The newest Fox game show from the production company behind American Ninja Warrior and The Titan Games isn’t focused on the awe-inspiring physical feats of the obstacle-obsessed. Rather, the Rob Lowe-hosted Mental Samurai blends the addictive “I know that answer!” quiz format of Jeopardy! and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? with the delicious sadism Americans have honed over years and years of reality TV. And it’s even better than its ridiculously over-the-top name.
Why are they samurai? What do the chivalrous, medieval Japanese knights have to do with brain teasers? This could very well be called Mental Viking or Mental Cowboy for all the sense it makes, but appropriation aside, let’s get to the game.
Here’s how it works: A contestant has five minutes to blaze through four categories (knowledge, memory, puzzles, and sequencing) of three questions each without missing a single question—all while being spun around by a mechanized arm that looks like something designed to train astronauts or torture James Bond. That’s $10,000 right there. If contestants get through this stage of the game, they go to the Circle of Samurai (again, your guess is as good as mine). There, the successful player gets an additional question from each category and only has a minute and a half (plus whatever time was left when they completed the first round) to earn incrementally larger amounts of cash, up to the final $100,000.
I only got to watch the premiere, but the good thing about game shows is that they’re built for replicability. Plus, after you’ve seen one episode of something called Mental Samurai, how much else do you really need to see? It’s like Ocean’s Eleven: You’re either in or you’re out. The sheer strangeness of the premise makes for some entertaining viewing, even if watching someone spin around with a GoPro-like camera isn’t as vicariously exciting as seeing incredible physical achievements.
That said, the categories change so rapidly it’s hard to get bored. One might require you to listen to a goofy announcement for details while another has you doing mental math. It’s not just the variety of knowledge that keeps things fresh; it’s also the quick shifts between the senses involved. Though the players sometimes go so fast you barely have a chance to follow along, the result is a game that becomes more exciting the longer you watch—especially since the unforgiving show kicks players out after a single error. Each contestant (college dropouts, professional baseball players, astronauts) also gets a brief narrative to get you on their side, though none compare to their host.
Lowe watches over the proceedings from a neon balcony like some sort of techno emperor, bantering with competitors who are strapped into the machine and floating in the air 10 feet away from him. It’s a cyberpunk brain-teaser nightmare. It’s what the entry exam to Mensa would be like if Mensa were cool. This is your chance to see Lowe in full-blown, hyper-positive Parks and Recreation Chris Traeger mode, except Traeger is a maniacal supervillain doling out cash to foolish players who can answer his riddles three.
The absolutely ridiculous Mental Samurai leans into its silliness, with oddball competitors vetted and trained for maximum perkiness placed on a set so saturated with light and metal that it has the vibe of an evil casino or a Maroon 5 concert-turned-battle royale. In short, it’s an appealing entry in the quiz-show canon simply because of its overwhelming desire to be extreme.
Mental Samurai premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on FOX.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.