There is so much I immediately liked about The Hustler, ABC’s new game show. The set design, which is like the library from Clue, with contestants sitting around a cocktail table. Everything about Craig Ferguson’s hosting, from his red cravat and smoking jacket to his dawdling around the set while contestants debated answers. The cold open, with Ferguson sipping tea and gently mocking himself.
But The Hustler’s game keeps the show from being excellent. While I had high hopes for this as a game show version of The Mole‘s format, several critical choices made it more like a disfigured child of To Tell the Truth and The Weakest Link.
The Hustler’s game sounds simple. Five players answer questions; one of them knows all the answers. (It’s suggested they know the answers because they’re all about things the hustler is passionate about, but I’d also gather the producers ensured the hustler had the correct answers in advance.)
The questions have multiple-choice answers, and the team earns $10,000 per correct answer. At the end of the game, if the players correctly guess who the hustler is, they split all the money. If not, the hustler gets it.
The questions are each preceded by a clue to the hustler’s identity, such as:
- “The hustler is proud of their homemade salsa.”
- “The hustler tears up when watching Say Yes to the Dress.”
- “The hustler drinks 12 shots of espresso every day.”
The question is then connected to that subject, like, What city is Say Yes to the Dress’s bridal shop in?
So far, so good, especially when you add in the production design and the feel of the show, which the opposite of a shiny-floor game show; it’s more like watching a scene from Knives Out.
There are some minor things to quibble with. I thought the episode-one questions were a little too easy—especially since they all had multiple choice answers. Also, the contestants appear to have a time limit in which to answer, but there’s no clock, and not even an indication of how much time they’ve been given. Craig Furgeson walks around the set, acting bored, while they deliberate, until he suddenly demands an answer or reveals that they have 10 seconds left.
But then the format, credited to former Blue Peter host Richard Bacon, introduces a Weakest Link-style twist: two of the five players are voted out. But they are not voted out by the group; they’re voted out by the hustler.
Like an ill-conceived, deformed twist emerging from the bowels of the Big Brother production offices, the format gives all the power to the hustler, and literally makes it impossible for the other four players to do anything.
How do you protect yourself if you’re a non-hustler player? There is no mechanism for that. No immunity, nothing. There may be strategy, but it’s convoluted at best. The best thing a player can do is help the team answer correctly, thus deflecting attention from the hustler and earning money for the pot. But the hustler could still vote them off.
The hustler has an incentive to vote out someone who might have accused them of being the hustler. Of course, if a contestant makes a pointed accusation and then is eliminated, that just points right back at accused—bad strategy for the actual hustler, unless the hustler uses that to their advantage or something, maybe, I have no actual idea.
We never ever learn why players are eliminated, though we do get Craig Ferguson walking them to a bookcase that opens up, and then they cartoonishly pretend to fall into the secret room behind the books. That’s fun, but not enough to detract from the show’s refusal to give us information or make sense of the strategic game that’s afoot.
There’s so much finger-pointing, which at first doesn’t work because it’s based upon nothing. Ferguson both assists in finger-pointing but also helps deflect attention by asking questions or pointing out errors in their logic, and he’s fun here, moving around the set, as if he was auditioning to replace Robert Downey Jr. should they ever decide to make another Sherlock Holmes movie.
On The Mole, host Anderson Cooper would talk about the mole claiming a victim, but in reality the players were eliminated based on their performance on a test. The same was true of the ABC show Whodunnit, though its test was off-camera. On The Hustler, there’s nothing you can do to prevent being eliminated early and leaving with nothing. That’s poor game design.
The game does finally gets interesting when there are just three players left, because now they are all actually playing the game, and all have equivalent power. The non-hustlers are trying to 1) earn money, 2) figure out who the hustler is, and 3) convince the other non-hustler. The hustler is trying to 1) deflect attention while 2) still earning money by 3) trying to make the group answer questions correctly.
That was the most thrilling part of the hour for me, especially when the final question really raised the stakes. Getting that final question right doubles the pot, and getting it wrong cuts it in half. Everyone has motivation to get the answer right, but if you’re the hustler, you need to do that without making it too obvious that you are confident in your answer.
In the first episode, the contestants got their first eight answers correct, so they had an $80,000 pot. That made this final question a $120,000 decision—the difference between $160,000 and $40,000. That’s when we saw the game of cat and mouse that Ferguson described in the cold open: the players all just looked at each other, acting as if they didn’t know. Or were they acting? It’s also interesting because a non-hustler player could be confident about the answer but be wrong, which sets up a conflict with the actual hustler.
After that question, all three players vote to identify the hustler, and the hustler is revealed.
I actually think that’s where The Hustler’s episodes and game should have started: two players, one hustler, 30-minute episodes, increasing risk/reward scenarios for correct answers. That’d keep ratcheting up the tension, and helping to shift the dynamic between the three. After all, all three players want to get more money into the pot, and each wants to convince the other two to vote with them.
I will keep watching, mostly for Craig Ferguson and for my love of the way it repackages a game show into something new. I’ll also hope that it will eventually adjust its core game to make more sense. For now, I’m not going to hustle you and put in the same category as The Mole season one—or even Celebrity Mole.
The Hustler: C+