The Casual, Condescending Cruelty of the New Game Shows
Game shows have a simple appeal. Ordinary people, just like you and me, do meaningless little things for money. We play along with them at home, and vicariously enjoy their minor peaks and valleys of fortune.
But a recent crop of shows hypercharges the “win, lose, or draw” formula. With each new insane sound-and-light extravaganza, we’re getting closer and closer to The Running Man. While contestants may not be running into actual buzzsaws, they’re certainly encountering metaphorical ones.
Golf and Stuff
Holey Moley, an absurd miniature golf extravaganza on ABC, is definitely the best of the crop. Modern game shows, in case we’re confused about who society’s winners really are, no longer just have hosts. They also have celebrity backers. Holey Moley exists thanks to the munificence of Stephan Curry of the Golden State Warriors, who shows up occasionally to crack wise, schmooze contestants, and launch drives.
Your enjoyment of Holey Moley will depend largely on your Rob Riggle tolerance. The bro comedian gets a lot of screen time, sitting alongside an actual sportscaster. Both of them wear mustard-yellow Wide World Of Sports jackets, and sometimes it’s a bit much. But his jokes land more often than they don’t. In general, Holey Moley doesn’t take itself seriously at all, as befits a show about mini-golf. On one hole, golfers have to face a “distraction”, like Kenny G playing the saxophone, or a drill sergeant screaming at them. The tournament losers leave with nothing, and the winners get $25,000, a plaid jacket, a photo op with Curry, and a golden putter handed to them by “Sir Goph,” a gopher mascot wearing a medieval lord’s costume. People fall in the water sometimes. It’s a diverting hour, a live-action Laffalympics.
You Could Have Been a Contender
From there, though, the new game-show universe takes a turn for the dystopian. On Fox, Spin The Wheel offers contestants a chance to win up to $23 million dollars, though there’s no way they can get even close to that amount. Spin The Wheel, midwifed by Justin Timberlake and hosted by Dax Shepard, both definitely worth more than $23 million apiece, combines elements of the late, great Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? with Wheel Of Fortune. It’s an easy quiz show and also a nightmarishly garish game of chance, capped by a colossal 40-foot twirling disc. It’s also a direct ripoff of NBC’s The Wall, brought to you by LeBron James and Chris Hardwick.
Both The Wall and Spin The Wheel both have a sneaky callback to one of the most hoary of game-show clichés: purporting to help the wretched. In the 1950s, a show called Queen For A Day reached record heights of popularity. Beleaguered housewives would tell their sorrowful personal stories. The most pathetic would receive roses, a crown, and a royal robe, along with a variety of glamorous prizes.
Spin The Wheel chooses “do-gooders” from a sea of applicants and purports to reward them where society won’t. In the pilot episode, an Orel Hersheiser-looking gee-whiz homeschooled guy from the Northwest took center stage in a sensible blue sweater. The show selected him for his selfless efforts in rescuing people from a train derailment. As a reward, he got to “spin the wheel,” racking up cash while answering dopey trivia questions about Sriracha and other gimme topics. Meanwhile, his equally rosy-cheeked brother sat in a secluded pod, betting on whether or not our hero knew the answers to the question, and also deciding on whether or not to bail him out.
On these new game shows, contestants can lose it all, but they have a lifeline in terms of a loved one. So after all the noise and excitement dies down, there’s a moment of handholding and tears at the end. And it could go either way. The loved one could save them from disaster, or they could be over-conservative and cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s an unholy marriage of every game-show cliché imaginable, with odds against contestants that would make any casino floor boss drool. Spin The Wheel and The Wall pretend to be rewarding society’s do-gooders, but they’re really just giving them fresh PTSD.
Press Your Buttons
Even revivals of classic game shows don’t seem to be immune from the over-sentimentalization of random chance. The new Card Sharks, starring the always-mean Joel McHale, resists the temptation. It’s just as moronic and snarky as the old version. People win big or lose big, and it has nothing to do with the content of their character. But Press Your Luck, now hosted by gazillionaire Elizabeth Banks, has suddenly morphed from a nasty, cheap little show where people get their ass kicked by a cartoon monster into a Queen For A Day knockoff where people get their asses kicked by a cartoon monster.
On the pilot episode, a nice bald gay dad with a new baby didn’t just win $20,000 or so. He got to go for the big money while his husband sat off to the side, sobbing and saying that “no one deserves this more”. We’re not just supposed to root for random chance. In this new game-show universe, everyone is a sorrowful underdog, and only the corporate overlords can deliver redemption. Truly, that new Jeep Cherokee they won will be a memory to treasure forever until it breaks down at 50,000 miles and Elizabeth Banks isn’t around to offer them any more spins.
Awake, on Netflix, is cruelest of all. They only call it that because “Torturing The Sleep-Deprived” doesn’t have the same ring. This show makes no pretense of loving its contestants. It assumes that they are morons, and most of them are. They have to stay awake for 24 hours counting quarters, which is their “bank.” Then the show makes them perform a variety of dumb tasks involving coordination and memory, as it eliminates them one by one, Weakest Link-style. The smart contestants, when they inevitably fail, take a “buyout” of $5,000 or $7,500 or something, basically the fee they’d get for a research study. The “winners”, on the other hand, have to choose whether or not to walk away with a certain sum of money or risk it all.
I watched two episodes. On one, an exhausted new father risked $130,000 plus on the chance that he’d counted his quarters accurately, which would have given him a million dollars. He got it wrong, and left with nothing. The show ended with him sobbing while clutching a photo of his new son. “You may be leaving with nothing, but you’ve still got Preston,” the host says, in perhaps the most dystopian moment in TV’s long and shameful dystopian history. On the second episode, a guy would have won a million if he’d had more confidence in his accurate guesses, but instead just walked out of there with something like $27,000. It’s a horrifying and disgusting spectacle.
Meanwhile, Netflix has dropped more classic episodes of Jeopardy!, including the first episode of every one of the show’s 35 seasons. As a former Jeopardy! contestant, I can tell you that it has its cruel side. Everyone loses eventually. But it’s also the champagne of game shows. Contestants face off in a real contest of knowledge. We don’t learn much about them, and what we do learn rarely evokes sympathy or hatred. They’re just people playing the most beautiful game ever devised. Luck plays a part, but not the major part. Family members, if they cry, do so off-screen. Whatever you win, you take home. And then you truly are Queen or King For A Day.