The mere existence of CBS’s new game show Lotería Loca remarkable. As host Jamie Camil says in its premiere, “We are making history tonight! This is the first multicultural, bilingual, Latin-inspired game show ever to appear on prime-time television.”
It is also a game show on broadcast network TV that is neither a nostalgic reboot of a past game show, nor based on commercial IP.
The announcer for Lotería Loca (CBS, Mondays at 9) describes it as “the craziest version of bingo you’ve ever seen!”, a sentence that would work replacing “of bingo” with “an American network TV game show.”
It is lively and vibrant in a way few game American shows are. Instead of the standard shiny floor, there’s a multistory set: a tile courtyard under outdoor facades inspired by Mexican villages, all covered in lights and cempasúchil flowers.
Camil—who you may know from either Schmigadoon! season, or as Rogelio from Jane the Virgin—hosts from a balcony, with the players next to him; they look across the courtyard at three massive LED screens for the game play.
So many modern game shows take forever to do anything, but Lotería Loca fills every second, even fillers, with energy: lights, music, dancers, singing, yelling. It has its own band and DJ, Sheila E.
Usually a game show or reality competition has to create energy with fake audience sounds, but if that’s here, it’s masked well.
Alas, while all of this set dressing and presentation is a joy, the competition itself is what’s lacking.
Lotería Loca is a version of lotería, a game that’s been played for hundreds of years. Those who are from households or countries that play regularly will need no explanation; for the rest of us, it’s like Bingo, except for the cards use illustrations instead of letters and numbers.
In this version, two contestants each have a digital tablero with a 3×3 grid of illustrations. They select from a board with 15 numbers, and hope the symbol behind that number—e.g. La Mariposa—matches one on their card.
If it does, they get some cash. Their goal is to get three in a row, a lotería, which earns $10,000. The first player to two loterías wins the game.
The tableros aren’t cleared between loterías, and it’s also possible to get two at the same time (for instance, by completing an L shape with the corner), so a player who’s behind can win.
But all they’re doing is selecting numbers at random, and hoping they match.
Thankfully, some numbers conceal a “loca challenge!” as Jaime yells.
The preview shows at least one physical challenge, but the challenges in the first episode were not of the Double Dare variety. Instead, they were painfully easy word puzzles, such as unscrambling TSLA into a word, with the clue “you can put it on your fries or on icy roads”—though that didn’t stop contestants from getting some answers wrong.
The player who plays the challenge only gets to keep the money if the symbol also matches on on their card. If that symbol is on the other player’s card, they get the money.
This is, again, random.
That means Lotería Loca is a game show in which the players have virtually no agency. That’s the fun of lotería or bingo, sitting with our cards, waiting for the random draw to pay off, to fill in that last symbol so we can yell ¡Lotería! or Bingo!
I once played weekly bingo in Rhode Island, and there was nothing more fun than yelling Bingo! and disappointing a room full of people who were thisclose to winning themselves.
But watching other people play? Not as fun, alas.
The randomness does result in some interesting scenarios, like a double lotería. Camil constantly explains what possible outcomes there are, giving a fleeting moment of tension.
The first player with two loterías goes on to the $1 million endgame, which expands the game card to 16 squares, and requires four in a row to make a lotería.
Uncovering all 16 cards wins the player $1 million; there are four skull cards that, if uncovered, take away one of the player’s three lives and half of the player’s earned cash.
The players do get some agency here: a choice of whether to walk away with their banked money or risk it.
Yet this isn’t enough game play to fill a half-hour, and the show slows when there’s just one player. That’s half the episode in which I found myself zoning out, less interested because I knew how unlikely a $1 million win would be, making this yet another game show that sends its players home with nothing, or a fraction of the grand prize, saving the production and network money in the process.
Lotería Loca appears to stays true to the core of the game that inspired it, and also to its popularity as a Mexican game: the cards’ labels are in Spanish, and there’s no pausing to translate, say, “tablero” for English speakers.
The actual game play is one of almost entirely chance, not skill. Yet for a game show without much game, it’s still incredibly watchable. CBS’s most-recent studio game show, Lingo, was a coma by comparison to Lotería Loca’s non-stop visual party, which takes place on the best game show set on television today.
A game of random chance is livened up by its host, its set, and its party atmosphere. B
What works for me:
- The incredible set and production design
- Jaime Cavil’s hosting and energy
- Staying true to the game
What could be better:
- Game play that is not just about random chance, though then it would not be lotería!