TV Review: Quiz Korea
Here's an axiom for you: Quiz shows are the same everywhere, but different.
One night, whilst on the stag sojourn in Budapest, I wimped out of the truly excessive drinking I knew was going to happen and quite possibly make me feel like stamped-on loam, and returned to the hotel. As is my habit in foreign climes with cable TV access, I spent hours flicking through the channels until the screen resembled an incomprehensible blur of jump-cut gobbledegook. Maybe because I like it that way.
But having watched most of the Polish 'reimagining' of 'Allo 'Allo - the Oh. My. God. I can't believe what I am seeing Halo Hans - and the German version of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, in which the token female comic was quite hilariously saddled with having to slip in (sorry about this) the word "tampon" (really sorry about that) in the ritual end-of-show hoe down and the master of ceremonies was an 'orrible looking and exceedingly smug midget in a baseball cap, I then chanced upon KBS: the Korean Broadcasting Service, their version of our beloved BBC.
It was showing a quiz show. I had to stop the remote control thumb-tapping that had taken over my hand for the last two hours and settled down to watch. Because I had to. It was a quiz show. And even better, a foreign quiz show with English subtitles.
The show was Quiz Korea. Nowt fancy about the name, straight out with it and classic in its straightforward simplicity. Apparently the most popular quiz in all the land, it opened with each of the six contestants coming down a central ramp. Each of them had plainly been instructed by the programme makers to portray themselves as insane as possible, whether it was by singing a quirky song about quiz, quiz, quizzing! Or doing a dance that made them look as if they hadn't quite got the hang of these things we call limbs.
Every contestant was introduced by the host (who looked like the suave sister-shagging avenger from Oldboy) with a preamble that basically amounted to "he wants to be a good son" and "she believes she will be national quiz champion". I laughed at the madness of it all, being a serious, upstanding British quizzer, more accustomed to looking glum and as inconspicuous as possible. We did not say or do such things in our proud nation. Stiff upper lip and self deprecation all the way.
From the outset, the banter appeared more like an interrogation than a jolly chat. And that's when I was reminded how quiz shows often reflect the national character. Here we dredge up hilarious and trivial stories that happened to us on holiday (I accidentally headbutted a Z-list celebrity!) and talk about hobbies and interests that aren't very interesting. In South Korea, family rules. So they talked about family and, you know, other important stuff.
Forsaking good old eye contact, the host would ask questions about ma and pa, hubbie and the kids and, if they had time, the interminable jobs the contestants had. But these enquiries made Quiz Korea look like The Jeremy Kyle Show crossed with Going For Gold.
Prompted by our beaming, possibly demonic presenter, one of the finalists, a fortysomething elementary cook, told us about her husband had passing away and how "I decided to live for my children ... that's how I survived". Jeez. Lay off it please. Lady, you're really bringing me down.
But still it kept coming. And it was relentless. Along with the camera continually homing in on one of her petrified teenage sons, who looked like he was trying to hide inside his baseball cap.
Host: "Your mother is alive?"
And yes, that's what came out in the subtitles.
Worse was to come for the eventual show winner. His backstory was odd, compelling and, if played out in this country, would make him a target of much point-your-finger derision.
He was a 44-year-old stationery maker who had been forced by circumstances unsaid to move back in with his parents the previous year, while his wife and two sons were living in Canada (don't ask me what they were doing there. Getting away from the evil looking mother-in-law in the audience perhaps?). It sounded like some terrible future Adam Sandler film.
The unintentional comedy displayed in just the first round was exquisite. He told of parents who treated him like a teenager: "My father nags me. You can eat anywhere, but you sleep at home! he says". The audience laughed, while something inside the stationery maker probably died at that very moment.
Along with the separation from his family, his awful situation was played up again and again. The voiceover recaps were especially excruciating:
"He will soothe his loneliness with a quiz win!"
Now imagine the inter-round announcer on The Weakest Link saying the same thing about Gillian from Weymouth. You get me?
The host was also quick to comment as if the show was a terrorist hostage situation when saying: "You've shown your family you're lonely, but healthy and fine."
This was unbelievable. Most people assume quizzers are lonely, stroke-their-gun collection types. You don't have to spell it out.
He also talked of his ambitions. And really shouldn't have: "My small dream is that stationery with our logo be sold all over the world" and was quick to add that his company "make their own pencils."
But then you realised the seriousness at the heart of his quest. He was working bloody hard make the stationery business work, for "15 years!" in fact, and had given up so much that he was forced to become a kind of Korean boomerang kid, living thousands of miles from his family, suffering from parent-enforced curfews. Winning this quiz show was going to help save him. It was almost heart-rending. Almost.
Oh wait, The Quiz
So you want to know about the format? Silly me. You quizzers you. There were seven rounds and six players. Each round involved multiple choice questions displayed on contestants' individual monitors and asked of each player in turn for the most part (either three or four choices), except for the odd round, when only a straight answer with no help would do.
