Is there anything more insufferably cringeworthy than announcing to the world your ‘love of words’? Those who gigglingly formulate DISCOMOBULATED and KUMQUAT with their fridge magnets and then expect a round of applause for this public display of their lexicographical lustings surely remain, second to men who put ‘bore water’ signs on their lawns, the most punchable people on the planet. Some go one step further, however, and devise entire quiz shows based on their self-congratulatory linguistophilia, of which Randling (which began tonight on ABC1) is the latest in a long and woeful line.
Fridge magnets were, in fact, enclosed as part of Randling‘s press release, ensuring that all reviewers were (literally) playing the game well ahead of the show’s debut.
Even before I watched the first ep, I was randling away merrily…
gushed Melinda Houston in the Sunday Age. (And yes, she did use the word ‘ep’. No doubt the suffix ‘isode’ had fallen down the back of her vegetable crisper.)
The thing with Randling is that it’s neither a geeky Letters and Numbers-style quiz nor a copper-bottomed Micallef-quality comedy show. Afraid of wearing either intellectualism or humour too visibly on its sleeves, it all amounts to very little: a pottage of half-remembered rounds from other quiz shows good and bad (My Word, QI, Talkin’ ‘Bout Your Generation, Spicks and bloody Specks), the result inevitably feels scattershot and half-hearted. The ‘words’ gimmick is itself fairly tenuous, especially since nobody involved seems to have any particular linguistic dexterity. You’d think, for a start, that a quiz show about words could manage to get the lyrics of its theme tune to scan.
So if it’s not a quiz or a comedy, what is it? Well, it’s a sports show. Thank God You’re Here had a bizarre habit of treating its ad-libbing comics like sweat-drenched pentathletes, and Randling does much the same. It’s not just the barely-tongue-in-cheek-enough-to-be-funny team blazers and the tatty trophy, or the AFL ladder-style scoreboard (which looks more like a spreadsheet, grimly reminding us that we have another 26 weeks of randletime to sit through), or indeed the tiresome mic-in-the-face post-match interviews over the closing credits: it’s the fact that the entire show is taken so goddam seriously as a competition. A competition at which viewers are invited to patriotically cheer, rather than simply titter. The inevitable implication is that failure to ‘randle away merrily’ is some kind of unAustralian thought crime.
Host Andrew Denton (who himself is a fan of words, but probably doesn’t hear ‘no’ very often) opened the first show by giving us the definition of the word ‘randling’ itself. The obvious thing to do here would be to announce a different erroneous definition at the top of every show, with the meanings becoming increasingly convoluted and ridiculous as the series wears on. ‘Now ‘randling’, of course, means…’ could become his new catchphrase. They could also cast the teams in the style of Wacky Races, with duos of fogies competing against hipsters, or thicko couples battling against brainboxes. Have some fun with the whole thing. Maybe call it The Cunning Linguists if they have to. But no, Denton’s too boring for that. That’s the kind of thing a comedy show might do. This is comedy-sport, and it seems all jokes have to be approved by the TV equivalent of the International Olympic Committee. Go team panel-show!
The whole enterprise is clearly an attempt to fill the gap left by Spicks and Specks, which you’d think wouldn’t exactly be difficult. Replace a mediocre music quiz aimed at people who don’t give a toss about music with a mediocre word quiz aimed at…well, you get the idea. Unfortunately, such is the sheer neediness and desperation on display that it’s hard not to will Randling to failure, and harder still to forgive the on-message reviewers who obediently sing from the Church of Denton hymn-sheet.