart as the person that is playing or, in many instances, even smarter,” said host Chris Harrison between shooting episodes of his second season, which premieres Monday from its new home in Las Vegas. “Who knew where Iran and Iraq were in the ‘70s and ‘80s? Thanks to the internet, today’s world is more immersed in culture and geography. The questions have to step up.”

A graduate level of difficulty doesn’t necessarily mean more money. Guests on “Millionaire” and “Jeopardy!” are lucky to go home with $10,000. “Idiotest” winners pocket even less.

“Sometimes money doesn’t mean anything,” said Harrison, who also attends to more mindless matters, such as “The Bachelor” and the crowning of a new Miss America.

“It’s about beating the system, getting to a pressure point and tapping in a ball that sometimes feels like a 20-foot putt.”

When it comes to ratings, the best of the programs aren’t sitting at the top of the class. “Idiotest,” which wraps up its third season next month, averages about 400,000 viewers during its initial run. But in this fragmentized new world of expanding cable and streaming, you no longer have to be a blockbuster to stay in the game.

“Network shows often have to play to the lowest common denominator. We don’t,” Gleib said. “You can have a niche show for people who care to use their brains to live.”

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