If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery (and television), those responsible for “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” should be positively red-faced watching “Riot,” Fox’s amped-up, exhausting new improv show. Host Rove McManus bills the premiere as an “utterly ridiculous night of fun,” which is half right, as exec producer Steve Carell and a game group of performers undergo a series of stunt-enhanced physical gags — as if to reinforce how stretched they are for ideas, using one of them twice to begin and end the hour. Despite a few muffled chuckles, there’s nothing here that remotely approaches the title.
Indeed, a more general challenge with improv in almost any setting is how much toil goes into conjuring comedy, and how the fall-back position when a sketch isn’t completely working is just to keep getting louder and more frenetic. Based on decibel level, “Riot” — unnecessarily derived from a French format — makes a pretty strong case for the helping hands of writers.
As with “Whose Line,” there’s no game to speak of (“We don’t care who wins,” the Australian McManus says, echoing, “The points don’t matter”), and despite different celebrity guests — in the opener, Carell and “The Office” co-star Andy Buckley — most of the heavy lifting falls on a team of marginally ready-for-primetime players.
The twice-used set involves a room sloped at a 22% angle, resulting in a lot of stumbles and falls. Another bit is essentially a game of charades, only with a giant swinging ball that bowls over the clue-giver if the riddle isn’t solved fast enough. And so on.
Brevity is usually an asset in these situations, so Fox has done “Riot” no favors by scheduling the program as an hour, to the point where it’s clearly running on fumes, and the “Wipeout”-like obstacles thrown at the comics yield rapidly diminishing returns.
Landing Carell, obviously, and other assorted guests looks like something of a coup, but there’s only so much star power can do to prop up a construct this slight.
Ultimately, improv is always going to be a hit-miss proposition. But despite being inordinately literal about its hits, “Riot” proves too liberal with its misses.