The skimpy ratings generated by summer fiascos like Fame and Paradise Hotel indicate that the American viewing public's reality television binge has led to an inevitable purge. For those who feel like they've overindulged in the genre, the ideal remedy may be a show that's almost 100 percent artificial: The Hollywood Squares.
Granted, the game show's contestants are real; it's the ''stars'' occupying the giant tic-tac-toe board who are fake. During Squares' initial 1966-81 run (episodes replay on Game Show Network), such quasi-celebs as bogus hick Charley Weaver (actually acting-clan patriarch Cliff Arquette), pint-size Milquetoast Wally Cox, and the wickedly bitchy Paul Lynde became TV household names. When executive producer Whoopi Goldberg launched the revival in 1998, she attempted to attract more genuinely famous players, but the task became increasingly difficult as Squares failed to match the ratings of fellow syndie gamers Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune.
Since the Whoopster's exit last season, new show runners Henry Winkler (yes, Fonzie) and Michael Levitt have sagely returned the series to its square roots. The dorkily redubbed H(2) revels in kitschy stunts like ''Dynamic Duo Week,'' boasting Batman's Adam West and Burt Ward, Cannonball Run chums Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise, and Diff'rent Strokes siblings Todd Bridges and Gary Coleman (who replied to a Penn & Teller dis by threatening ''I'm about to make you disappear!'' Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Gary?). The gimmicks don't always work: Booking Vicki Lawrence in full regalia as ''Mama,'' for example, might sound like a fun throwback to the original show's campiness, but her antics aren't so cute now that the Carol Burnett Show vet is nearly as old as her cantankerous character.
Tom Bergeron has stayed on board as H(2)'s emcee, and you've got to give him credit for maintaining his good-humored demeanor. The guy always seems to be laughing, perhaps to keep himself from weeping. Once considered a contender for coanchor of ABC's Good Morning America, Bergeron instead hosts Squares and supplements his income by introducing clips of crotch injuries on America's Funniest Home Videos. In yet another case of downward showbiz mobility, Jeffrey Tambor now serves as H(2)'s announcer (and as a semiregular panelist). While he's an improvement over the unironically smarmy Shadoe Stevens, it's kinda sad to see the ex-Larry Sanders Show sidekick transformed into his onetime alter ego: Hank Kingsley would've killed for this gig.
Previously reserved for Lynde and Goldberg, the center square now rotates among an array of quipsters. Some, like Ellen DeGeneres and Brad Garrett, inject authentic humor into their sometimes scripted answers. Others, like Gloria Estefan and Howie Mandel, display no discernible trace of wit. The lower left cubicle, formerly the domain of Weaver and Midwestern comic George Gobel, often houses H(2)'s best source of laughs, Martin Mull. The Fernwood 2Nite cutup's timing remains rapier sharp. Asked if Johnny Cash ever served time, Mull deadpanned, ''Well, I think that's where he wrote 'A Boy Named Sue.''' That's innuendo worthy of Lynde, who once naughtily cracked that female roosters are ''the ones who just go 'a-doodle-doo.'''
In some ways, however, H(2) can't equal the entertainment value of the original Squares. They're worth watching for the retro fashions alone, from host Peter Marshall's pink tux to Lynde's silver lame shirts. Factor in frequent appearances by flamboyant ventriloquist Wayland Flowers and Madame, and you've got the gayest show this side of Bravo. And the History Channel's got nothing on GSN when it comes to vintage trivia. Where else would you learn that a 1976 Ladies' Home Journal survey found students' most admired person was O.J. Simpson?
The old Squares can be breathtakingly un-PC -- and I'm not just talking about the fur coats modeled by Room 222 cutie Karen Valentine (these days, she'd be picketed by PETA). Even normally benign Gobel once joked that crossing a watermelon with a pumpkin would result in ''a jack-o'-lantern that has an Afro.''
H(2) rarely offers such offensive moments, but it's starting to recapture some of the old show's outrageously surreal magic. May's ''Blondes Have More Fun Week'' gathered Pamela Anderson, Charo, Miss Piggy, Paris and Nicky Hilton, and Phyllis Diller, who explained why she'd lost out on a role on Baywatch: ''It was my bra size -- 34 long.'' Against foolproof lines like that, reality TV's empty-headed hotties can't measure up. The Hollywood Squares: B+ H(2): B2