‘Name That Tune’ reboot takes a modern trip down memory lane with Jane Krakowski

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

What a week, eh? Eager to tune out the sound and images of the peace-less transfer of power flooding our screens Wednesday, I tuned into the season premiere of the rebooted game show “Name That Tune.” Something apolitical: That’s what I wanted. Something to make me proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free to name that tune in five notes.

Hosted by sleek, easygoing Jane Krakowski, the Fox reboot was filmed in Sydney, Australia, with American expatriates as contestants. The physical production deploys every last swivelly Vari-Light not currently in use by “The Masked Dancer.” Longtime “American Idol” judge Randy Jackson leads the band, and plunks out the crucial notes in the “Bid-a Note” round, i.e., “I can name that tune in x notes.”

That one sentence captures the appeal of a three-syllable legend dating back to NBC Radio in 1952, before the enterprise moved to television. The oddity of a Pandora-era “Name That Tune”? Nobody listens to anybody else’s music these days. Not really. Commercial radio, like commercial everything else, isn’t the national funnel it once was. The official commercial tastemakers and gatekeepers of the music world are like polar bears, scrambling for a melting ice chunk.

Meantime some of us still like a deejay and a radio station with a point of view and humans, in the same city as us, handling the playlist. The Billboard Hot 100 chart isn’t dead yet, for the record, and far more importantly: a broader cultural array of talents have made inroads on roads previously closed for predominantly white male construction.

We’ll know soon enough whether the new “Name That Tune” can count on anything like the success of no-brainer diversions and global phenoms such as “The Masked Singer” and “The Masked Dancer.” Those shows do a lot, timewise, with very, very little. It’s all in the editing. And by the way, what’s next for that franchise? “The Masked Agent”? “The Masked Showrunner?”

Krakowski’s a smart pick for the “Name That Tune” redux. She doesn’t push the jokes, and she’s a game, self-described “old hoofer,” as she reminds Jackson in the premiere episode, after doing a time-step with one of the contestants, Cessalee from Indianapolis. Krakowsi owes her TV cache to “Ally McBeal,” “30 Rock” and others, but her Broadway and West End musical theater credits go all the way back to a glittering turn, at 21, in the Tommy Tune-directed “Grand Hotel.”

Avoiding spoilers here, but: Based on the first episode the show’s musical tastes comprise one part early 21st Century wedding reception songlist, one part late ’80s prom and three parts thematically linked subject matter. In episode one, for example, acategory labeled “Full Bloom” translates to “songs your florist would love.”

The big money comes in the climactic Golden Medley round: seven tunes, 30 seconds. That part hasn’t changed much since “Name That Tune” in the ’70s. The songs certainly have. A typical episode of the Gerald Ford/Jimmy Carter era, hosted by Tom Kennedy, routinely dipped back decades, sometimes a half-century or more, into the early 20th Century Tin Pan Alley. Example: “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” came from 1909, yet there it was, popping up on “The $100,000 Name That Tune,” as it was known for a time in the days of the leisure suit.

In the show’s ’50s version, two contestants competed not just for musical knowledge, but in a running race: They’d sit in chairs on one side of the TV stage, the band would strike up, and they’d dash toward the floor microphones and whoever rang the big bell got first crack at the answer. Prize money back then was $10, $20 and up from there. But not much.

The new “Name That Tune” takes nothing from the ’50s and ’70s game show aesthetics, and everything from the hugely influential “American Idol.” The constant, nudgy cutaways to slack-jawed audience members determine the now-standard editing rhythm for so much reality and “competition” TV. In a word: pushy. “I don’t know about you guys at home, but I am gripped,” Krakowski says at one point, upping the stakes a bit.

The premiere offered some curious danglers, as when Steve from Hawaii (up against Chip from Kentucky, both now living Down Under, where you can film a show like this without risking everyone’s lives to COVID) mentioned he recently introduced surfing to North Korea. Note to Netflix development scouts: I’d probably look into that anecdote for your next danger-courting documentary series.

“Name That Tune” airs Wednesdays 8 p.m. CST on Fox.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.


Twitter @phillipstribune

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