News & Press
Sep 04

‘Spell-Mageddon,’ think slapstick ABC Family show is part spelling bee, mostly goofing around

Plenty of trivia shows aren’t really about trivia. If the questions are too hard, the folks at home could get frustrated or bored. As a result, producers often stick to facts that almost everyone knows, so actual fans of trivia are the least likely to enjoy the shows.

For the same reason, fans of spelling bees are unlikely to be turning cartwheels after viewing ABC Family’s new game show “Spell-Mageddon.” Subjecting contestants to various forms of distraction and physical abuse while they attempt to spell generally easy words, the show reveals little interest in orthography.

But the action is fast, furious and often funny. Tweens and young teens, as well as grown-ups looking to put their brains on hold for an hour, should enjoy themselves.

Premiering this Wednesday, July 24, at 9 p.m., “Spell-Mageddon” takes a page from the short-lived quiz shows “The Chamber” and “The Chair,” in which contestants were subjected to actual physical pain as they tried to answer questions. But the distractions on this show are milder and more slapstick.

In the first challenge, the seven contestants — most of whom are sufficiently youthful and attractive to play teenagers on one of ABC Family’s scripted shows — race across a sort of slip-and-slide. The first one across gets the chance to spell a word, and the remaining contestants run again, with additional obstacles added each time, including plastic balls and one of those padded battering-ram things.

Since the words in this round include such brain-teasers as “explain,” “deputy” and “instead,” no one is eliminated except for the slowpoke who loses the last race. She is sent to wait in the “Loozer’s Lounge.”

In the second round, the six contestants line up on a platform and take turns spelling words while being squirted with water, receiving electric shocks to their feet and, when they make a mistake, getting a blue frozen drink dumped on their heads. In case we don’t realize this might be dangerous at home, a graphic flashes “Do not attempt!”

It becomes a little harder to follow the action, because sometimes it’s unclear whether the contestants are saying “e” and “i” or “Eee!” and “Aye!” Sticklers will object when the word “minuscule” is presented as “miniscule,” which is an alternative spelling in some dictionaries but considered a common misspelling by others. In this case, the question is moot because the contestant thinks it’s spelled with a “q.”

Sticklers for game-show integrity might object to the moment when the audience is allowed to vote one eliminated contestant back into the competition. And everyone will think it’s a little fishy when another contestant says he hopes to spend the $10,000 prize money on a week at a well-known theme park owned by the same corporation that owns ABC Family.

In the next round, contestants take turns sitting in a chair that dips them into a tank of ice water while they try to spell as many words as possible. The words get a little hard at this point, including “cirrhosis” and “upholstery.”

Since we home viewers are seeing the correct spellings on the screen, we get to feel superior to the struggling contestants.

The various forms of torment start to feel repetitive. In the next round, the contestants stand in a row of booths while being sprayed with soapy water and getting shocked. But then a pair of gloved hands appear behind them and start tickling them and massaging their heads.

When it gets down to two finalists, the torment is mental. With one of them in the venerable isolation booth, the other has to spell as many words as possible while standing between panels flashing lights and random letters.

The show’s host, Alfonso Ribeiro, best known for “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” is endearingly earnest and eager to please. He even breaks into a brief Carlton dance. Still, even though some of his attempted witticisms seem to have been added in post-production, none of them are memorable.

The contestants are equally enthusiastic. On reality TV, it’s refreshing to see young people trying to be intelligent.

That also helps to make the slapstick of “Spell-Mageddon” work. Watching someone take the equivalent of a pie to the face is funnier when that person is trying not to appear foolish.

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