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New series review: Identity (NBC)

Penn temporarily shucks Teller to be a big-money game show host.

Torn between two worlds, NBC launches another rags to riches game show Monday night in hopes of amortizing its high-quality contingent of new scripted shows.

At one end of the teeter-totter are Deal or No Deal, 1 vs. 100 and the new Identity, premiering Monday (at 8 p.m. central) and then scheduled to run an hour earlier on Tuesday through Friday. The first two are cost-efficient ratings successes despite their big-money dangles.

NBC also is home to four character-driven, Emmy caliber freshmen series. Heroes, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Friday Night LIghts and 30 Rock have all been picked up for full seasons. But only Heroes is drawing big crowds, and all four series cost far more to make than NBC's games people play.

Maybe it's not a question of which faction wins out, though. If NBC can make enough money on quizzes then maybe it can afford to stick longer with its critically acclaimed loss leaders. Anyway, it's enough to make one pull for Identity, a ramped-up version of To Tell the Truth in which contestants try to divine who's who among 12 "Strangers."

Penn Jillette is NBC's latest fish-out-of-water host, joining Howie Mandel and Bob Saget as a new generation's Bob Barkers. The Peacock is big on known commodities as game show emcees. Fox tried a no-name Brit earlier this season on The Rich List. It went down after just one episode, meaning its host shall remain nameless.

NBC publicity materials note that Deal or No Deal was launched in exactly the same way last December. The consecutive night strategy worked beautifully in that case, or suitcase if you prefer. Not mentioned is last spring's Celebrity Cooking Showdown, which was supposed to run five nights in a row. Wretched ratings instead prompted NBC to shut down its stoves after just three episodes.

Monday's premiere of Identity features another of those standard issue, jump-up-and-down, panic-stricken, oh-my-God contestants. This one is called Nicci Guzik, and she's from Streamwood, Ill.

"This show is about snap judgments," proclaims Jillette before the game's 12 posers are introduced via a light show and music that otherwise would never be played in your home. Nicci can win half a million bucks if she can correctly identify, one-by-one, a sushi chef, alligator wrestler, bouncer, opera singer, fitness model, break dancer, CSI investigator, kidney donor, Vegas showgirl, the world's fastest man, the creator of Spider Man and the youngest of the bunch.

The first correct ID is worth $1,000, and Identity's early degrees of difficulty aren't too daunting. In other words, it's about as tough as separating The Village People from a group of accountants.

Not to give too much away, but just about anybody should recognize Stan Lee as the creator of Spider Man. Nicci is up to this challenge, but only after Jillette drops a big, fat hint.

As in Deal or No Deal, contestants eventually are joined onstage by a threesome of friends and/or family. This turns out to be a pretty dull group of Nicci's husband, father-in-law and mother-in-law, who at least brings Jillette a home-baked pecan pie.

Identity also borrows from 1 vs. 100, which in turn borrowed from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Contestants are given three figurative crutches. They can miss one ID and keep playing. They can consult a group of three behavioral experts. And they can have an occupation narrowed down to three possibilities.

Most of the "Strangers" stare stonily from pedestals, particularly the women. Meanwhile, Jillette seems to have a good time varying his tagline. Instead of "Open the case," it's "Is that your identity?" As the money builds up, so do his pregnant pauses. "Is. That. Your. Identity?" Something like that.

It's hard to know whether any of this will work. Identity isn't as fast-paced as Deal or No Deal or 1 vs. 100. Nor does the studio audience seem as involved, although NBC can always fix that in the editing room.

Finally, as hosts go, Jillette definitely is no Howie Mandel.

Yes, it's come to that.

Grade: C