The premise is that there's a seemingly ordinary taxicab cruising around Manhattan picking up passengers. An unsuspecting fare gets in and tells the driver his destination. Then the inside of the cab lights up and the music plays, as the driver/host announces, "You're in the Cash Cab!" The passengers spend their trip answering general knowledge questions of increasing difficulty, amassing money as they go. An incorrect answer earns a strike, and three strikes means that the ride is over -- the contestants are dumped out on the side of the street immediately, whether they've reached their destination or not.
It's an exceedingly simple game, which is part of its charm. There are just a few wrinkles to add interest. Players get two "shout outs" they can use if they don't know the answer to a question -- they can call up someone on their cell phone, or they can pull over and ask someone passing on the street. If they hit a red light after winning a certain amount of cash, they get a special "red light challenge" question: 30 seconds to name four answers that fit a certain category, like the five top-selling sedans in the U.S. And at the end of their ride, they can either take the money they've won and leave, or they can go double-or-nothing on a video bonus, a short multimedia question.
Here's what I love about Cash Cab:
- Unprepared contestants. When the lights and music go off, passengers either start violently, eye the roof suspiciously, or realize happily that they're on that cab game show. Either way, they aren't selected, focus-grouped, groomed, and tested -- they're random schmoes totally winging it. That makes their triumphs more satisfying and their failures more distressing.
- Quick gameplay. We all know that the bane of the post-Millionaire game show is the glacial pacing. Very little happens, and the show wrings every last drop of drama out of each overanticipated moment. By contrast, you get three cab rides in every Cash Cab episode (they can't be more than 20 minutes long -- lots of commercials, making it perfect for TiVo). And since there's a deadline (reaching the destination, always given before the passengers are let in on the game show element), the questions come thick and fast to allow for maximum earnings.
- New York scenery. As the ride progresses, cameras mounted on the cab and in the trailing production car capture views of the Manhattan streetscape, other cars, passersby, rollerbladers weaving in and out of traffic, etc. It's like a little Travel Channel documentary, without informative narration but with questions about the U.N.!