While I appreciated Nickelodeon’s excellent reboot of Double Dare, it wasn’t a show I kept watching, because its challenges and its trivia questions alike were clearly targeted at an audience of kids, who I’m so glad have their own version of a show I grew up with.
But Nickelodeon’s faithful new adaptation of the UK show The Crystal Maze (Fridays at 7) is a show I will return to every week: a zany, borderline farcical trip into themed worlds that deliver a non-stop stream of thoroughly gratifying reality TV show challenges.
Thanks to some of you, I watched and then wrote about the original series a few years ago. It was a 1990s-era UK game show, hosted by Richard O’Brien (who wrote The Rocky Horror Show and starred in its film adaptation as Riff Raff) that was revived for a one-off special in 2016 and then for a new seasons in 2017 with new host Richard Ayoade.
The same four zones—Industrial, Futuristic, and the “does this still work in 2020” Aztec and Eastern—have returned, because the Nickelodeon version filmed last summer on the same UK set in Bristol that the Channel 4 version uses. (It was designed by original Crystal Maze set designer James Dillon.)
The challenges all take place in relatively small, confined spaces and are themed to the zone. One person performs each challenge, which can be physical, mental, and a combination of the two. Two games are played in each zone, for a total of eight for the episode—fewer than the original, which had three or four per zone.
Their games and challenges could be found in an escape room or in a Legends of the Hidden Temple room, or in Big Brother’s back yard.
The challenges appear simple at first, but with a very limited amount of time in which to complete them, they become a lot more, well, challenging. There was one in the first episode that required more deductive reasoning than I was willing to do after a long day, while another had an anagram that the players and I both struggled with.
The least-inventive challenge in the premiere seemed like a stripped down, small-scale version of a standard Big Brother challenge—carry liquid from this place to that place, and don’t fall on your way—but the time crunch kept my interest.
The twist, if there is one, is that the original show had teams of six strangers; now we have families of five competing. The youngest kid is the team captain and decides who is going to play which games, though there is some familial pressure.
Just as The Amazing Race brought a new kind of interpersonal dynamic to competition shows by casting pairs of people with pre-existing relationships, bringing families into The Crystal Maze means that history and already established bonds come into play.
And the challenges allow family members to look on and help—which I should probably write as “help” in scare quotes.
Sometimes the family members’ assistance is required: in a particularly inventive challenge, the player is in an empty room, and is being motion captured, and the family watches a screen to help their avatar navigate a virtual, computer-generated obstacle course, in which the avatar will explode if touched by lasers.
In other challenges, family members just stick their heads through holes in the wall and shout at the player. This can be useful or completely annoying and unhelpful.
Host Adam Conover—as the “Maze Master”—occasionally provides clues and hints, though nothing that makes it easy to solve the puzzles the players are encountering.
As Maze Master, Conover is a version of his Adam Ruins Everything character but injected with more manic energy and O’Brien’s sardonic wit, all wrapped in flamboyant suits and finished with painted fingernails.
“If you’re like me, you’re really passionate about sharp corners, water hazards, and gas leaks,” Adam says gleefully in the first episode, which is on YouTube. He’s sometimes commenting to camera and sometimes to the contestants, and is never deadpan, just reacting in the moment to the family and to what’s happening around them.
Mostly, though, Conover just having a lot of fun: with the players, and with us, and hitting the right beats—comic, playful, helpful—at the right times.
For example, Conover makes sure players stay aware of the time, perhaps because a kid locked inside a challenge room seems a little darker than having a random stranger locked away from their team.
I’m referring to The Crystal Maze‘s rule that if a player doesn’t complete their challenge in the allotted time, they’re locked inside that room. They can’t rejoin their team unless their team opts to exchange a crystal for them.
That’s a tough call since the crystals are the prizes for completing challenges, and each is worth five seconds; there’s also now a “mega crystal” that the team can play for at any time that’s worth 10 seconds.
That time is critical because it’s banked and used in the final game, which you may recognize from the classic Golden Girls episode “Grab That Dough.” The family stands inside a dome and money-sized gold and silver tickets, or tokens, fly around. They get $100 for every gold ticket, and lose $100 for every silver ticket.
It’s actually the most difficult challenge of the show. If a family grabs the equivalent of $10,000 (100 gold tickets and zero silver tickets, for example), they automatically win $25,000. But I’d expect considerably lower cash prizes.
Like everything else on The Crystal Maze, it moves quickly: the Nick version has more energy and tension than the original, and does not waste any time on superfluous filler. Even Conover’s bits happen during a challenge or is explanation, so it’s not a time out from the action.
If and when the particular challenges repeat, I’m curious if they’ll be as engaging; while there are plenty of shows that repeat their challenges (Survivor cough cough cough lung), those tend to be more complicated and elaborate. Will it be just as entertaining to watch someone else try to escape a maze of jail cell doors while a wall closes in? There are enough variables, from Conover’s improvisation to family dynamics, that should keep The Crystal Maze watchable for its 10-episode first season.
I love a reality TV challenge, and The Crystal Maze delivers. There are no bio packages or interviews, just players racing from one quick game to the next, making for a satisfying hour of television.