Sci-Fi Channel has been struggling with an identity crisis of late. I’m not sure why. It’s all clearly laid out right there in the name. Nonetheless, executives at the cable net seem confused. How else to explain “Extreme Championship Wrestling”? Or the reluctance to greenlight “Caprica”?
For better or worse (mostly the latter), Sci-Fi Channel’s commitment to all things science-fictional erodes even further this month with the introduction of two reality-styled game shows. “Estate of Panic” and “Cha$e” both contain vague elements of horror and science fiction, but their use is so nominal that no one over the age of 8 would group either one in those two genres.
“Estate of Panic” borrows from the 1959 Vincent Price chiller House on Haunted Hill for its premise. Each week, a group of contestants is invited to the palatial “estate” (actually a well-lit TV studio) of the mysterious host (Steve Valentine, acting all British and faux-creepy). Contestants are asked to enter the estate’s various rooms in a mad dash to grab lots of hidden cash. Rooms contain assorted “scary” traps aimed at foiling the contestants. Unless you’re terrified of non-venomous snakes and harmless spiders, though, the show is decidedly tame. Of course, producers seem to have whittled applicants down to the most hysterical and panic-prone, ensuring plenty of screaming. Last one out of each room is a ... well, they’re booted from the game. Last one standing gets all the money.
Initially, “Estate of Panic” looks like a rip-off of “Fear Factor” with more backstory. Give it 10 minutes, and you’ll be bored. Give it 20, however, and you might be hooked. After a while, the show’s devious rooms start to show a spark of creativity (rooms lined with electroshock wires, rooms filled with quicksand). Nobody’s going to die or even get hurt on this corny “Munsters”-style set--but it sure is fun watching people trash a house looking for money. It’s basically Nickelodeon’s “Finders Keepers” or FOX’s “Fun House” (ah, ’80s memories), but for adults.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is “Cha$e,” which is literally a game of tag played by grown-ups. The show throws in a lot of video game trappings, sending muscular “Hunters” dressed like Agent Smith in The Matrix to track down “Runners” and allowing Runners access to several alleged high-tech devices. In practice, watching thirtysomething real estate agents run around some park using pretend “invisibility glasses” and “sonic stunners” is juvenile in the extreme. (You keep waiting for someone to start an “I shot you”/“Nuh-ah, you missed!” argument.) The mechanics of the show are confusing. How do the Runners not get spotted, what with camera crews clomping after them videotaping their every move?
Taken on its own merits, “Estate of Panic” at least rates as a guilty pleasure. “Cha$e” is like an office Halloween party--cheesy, badly dressed and embarrassing for all involved.