Rob Lowe’s ‘Mental Samurai’ to Shoot Season 2 in Portugal in Cost-Cutting Move Amid Pandemic (Exclusive)

Fox game show shot first season in Burbank, California

Warner Bros. is aiming to shoot the second season of the Rob Lowe-hosted Fox game show “Mental Samurai” next week in Portugal, where the studio has set up a “production hub” for global versions of the format, multiple people with knowledge of the plan told TheWrap.

Showrunner Jeff Apploff left for Lisbon, Portugal, on Thursday, according to a post on his Facebook page. Current travel plans call for Lowe to fly out on Sunday with American contestants to arrive next week, one insider said. The hope is for production to commence there next week and last for four to six days, the individual said, taping without a studio audience since Lisbon currently limits gatherings to a maximum of 10 persons.

However, due to the constantly evolving rules surrounding international travel and pandemic work protocols, those plans could very well change. And it’s possible that the crew might need to be quarantined due to positives tests or changing regulations in Portugal.

According to the website of the U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Portugal, due to COVID-19, “only essential travel is permitted by U.S. citizens for professional, study, compelling family emergencies, health, or humanitarian reasons.” The studio believes TV production falls into the “professional” category.

Season 1 of the U.S. version of “Mental Samurai” taped on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif., but Warner Bros. decided about a year ago to move production overseas long before the pandemic disrupted production worldwide, a person with knowledge of the decision told TheWrap. The plan initially called for the global production hub to exist in Madrid, Spain.

The move from U.S. soil to Europe was a cost-cutting maneuver, insiders said. Flying Lowe, producers and a few dozen contestants to Europe and putting them up in accommodations for a week or so was deemed cheaper than taping in Burbank. Plus, the production company saw economies of scale by having one set and one “Ava,” the show’s giant, rotating, brain-scrambling robotic arm that one insider described as “hugely expensive.”

A local version of “Samurai” already exists and airs in Portugal; other versions currently air in Finland and the Middle East. Warner Bros. International Television Production operates production companies across the world, including Portugal. The U.S. “Samurai” is a Warner Horizon Unscripted Television production in association with Arthur Smith & Co.

Game shows like “Mental Samurai” tend to “batch” tape, meaning they film numerous episodes back-to-back over a number of days. The local Portuguese version is a “strip” show airing daily, which also made the setting an attractive — and productive — center for global production.

When the world — especially international travel — was shut down due to the global coronavirus pandemic in March, Warner Bros. toyed with the notion of keeping the U.S. version of “Mental Samurai” in Burbank to tape Season 2. Though producers and other crew members began working on the second-season stateside, cameras never actually rolled, two individuals said. Ultimately, the move from Spain to Portugal provided additional savings.

A spokesperson for Lowe did not immediately respond to TheWrap’s request for comment on this story. Warner Bros. and Fox did not respond to requests for comment.

On Thursday, Apploff posted the following on Facebook: “Heading to Lisbon, Portugal to shoot Season 2 of Mental Samurai. LAX was eerily empty.”

Each episode of “Mental Samurai” challenges contestants to answer questions quickly and accurately that test their knowledge and memory, all while being transported around the set at high speeds in a rotating capsule — that’s Ava — at random.

“Mental Samurai” Season 1 aired in 2018-19, when it averaged a 0.6 rating among adults 18-49, according to Nielsen, and 2.074 million total viewers. Those numbers, which make “Mental Samurai” a modest performer at best, include one week of DVR viewing.

There was no “Mental Samurai” season in 2019-20.