Cash Cab Steers Game Shows in a New Direction

Some cab rides are more memorable than others. Just today on a ride back to my apartment from LaGuardia airport in Queens, my cab driver was especially talkative and philosophical, telling me what a joy his two sons are. He advised me to have children because "that’s when your second life will start." Well, that’s food for thought, not to mention a nice departure from the way New York cabbies usually treat me, which is as a distraction from an intense cell phone conversation.

Once in Chicago my mom and I hailed a cab from the curb in front of the Second City comedy club, only to find that our prospective driver was "the Singing Cab Driver." Now that was a memorable ride, particularly because he sang songs in a Talking Heads meets Oingo Boingo style and it was the year 2004.

Some New Yorkers have lucked into taxi rides that were not just memorable, but profitable as well, since Cash Cab, the Discovery Channel TV game show, started in 2005. What, you haven't heard of it? I hadn't either until recently, but it's been steadily gaining an audience since its debut in late 2005. The original Cash Cab started in London, and now there is a spin-off in Australia as well as in the States.

The premise of the show is simple. Unknowing passengers set foot in the cab, dictate their coordinates, and are surprised by flashing lights and driver/host Ben Bailey, who lets them know they have stepped into the "Cash Cab."

If they agree, Ben will drive to their destination while asking them general interest trivia questions at $50 a piece. If they get the first four right, the next round of four questions will earn them $100 a piece, and will be more challenging. There are three chances (strikes) to answer incorrectly, but a strike-out could get you kicked out of the taxi early. In the style of "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire," there is the chance to do a "shout-out" (aka lifeline): when passengers are stumped they can call a friend or relative on a cell phone or they can ask a stranger walking down the street (which is pretty funny in New York, when people get annoyed if you bother them mid-walk). The game ends when the passenger(s) get to their destination unless the passenger(s) opt to up the ante and answer a video clip question (containing a Discovery Channel clip) for double or nothing.

So, is this all entertaining? It actually is. I was initially bored during the first episode, thinking the show could use some spicing up: perhaps Ben Bailey could dress in drag, or he could race the other taxis around him? Maybe take the passengers to

unknown destinations and make them figure out how to get back after they've won their money? But then, after a few more episodes, I started to become addicted to Cash Cab's sweet simplicity and lack of over-the-top reality-show drama. It's no Taxi Cab Confessions -- the passengers are not revealing embarrassing secrets; there are no fights between couples; and you really don't learn anything about the passengers beyond their first names -- and that's a good thing.

As would be expected from any Discovery Channel production, this is a nice clean show full of educational moments, from the actual trivia game to the digitized map charting the cab's route as it navigates the city. Anyone who’s lived in, visited, or is just interested in Manhattan will get a kick out of discovering how the cab goes to various neighborhoods -- and the camera also captures restaurants, historical landmarks, famous shops, and the New York City street scene along the way. The passengers are a diverse bunch -- from excitable youngsters to cynical intellectuals to hurried executive-types to ladies who lunch -- all of whom melt into excitable children when they are told they have the chance to win quick cash, and on TV! There have even been a few celebrities picked up by the Cash Cab -- Thomas Hayden Church and New York Rangers Ryan Hollweg and Jeff Ortmeyer among them. To watch Ben Bailey playing host, asking questions, and navigating the congested city streets, without having anxiety attacks, is quite remarkable as well.

All in all, Cash Cab is a cute, light-hearted show, and you'll have fun playing along and rooting for these anonymous people who are just like you.

Cash Cab won’t leave you feeling dumbed-down as many TV game shows do these days (especially that one with all the briefcases and the bald host). And, who knows ... if you visit New York City some time soon, you could be the next contestant when you hail a cab!

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Joanne Hinkel is a frequent contributor to the TV section of Film.com. Though she lives in New York City, she has yet to be picked up by the Cash Cab.