The Cube has arrived in the U.S., calling itself “the world’s toughest game show.” That is doubtful, both because of the evidence it uses and because the world also contains shows like Jeopardy! and The Chase. But it also very accurately says that, in the titular cube, “simple tasks become epic challenges.”
Alas, while The Cube’s games can be quite engaging, the show itself doesn’t reach epic status. In many ways, it’s like a stripped-down, bare-bones version of another British game show imported to the U.S., The Crystal Maze. Both have challenging games that take place in small spaces, but while the The Cube has an AI-like personality, the show itself lacks The Crystal Maze’s frivolity, themed decor, and manic energy. The cube itself is an empty space, and the show can feel that way too, unless its contestants fill in the void left by an audience-free studio and a modest host.
The Cube (TBS, Thursdays at 9) apparently makes its “world’s toughest game show” claim based upon how few people have actually won in its various international versions, but that’s because players don’t have to actually play the whole game, so there’s at least a giant asterisk on that lack of winners thing.
The games on The Cube are played by teams of two people who know each other. They enter the cube—sometimes one at a time, sometimes as a pair—to attempt a challenge. Completing the task earns money, and moves the team a step up a money ladder, which goes from $1,000 to $250,000. They can walk away at any time with whatever cash they’ve earned.
The catch is that, once they decide to attempt a challenge, the player(s) must complete it. If they fail, they lose a “life,” and they only have nine lives total. If a team has won $20,000 and four games, and used up five of their lives, and then they decide to enter the cube to play the $50,000 challenge, they have just three attempts. If they can’t complete that task, they lose everything. Throughout their appearance, they have two assists available: “Simplify” makes the game a little easier, while “One Shot” sends host Dwayne Wade in to try for them. It’s a clever way to use the host and his skills, and replaces the UK’s “Swap” assist (which allows one player to go in for their partner).
The Cube gets really exciting when a team opts to play a game but keeps failing. I like the NBC game show Small Fortune better than this, because it has richer challenge design and is much more alive, but its practice runs suck the energy out of the show. On The Cube, every failure is a practice, but brings the team one step closer to going bankrupt, ratcheting up the tension.
Alas, teams can choose to bail, which I’d appreciate as a player; as a viewer, it’s decidedly less dramatic. Teams don’t have nine lives to play a mandatory seven games; they have nine lives to play as many games before leaving whenever they want. They can successfully play four games, bank $20K, and walk away. Of course, if they fail at one of those games, and burn through all their lives, then they leave with nothing.
In these moments of decision and tension, Dwayne Wade is particularly good at talking with the contestants and offering them both encouragement and affirmation, checking in when things are getting tough or down to the wire. But he’s not leaping off the stage with energy like Adam Conover in character as The Crystal Maze’s “Maze Master” host. That’s okay, it’s just noticeable, especially in the first episode, which has a couple that I found to be super-annoying. TJ’s a former Harlem Wizard, Sam works with at-risk youth, and TJ insists on playing the games and offering lectures about strategy, and does a shitty job at both.
It’s not until later in episode two, when Daisy and Taylor, a couple from Orlando, really liven things up, in every way possible. That’s because—and I’ll try not to spoil anything—their game encompasses a much greater range, and really demonstrates what The Cube as a format is capable of. I’m glad TBS provided critics with the first four episodes (I’ve seen three), because after the first I was like of like, eh, fine, even with the cliffhanger. Yes, unlike most prime-time game shows, The Cube doesn’t wrap up neatly at the end of an episode, starting over with new contestants at the top of the next episode. Instead, it does the Who Wants to be a Millionaire thing and cliffhangs in the middle of a team’s game play, meaning that each episode can have more than one team.
The Cube does have some some flashy tricks: an LED floor that turns into a game surface for challenges that are actually video games, and bullet time cameras that freeze the action and spin us around the cube, offering a slow-motion perspective on exactly what’s happening. It’s spectacular.
The games are hit or miss, but they’re all designed to look simple and be hard: placing balls in a hole, throwing all of the balls out of a box, moving a digital square through a grid of obstacles, walking blindfolded through a grid of obstacles. (Perhaps a missed opportunity is to make the tasks scarier, but maybe I’m just thinking that because I saw horror/sci-fi film The Cube.) The actual games are well-designed and, since the show is re-using challenges from the UK version, teams might know what to expect; in the first three episodes, one team admits to having practiced the very challenge they’re presented with, because they watched it on the UK version. (Smart!)
The cube itself has a voice, and is supposed to have a personality, but it’s attempted wit that’s so dry it just turns to dust and blows away. “That sounds like a poor excuse,” The Cube says when one player offers a reason why they failed at challenge. That’s its version of sass. “I’m not here to make friends,” The Cube says another time. If you can be outwitted by Siri or Alexa, I’m not sure you’re AI worthy of “the world’s toughest game show.” I did start whispering along to The Cube announcing itself before and after commercials—The Cube!—but the actual cube doesn’t whisper.
In the second episode, Dwayne Wade says, “That cube right there has no emotions at all,” and that’s exactly the problem for me: I want so much more personality from it, and from the show. Not every show has to have Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman on Making It, or Holey Moley’s puns and set design, or Match Game’s drunken energy, but those prime-time shows have such distinct personalities that the lack of one becomes The Cube’s defining characteristic.
The Cube: B
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