Candid Camera, which was originally created by Allen Funt as a 1947 radio show titled The Candid Microphone, premiered on television in 1948. Since then, the show has existed on and off on various networks (both as first-run episodes and in syndication). The latest version, which aired on PAX, ended in 2004. Now TV Land has revived the series once again, this time co-hosted by Mayim Bialik (Blossom, The Big Bang Theory) and Peter Funt (Allen Funt’s son). It’s easy to write this off as a nostalgia cash grab, and perhaps it is, but it also speaks to the merits — and longevity — of simplistic programs.
There is nothing complicated behind Candid Camera. The point of the show has remained the same for over 50 years: Unsuspecting people (usually ordinary people, occasionally celebrities) are the victim of silly pranks while a hidden camera records everything that’s going down. It is nothing revolutionary, especially in 2014, but there’s a reason why the show has never truly ended — it’s lingered for years, periodically revived by different networks, and constantly running in syndication.
The stripped down premise is one of the ongoing strengths of Candid Camera. Whenever an older TV show or movie gets a reboot, it is usually “updated for modern audiences,” which is often code for making it darker or dirtier. But Candid Camera, thankfully, has never had a “gritty” reboot — how could it? None of the versions of the show deviate from its origins. Fans of the show can watch any episode from any year and know exactly what to expect. New viewers won’t be alienated either; thanks to the original Candid Camera, which is widely considered the father of reality shows, hidden camera prank shows have grown in popularity, ranging from Ashton Kutcher’s Punk’d to Betty White’s Off Their Rockers. There are no complex storylines to follow or characters to remember. It’s setup, prank, and reveal over and over, but never feels boring.
The other key to Candid Camera‘s continued success, and another quality that has existed throughout the multiple versions, is that the pranks are always harmless. There is nothing mean-spirited about it — it’s why Candid Camera has always worked better than Punk‘d, which always prided itself in riling up celebrities to the point of anger or tears. The point of Candid Camera is not to humiliate people with trickery, but to take note of their bewildered reactions when put into strange situations. Punk‘d spray painted graffiti on a Porsche (and apparently caused Zach Braff to beat up a teenager); a famous Candid Camera prank involves a woman seeking mechanical help for a car that doesn’t have an engine.
TV Land’s new version of Candid Camera, which premiered last night and will air episodes throughout the week, doesn’t stray from the formula at all. It’s a great fit for a network with original programming that basically takes actors from classic sitcoms (Seinfeld, The Nanny, Cheers) and puts them into modern multi-camera sitcoms, aiming to appeal to older television viewers who crave familiarity. This version of show does smartly update itself somewhat to fit in with a more modern society — some of the pranks in last night’s episode include drones delivering packages to confused senior citizens and an audition for a reality show with increasingly strange interview questions — but the general lighthearted and harmless tone is still there. The episode also featured a recreation of the car engine prank to appeal to any older fans who tuned in. It’s the best of both worlds.
In 2014, Candid Camera isn’t exactly must-see, groundbreaking television — but it’s a refreshingly joyful show. The TV landscape is full of complex, dark, or mean-spirited programs, but Candid Camera has no intention to become one of those. It found a formula that worked decades ago and has learned to slightly tweak it to continue to be new and appealing to current viewers, which is one of the most impressive things a TV franchise can do.