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New series review: Duel (ABC)

ESPN's Mike Greenberg hosts ABC's surprisingly cerebral Duel.

Premiering: Monday, Dec. 17 at 7 p.m. (central) on ABC
Hosted by: Mike Greenberg
Produced by: Gail Berman, Lloyd Braun

It's been a good, long while since any new network game show risked being too smart for the room.

ABC's Duel could have that problem. Its contestants laugh and cry, but they'd better not kiss their brains goodbye during this cerebral buildup to a winner-takes-all giant jackpot at the end of a six-episode arc.

Here's a sample question from Monday's 90-minute premiere: "What do Scoville units measure?"

And another: "How long does it take light to travel from the sun to the earth?"

In each round, two contestants fight for the right to move on after putting their chips on one or more of four possible answers. Even the rules are a bit complex, but hang in there. This is an ingenious, taut, suspenseful game that already will build to a jackpot of $205,000 by the end of Monday's curtain-raiser.

Host Mike Greenberg, from ESPN's Mike and Mike in the Morning show, is a smooth facilitator who keeps viewers in the groove after an initial learning curve. He even pulls off the semi-ceremonial introduction of "Chip Girls" Olivia and Jennifer, both attired in cocktail dresses.

Otherwise the only transparently cheap device in Duel is the occasional smack-talk between contestants. As when prim, conservatively dressed "Internet" censor Sue Mullan of Seattle picks ATM tech Marco Berrios as her first opponent from among three possibilities.

"I got my street smarts growin' up in the hood," he brags. Which prompts Sue to choose him because "he seems like kinda all brawn, no brains."

Marco's reaction: "That wasn't nice. Now bring it, baby. I got you."

There are 24 prospective contestants, and six episodes building to a Sunday grand finale after ABC skips Saturday night. Duel's executive producers, Gail Berman and Lloyd Braun, respectively are the former entertainment presidents of Fox and ABC. Now they front BermanBraun productions, and this is their first big sale -- and possibly big score.

Duel deploys the usual "after the break" interruptions to build suspense. It also embeds an ad within the show for Diet Pepsi Max, a sponsor of both the on-air broadcast and an online version of the game.

NBC is counter-programming Duel with its week-long Clash of the Choirs competition, which wasn't available for review. The winner in that battle is anyone's guess, as are the answers to many of Duel's consistently challenging questions.

Monday's first and only contestant "Shootout," which automatically eliminates one of them, hinges on the color of President Bush's eyes. Are they blue, brown, green or hazel?

The loser gripes, "I'm a Democrat, dammit."

On to the next round.

Grade: B+