Looking like every slightly dull and straightforward quiz show that litter the TV schedules nowadays, it weeded out players at intervals based on their cumulative scores (the eliminated were given an after-ejection scene in what looked like a shopping mall where they said things like "I will be champion next time!" whilst grinning and surrounded by their loved ones. Some looked so delirious with optimism it was as if they had been given a post-show tablet of ecstasy) until two were left to go face-to-face in the sixth round.
The sixth round saw each player have to build up a total of seven answers rising in difficulty as it went: one passing control to the other whenever they gave an incorrect answer.
They got one get-out clause; a very interesting one in fact, which involved them using the internet, i.e. Google, to look for an answer they did not know. I tell you, the sheer drama of watching the cursor swirl around the computer screen for half a minute was something to behold. It was so thrilling I felt like sticking my head in the toilet and going gurgggggle. Though, I must admit, it was a very nice toilet.
And having looked like she was going to the final round, the Widow Cook made two crucial errors on not identifying the Corinth Canal and the linking word of "spider" (the last question of the seven involved the contestant get a set of clues in ever decreasing difficulty and handing it over to the opponent if they couldn't get it from the first, second, third and so on). Our Lonely Stationery Maker seemed to sneaked in by the back door (his parents' back door probably) and got the seventh crucial question and went through to the final where he could win some badly needed airfare money.
I would have felt more sorry for the Widow Cook had she not seemed so self-congratulatory on getting every one of her answers right. In fact, it was a problem that afflicted all the contestants to varying degrees.
On Quiz Korea each contestant clapped themselves heartily when they scored a point. The constant self-applause was something you just don't do around these here parts. Us Brits content ourselves with a highly subdued grin at best. Anything else, and you look like a right dick. Yet the Widow Cook jumped up and down and smiled outrageously, while thrashing her hands together like a Bedlam inmate. She had to be stopped. Thank God, she was.
Now I could understand the golden happiness flowing through her body at that victorious moment in time, but she could have toned it down a little. Like the Lonely Stationery Maker, for instance, who grew more likeable and less pathetic looking, despite his shocking shocking pink sweater, as the show went on. He clapped himself like all the others, but actually seemed quite humble when he did it.
The last round saw our now intrepid but still lonely hero get to choose three questions from a cash ladder: the money amount corresponding to the difficulty. Having made another awkward admission - "I wasn't a very good son. I regret that" - because, I guess, Koreans love this kind of revelatory embarrassment in their quiz shows and don't have their own Trisha to draw the pain out of the lumpen masses, Lonely Stationery Maker (okay, so his name was Jihan) chose badly twice but got the final, third question on Scheherazade, giving him US$20,000.
The moment of victory was presented in a manner I had never seen before. No stupendous pause, no hee-hawing, no "are you sure?". Instead, the answer was given and suddenly the picture went into a black-and-white freeze-frame closing in on the contestant's face and cutting to his rather overbearing looking mother, whose stonefaced visage aped a basilisk itself. The show director was quite the artist, it seemed. The sort of artist that not only deserves never to work in the media industry ever again, but be tarred, feathered and pushed into a sewer as well for ripping off the final shot of The 400 Blows (I might be taking that a bit too far, but what the hey! I take quiz shows seriously). Then, at blessed last, the confirmation he had won came. Hooray for the Lonely Stationery Maker!
And so Jihan became, according to the on-screen graphics, the "35th Quiz Champion". Cue the tinselly things falling down and much celebration. He was going to go to Canada and get away from his parents and leave this horrifying comedy far behind.
But you know what? Even if there were too many rounds and the format was predictable (well, it had to be really ... every quiz show is predictable format-wise isn't it?), the questions - the beating heart of every quiz show - were relatively high quality and the knowledge displayed was, in some cases, very impressive.
Sure, non-Koreans naturally get alienated by the Joseon period, government tax systems, Hangul characters, native proverbs, military stuff like the location of the naval academy in Jihae, and even ones concerning the national emergency number for reporting industrial spies and terrorists (it's "111", so if you're ever in South Korea and see someone suspicious, you know what to do), but local knowledge affects every quiz. It's just a case of how much. In this instance, it was barely noticeable most of the time, something I couldn't imagine a Korean thinking that after watching the general knowledge half of Mastermind (no offence).
Questions on the Mexican Father of Independence (I had no idea it was Manuel Hidalgo), "-bytes" no one in existence has heard of and the finer points of Rimsky-Korsakov's oeuvre showed a worldliness lacking in so many British quiz shows of the popular type. Jihan even remembered which country banned smoking in public places in 2004 with no multiple choices (Ireland, of course). At least, you knew, most of the contestants paid close attention to the world outside their borders.
The influence of the US and Japan, those two imperial monsters that had manhandled Korean culture, were evident too, with the Widow Cook getting the first state to hold a American presidential primary off the bat and the term for Japanese buildings meaning "enemy property."
If Napoleon Dynamite Presented Quizzes
So that was that. And pangs of ugly pain stabbed at my heart when I realised I was going to miss next week's episode. Especially, when the preview showed a young lady contestant come on waving nunchuks (SERIOUSLY), which she handed to the host, who tried to do a Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, but ended up looking like a right wally who was about to smash himself in the face. Nunchuks and quiz shows. It is the future.