ABC Family Orders Spelling Bee Game Show, Leaves “Bunheads” Rotting in Limbo

Alfonso Ribeiro

Former child actor Alfonso Ribeiro knows about gamesmanship. (photo credit: RangerRick via photopin cc)

If it were up to me, I’d be spending my Monday nights the same way I did last summer: watching and recapping ABC Family’s Bunheads. When I took advantage of a free advance preview of the pilot last year, I was unprepared for a show about a California dance studio to become appointment viewing for an old man who’s never before had any interest in shows about dancing, teens, or dancing teens. (I’d never even followed an ABC Family series before, unless reruns of Whose Line Is It, Anyway? count.)

Full credit for my Bunheads fandom goes to an atypical cast, talented crew, shrewd choices in songs and routines, the constant flurry of unpredictable pop-culture riffs, and Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, who had to know that a ballet dramedy would a hard sell in today’s TV landscape. Alas, too few Nielsen commoners supported its first season to guarantee its renewal, but it beat enough late-night infomercials to merit extended reconsideration by the Powers That Be…who, four months after the season finale, have yet to decide whether it lives or dies.

This same management team had no compunction announcing their latest approved acquisition this week: a weekly spelling bee! Because certified TV scientists have proven in their shiny corporate labs that America loves its game shows, erstwhile Fresh Prince sidekick Alfonso Ribeiro will be hosting the upcoming Spell-Mageddon, in which contestants must refresh themselves on their old high-school vocabulary tests and enter the low-stakes world of competitive spelling, without benefit of Auto-Correct or even Auto-text. Truly this promises to be like an aerial death match without a net.

Full disclosure: spelling bees were my thing from fourth through eighth grade. I never dreamed that the Scripps National Spelling Bee would carve itself a comfy annual niche on TV, but I remember this: whenever it was my turn, it was a few seconds of brief, enjoyable mental challenge. Otherwise, until the pack was whittled down to the final few, the experience of sitting still while waiting for several dozen other kids to take their turns had all the pizzazz of a dentist’s waiting room, minus the kiddie-puzzle magazines. I enjoyed my split-second moments of fame while I could, but once my grade level disqualified me from participation, I never felt compelled to revisit it as a spectator sport.

According to the official press release, this naturally won’t be shot as an ordinary spelling bee with Ribeiro and a team of sixty-year-old judges sitting at a folding table, glowering at stacks of word lists, and trying not to roll their eyes when some doe-eyed ten-year-old asks them to use “sphygmomanometer” in a sentence. No, the show promises the contestants will be forced to multitask, nailing their words in the face of unspecified “hilarious distractions”. The mind boggles at what potential “distractions” are in store for the unsuspecting competitors. Loud top-40 music blaring from speakers next to their ears? Strobe lighting? Crying babies? Intrusive mimes? Buckets of slime from above? Unleashed jungle animals? Joe Rogan carrying a box of live insects?

Even less likeable to me than the premise: the name. Spell-Mageddon. Setting aside the false advertisement of wanton destruction and world-ending explosions, “Spell-Mageddon” isn’t even a bad pun. It’s a non-pun. Why not the equally awkward Spellpocalypse? Or Spellaclysm? Spellnarok? Spellocide? Maybe something more benign such as Spell-Check or Speak-‘n’-Spell? Or even actual puns — Nuclear Spelltdown, Helter Spellter, Spellraiser…all sorts of horrid options out there.

Better yet: The Spell. How did the idea of ripping off other game shows’ titles not top the brainstorming list?

Meanwhile in the shadows, a thoughtful series about art, grace, expression, regrets, first loves, wasted time, starting over, outliving the past, tolerating your family, high school awkwardness, small-town eccentricity, obscure showtunes, movie trucks, cupcake ATMs, and the occasional They Might Be Giants tune is kept on probationary lockdown, as ABC Family masterminds bide their time until the ratings results are in for all the other shows that did earn their votes of confidence. (Adding insult to injury: the show appears virtually nowhere on the official 2013 Primetime Emmy ballots, except a lone submission for the dynamic Sutton Foster as lead actress. As nice gestures go, that barely rises above Level Token.)

Yeah, I’m bitter. I didn’t write all those recaps out of loathing or boredom. Bunheads was a surprisingly stellar viewing experience, and though I suppose I’m not the channel’s target demographic, I’d like to have more of it. I’m flabbergasted that those in charge would rather bet on Double Dare: English Class Edition.

(And for the record, no, I did not have to spell-check “sphygmomanometer”. I typed every single letter myself, no corrections. The old man’s still got it.)

4 responses

  1. This makes me even more FURIOUS that they canceled it. And no, sadly, I’m not kidding. I suggest downloading the episodes on Itunes before they’re gone and burning them on a dvd, if you’re able and inclined.

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