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Small Fortune: tiny challenges, Lil Rel, big fun

This past year, new reality TV competitions have offered massive water slides and giant red balls, dogs in costumes and dogs racing around the world, Candy Land and dodgeball. But despite claiming spectacle, they’ve fallen flat.

NBC’s Small Fortune (Mondays at 10), a game whose challenges take place on teeny-tiny little sets, has more entertainment and personality than all of those shows combined. With its playfulness and considerable attention to detail, plus legitimate competition, Small Fortune is a wonder.

It reminds me of ABC’s Holey Moley in that it’s very silly about an actually challenging competition. The games are introduced with great fanfare and drama, given weight inversely proportional to their size. They’re also ridiculous. A game that takes place on a moon set and asks a blindfolded contestant to plant a tiny American flag in a small circle is called “One Small Step,” and the narrator introduces it like this: “Buzz Smalldrin and Neil Fingerstrong just landed on this miniature moon…”

Small Fortune host Lil Rel Howery in front of the final game, "The Big Little Heist," which involves a bank named Lil Rels Fargo.
Small Fortune host Lil Rel Howery in front of the final game, “The Big Little Heist,” which involves a bank named Lil Rels Fargo. (Photo by Trae Patton/NBC)

While these games may have take place on tiny little sets, they are not simple. “This game is very fun and very not easy,” host Lil Rel Howery says in the first episode, and that’s true of all the games in episode one, which vary in what they’re asking the contestants to do, such as manipulating tiny objects with speed or precision. Many involve actual strategy despite being super-small.

While teams of three play together, only one contestant plays each of the first five games. Unlike the UK version—which premiered in early 2019 and prompted NBC to immediately order a US version—there’s only one team for the entire hour, and the players rotate. (They each play one part of the final, timed game.)

During each game, the contestant is given one opportunity to practice, but can choose to keep practicing, though each practice attempt reduces the amount of money they can win on that challenge by 20 percent. Additional practices on the $100,000 game, for example, reduce its prize by $20,000.

That introduces some additional strategy—and also some filler, as the team talks about whether or not to practice, or what they just learned from their successful or failed practice. Lil Rel jokes and asks good questions, keeping the players focused and the game moving. Still, the more a player decided to practice, or wanted to talk about practicing, the more impatient I became.

One way a game show can save money is by making contestants win money twice, a mechanism I’m not fond of, but at least the final game is a good one. The contestants don’t to keep all the money they’ve banked unless they also win the final game. At least it’s a worthy finale: a timed competition that gets quite tense and requires all of the players a chance to succeed.

The tiny set for Small Fortune's game "Wedding Clashers"
The tiny set for Small Fortune’s game “Wedding Clashers” (Photo by Trae Patton/NBC)

What elevates everything is the attention to detail, particularly in the models used as game arenas. They’re the star of the show, and their designers deserve an Emmy, as do those who film and edit them, as the sets are brought to life in melodramatic ways. During the game play, we can easily see and follow all of the action.

Small Fortune’s team—including games production designer Éowyn Mishawn, who’s designed challenges for Hollywood Games Night and Making It—has created intricate, beautiful, and comedic sets. Having just watched Fox’s Crime Scene Kitchen and its pointless “crime scenes,” I was particularly thrilled to see so much care and attention to detail, even to things some viewers will never notice.

The set for “Wedding Clashers” has figurines, each of which has strong characterization, from their poses to the expressions on their face, and they’re all horrified at the conceit of the game: the tablecloth is the wrong color. The contestant’s challenge is to remove that offending tablecloth without causing any of the teeny-tiny dishes or the cake to tumble off the tiny table.

On a show called Small Fortune, there are, of course, lots of references to—and jokes about—small things. Even the button contestants press when they’re ready to play is tiny. But the actual regular-sized studio space the contestants and host Lil Rel occupy is smartly designed, too. It’s largely LED screens, but they’re behind a physical set anchored by a pair of staircases, which creates depth. When a challenge is introduced, the screens change in a way that makes the entire physical environment match the tiny game. It feels like the players are on the moon, or in a park, or at the White House.

The tiny set for Small Fortune's game "One Small Step"
The tiny set for Small Fortune’s game “One Small Step” (Photo by Trae Patton/NBC)

Lil Rel can’t help but be impressed. “I love this model,” Lil Rel says, introducing “Wedding Clashers,” and at another moment, calls the viewers’ and contestants attention to the screens: “I just want you all to look at the decor.”

Everything just works—even the one that’s NBCUniversal product integration, a store dressed to look like Cloud 9, the big box store that’s home to NBC’s Superstore. Perhaps because that’s a terrific sitcom and because it was a great little game, I didn’t mind at all. (The timing, however, seems like quite the fail on NBC’s part, since Superstore’s series finale aired in March.)

My one hesitation is that, with less-charming contestants, or repetition of games across the season, the entertainment value could drop considerably. While that could result in some B-level episodes, in the one episode that NBC provided to critics, Small Fortune hit big.

Small Fortune: A-

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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