In the tradition of kids saying the “darndest things,” ABC’s new winter gameshow “Child Support” puts five children in a room with British comedian Ricky Gervais (“The Office”). Gervais asks them trivia questions and the idea is that their innocence, unpredictability and spontaneity will be a comedy goldmine. A better version of the format worked for Art Linkletter and Bill Cosby and Steve Harvey, to name a few, but it doesn’t work for Gervais. His forced cackles and pretend get-me-out-of-this-room exasperation are not that funny. The kids are made-for-TV cute but the adult contestants, who are answering the same questions on a different set to win prize money, are far more watchable.
Host Fred Savage (“The Grinder,” “Friends from College”) leads each adult contestant through a series of 10 questions. Correct answers win money and the pot increases as the contestant moves toward the final question. A wrong answer decreases the jackpot and activates the kids’ role, which is to try and answer the same question correctly so that the adult can continue the game. If the kids get it wrong, the game is over and the adult goes home with no money. Along the way, the adult can choose to keep certain amounts of money or take the riskier option and go for more. It’s a typical gameshow choice that increases suspense.
Savage is naturally very likable and his rapport with the contestants works, particularly when a contestant has a big personality. In the premiere episode, the second contestant is exuberant and throws out one-liners like a pro. He has a good time with Savage and they are fun to watch. When Savage has to throw the action to Gervais and the kids, who answer the questions even when the contestant gets them correct (the idea is to see what hilarious answer they would have given), the energy he creates slows down and so does the humor.
The main problem is the set-up. When Linkletter, who pioneered the idea decades ago and Cosby, who recreated it in the 1990’s, interacted with children, they asked questions that allowed kids to express an opinion on a sophisticated topic. Questions like: What would you do as president? have comedic potential. On “Child Support,” the questions are trivia-based. Asking what gives pesto its green color and getting back “spinach” from one of the kids isn’t exactly hilarious.
Gervais doesn’t help. He screams along with the kids when one gets an answer right, which is maybe cute the first time but not every time. And his reactive laughter is so over the top that it’s hard to tell if he’s actually having a good time or just really bad at acting like he is. He does keep his part moving along when the kids clearly don’t know the answer but as nice as it is to quickly get back to Savage, it’s not enough to keep this badly executed concept off life support.
“Child Support” premieres on January 5 at 8:00 p.m. EDT on ABC.
— Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.