'The Hustler' ABC Review: Stream It Or Skip It?

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Since the game show scandals of the 1950s, producers have taken pains to make sure contestants don’t find out the answers to the show’s questions (we include Jeopardy! in that, because their “answers” are the questions). But what if there’s a show where one of the contestants knows the answers, and tries to fool the others that he or she doesn’t? That’s the idea behind The Hustler, hosted by Craig Ferguson.

THE HUSTLER: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?

Opening Shot: Craig Ferguson, sitting in a comfy chair, sipping tea in what looks like a dark-wood library, says, “If you like trivia, then this is the game for you. If you like cat-and-mouse games, this is also the game for you. However, if you’re not too sure about Craig Ferguson, well, go back and watch some of my earlier stuff; I think you’ll come around. Then you’ll see this… is definitely the game for you. This is The Hustler.”

The Gist: Five contestants face off against each other, but they have to work together to answer trivia questions, each worth $10,000 to the collective bank. One of the contestants, however, knows all the answers. That contestant is “The Hustler;” since the Hustler knows the answers, it’s in his or her incentive to guide the group towards the right answer as they discuss each trivia question?

Why is there incentive? We’ll get to that in a second. In between each trivia question, a factoid about the Hustler’s life is given, like their Amazon purchase history or the fact that the person cries while watching Say Yes To The Dress. At the end of each three-question round, everyone votes for who gets eliminated, but the only vote that counts is that of the Hustler, despite the production of Ferguson sending the votes up a pneumatic tube.

After two eliminations, the final three go through the last round of questions; during the last question, a right answer doubles the bank, and a wrong answer cuts the bank in half. So there’s more incentive for the Hustler to guide the other two to the right answer.

Now we get to that incentive: If the Hustler fools the other two and neither of them think he or she is the Hustler, he/she wins the entire bank. If the other two guess the Hustler correctly, they split the bank.

Photo: Christopher Willard/ABC

What Shows Will It Remind You Of? The comfy reading room chairs, Ferguson’s ascot, and the “magic bookcase” give off the vibe of the British comedy game show Taskmaster. But the two shows are radically different.

'The Hustler' ABC Review: Stream It Or Skip It?

Our Take: Shooting game shows during COVID is tough; there’s no audience to cheer when things go well or groan when things go badly. Some shows, like Supermarket Sweep, seem to have the excitement level turned up so high that the audience isn’t necessary. Slower-paced ones like The Hustler, though, need an audience off of which the contestants and Ferguson to feed. Without them, The Hustler moves even slower, despite Ferguson’s attempts at engaging with the contestants and moving things along.

The pattern, up until the final round, is question, discussion, answer, factoid, question, discussion, answer, factoid. It doesn’t vary for the first 3/4 of the show, and by the third round of questions, the pattern is already tiresome. It’s likely because the discussion among the contestants isn’t all that interesting. It’s a lot of “I don’t really know the answer”, or “I’ve never heard of this”, or in one or two cases, “I know this for a fact! 100 percent!” But it doesn’t really go too far in helping viewers guess who the Hustler is, nor does it give us real incentive to care.

If this game was operating at peak excitement, we would have been trying to guess who the Hustler is from the first question. But we didn’t really have an interest in guessing until the final question, knowing how big the incentive is for the Hustler to make sure the answer was right. We actually got our guess wrong. But we still didn’t care.

That’s bad news for a game show. Even if the action doesn’t keep a game show fan on the edge of his or her seat, it should still be engaging enough for the viewer to want to play along. The Hustler, despite the efforts of Ferguson to will the show into something interesting, doesn’t ever get to that level.

Parting Shot: The Hustler and the two other contestants talk to the camera about what they’re going to do with their money and/or how it was a fun game (if they lost).

Sleeper Star: None.

Most Pilot-y Line: The eliminated contestants get sent through a secret door in one of the bookcases, and both Ferguson and the contestants make it into a joke. This sounds like it would be meta, but it lands with a thud.

Our Call: SKIP IT. We think Craig Ferguson is a fantastic host, whether he’s doing game shows (Celebrity Game Shows) or talk shows (we miss him so much on The Late Late Show it hurts), but The Hustler is not the vehicle that will be his long-term return to network TV.

Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.

Stream The Hustler On ABC.com