Ricky Gervais is back on television thanks to ABC, which just debuted Child Support, an ostensibly simple game show seasoned with the third grade social darwinism. Naturally, Gervais seems, at least initial, in his element. The show is simple: Adults answer questions for money and, if they get the question wrong, five kids in a room with Gervais are given the opportunity to save them from elimination. What ensues is more funny than it is hilarious and more similar to Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? than his caustic take on the life of a dwarf working in show business.
Procedurally, the game is pretty close to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, but with far fewer rules and 20 percent of the money. If a contestant gets 10 questions right, they earn $200,000. If they get a question wrong, the kids can save their bacon. The caveat, of course, is that kids are pretty awful at trivia and, as first grader teachers have long known, the more kids you assemble the worse they get — much to the dismay of the contestants, who are hobnobbed delightfully by host Fred Savage. That said, the questions are significantly easier than on most quiz shows, which is a double-edged sword. On the first broadcast, one contestant won $10,000 for knowing the name of the 2014 Angelina Jolie movie Maleficent. This was not compelling television.
Child Support is gimmicky, but the first episode did at least hint at the serendipity and silliness that could become the shows stock in trade. A group of kids helped a contestant go home with $100,000 instead of nothing by guessing that the unicorn is the official animal of Scotland. That was compelling television.
Surprisingly, the weakness of the show is Ricky Gervais, who doesn’t seem that happy to be stuck in a room with a bunch of kids who don’t get his jokes. Because his acid wit doesn’t really make sense in on a kindersoundstage, it’s not in evidence at all. He’s treated, more or less, as an innocuous father figure. The kids sure as hell don’t know who he is. Most of them seem like they are treating the show more like a backdoor audition. The self-conscious precociousness gets old fast.
Gervais tries to force laughter at the ridiculous things the kids say, but he’s essentially doing an impression of Bill Cosby on Kids Say the Darndest Things. The bloom is off that particular rose and the length of the show makes the single-note execution problematic. The show is at its worst when the kids are shown incorrectly answering questions that contestants get right. At that point it turns into Kids Are Prompted to Say the Darndest Things.
Child Support works best when the kids stop performing and are just having fun as a group railing against Justin Bieber or trying to figure out why “break a leg” is a way to wish someone good luck before a play. They are especially funny when they all team up against Gervais, who does his best work playing the slightly annoyed foil. His deadpan reactions to their nonsense are occasionally deeply funny. He’s at his best when he’s pretending to be at his worst. (The best moment in the first episode comes when Gervais makes a joke about Steve Carell aping him on the American version of The Office and gets reprimanded for maligning the Despicable Me star.)
Child Support is decent family television, but it feels unlikely to become a cultural phenomenon. It’s more of something to put on in the background while cooking. That’s not necessarily a condemnation. There’s something to be said for being inoffensive — it’s just surprising to be saying it about Ricky Gervais.